Considering Childhood Experiences in Relation to Student Success

Serendipity? Synchronicity? What is it when one is suddenly struck by the thought that a normal event is no longer normal but special or when one pays more attention to what might ordinarily be considered insignificant and then pulls all of these pieces together as a “sign” of something to be learned or discovered?

When our grandson turned ten in May this year, I saw it as a milestone year and began to reflect on my own tenth year. I became so intrigued by what I remembered about that year in my life that I asked a friend to interview me for NPR’s StoryCorps so my memories of that milestone year in my own life would at least be recorded for posterity.

It seems these lessons of adolescence are all around me. Despite not being a particular fan of the first Bill Bryson book my son leant me, I’m now halfway through The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid-A Memoir and enjoying reading about Bryson’s view of the world as an adolescent.

As a member of Gettysburg College’s Board of Trustees, I like to ensure Iam familiar with the students’ curriculum, so I also am also reading their common book for this year, The Other Wes Moore. This story hits close to home about how the family circumstances of children can have a lasting impact on them as adults.

During this same time period, I saw Boyhood, the movie that took 12 years to make because it follows an actual boy as he develops through the various stages from a small boy to a college student. I found it enlightening because it helped me understand something our son said to me once when I was scolding him for making excuses for grades that I thought were not up to par. He said, “Mom, you have no idea what my life is like, so don’t make judgments about what are excuses and what are not excuses.”

And, the last “sign” before sitting down to write is the August 8, 2014 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, titled “How the ‘Long Shadow’ of Family Background Helps Determine Which Children Succeed” by Beckie Supiano. Researchers followed 800 children from first grade to their late 20s and came to some conclusions about “how family background can impede a young person’s ability to get ahead.”

All of these “signs” are culminating in an “aha moment” for me. A college student’s family background in regard to childhood experiences is the other diversity that ought to be considered when educators are creating support programs to help students succeed. Childhood experiences go deeper and could possibly have more impact on students’ motivation and ability than any other characteristic that has historically been considered in designing support programs.

For me, whether these “signs” are a result of serendipity or synchronicity or something else, I am convinced that childhood experiences are variables that must be considered when success for all students is the goal.

A Little Spring Cleaning for the Soul…

Before there was Spring Break and Alternative Spring Break, there was spring cleaning, promoted in schools as “Clean Up, Fix Up, and Paint Up Week.” Being in school in Chicago, we really needed the break, and though the winters are brutal in Chicago, it seemed as if that one week that we were on break from school in the spring was always gorgeous with unseasonably warm weather and lots of sunshine. I remember the sunshine because what we did that week at my house was all about the windows.

Washing the windows and whatever was covering the windows was the hardest and most time-consuming part of the week of cleaning, fixing, and painting. However, the clean windows and curtains after the struggles were also the most gratifying result of the week’s work because the result was visible for all to see and it would last until next spring when we would do it all over again.

Windex was too expensive to use on the windows so we saved it for the mirrors. For the windows, we used buckets of soapy water to remove the dirt; then, we rinsed with clear water and white vinegar. We used crushed newspaper to wipe them dry until they squeaked and sparkled. Before we had a washing machine, we washed the lace curtains in the bathtub. When these white lace curtains were hanging at the windows, they didn’t look to be that dirty, but when the soap and water hit them, the water turned black. I was always surprised at the amount of dirt they held.

With our lace curtains, we didn’t just wash them and put them in a dryer or even hang them outside to dry. After washing them, we put starch in them. Then, we put them on curtain stretchers. These were open wood frames on spindly legs with little nails a couple of inches apart all around the frame. To stretch the curtains into shape and dry them, we slipped a piece of the edge of the curtain onto each nail all the way around a long line of rectangular frames that stretched throughout the living room, dining room, and down the hall. If we skipped a nail, when the curtain was dry, the place that was skipped would ruin the entire line of the curtain.

When stretched correctly, the curtains looked great when they dried, but putting them on stretchers was not without consequences. Those little nails pricked and stabbed fingers all the way around the frame because the job had to be done quickly in order to get the curtains on the stretchers before they began to dry with the starch in them causing them to wrinkle beyond imagination.

I was so happy when we got a wringer washer. We never did get a dryer, but it was fine drying the clothes in the yard or on the back porch. It was about the same time that we got the wringer washer that we became more modern and changed the lovely white lace curtains that had become thin and worn with new fiberglass drapes. When it was time to wash these during spring cleaning, we popped them into the washing machine and let it do the dirty work.

The fibers in the fabric of the drapes were some kind of very fine glass needles as the name implies. When we removed the drapes from the washing machine, the static from them shocked the stew out of us! When we handled the drapes, the fiberglass made us itch and scratch. And worse, those glass needles were all throughout the machine and we did not realize this. So later when our clothes were washed in the machine, they were infested with fiberglass. The fiberglass in our clothes caused us to throw them out, and Lord knows we could not afford to throw our clothes away.

After the fiberglass nightmare, we switched to venetian blinds. They were metal white blinds; I don’t know whether or not they were really “Venetian.” No more bloodied fingers from stretching lace curtains, no more fiberglass everywhere causing pain and itching. Alas, the darned blinds had to be taken down and put in the bathtub for cleaning. With soapy water and a sponge, I would wash each blade of the blinds until it was clean and shining. Then I would carefully dry off each blade before the blinds were placed back at the windows. I refer to these blinds as “blades” because there were cuts on all of my fingers from washing and drying those darn blinds.

So what is my point about spring cleaning and windows, in particular? I am using spring cleaning as a metaphor for recommending that we, who are expected to be resources for students, designate a time to take stock, to anticipate transitions, and to seek clarity.

Like the dirty lace curtains I described, we tend to look well enough as we carry out our  responsibilities, but what would come out in the wash if we put our reflexive refrain of “I’m fine” to the test? Our own mental and spiritual spring cleaning is not without consequences, and that makes it hard to willingly do.

If we took stock and attended to ourselves at specified times such as when we think of spring cleaning, we might be surprised that we are holding onto some people, causes, ideas, or jobs that we have made   more important than our own spiritual comfort or peace of mind. These things, like clothes infested with fiberglass have to be thrown out even if we think we cannot afford to let them go.

As with my experiences with the windows during “clean up, fix up, and paint up week,” where I said that the “clean windows and curtains after the struggles were also the most gratifying result of the week’s work because the result was visible for all to see, and it would last until next spring when we would do it all over again,” I believe that the consequences of mental and spiritual spring cleaning can be endured if we bank on results that will result in a brighter and more sparkling attitude about ourselves and our future.

Of Housing and Job Markets…Trying to Find Reason Amidst the Fickle

Reasoning why you are not selected for a position for which you applied and interviewed is an interesting mental exercise. Unlike a crossword or other puzzle, there is no correct answer; and unlike an interactive game, you don’t have an opportunity to keep practicing on the same target. Selling yourself to a search committee or an employer is a lot like selling a house.

I have followed the ups and downs of friends who put their house on the market a year ago, and I find their experiences very similar to what colleagues experience during the job search process. In order to get their house ready for the market, my friends downsized, and they had professionals “stage” the house in order to display the best assets of the house. They made major investments to upgrade appliances though what they had was in perfect condition. They had everything freshly painted, and there was nothing left to chance. Then they contracted with a realtor who suggested that though their carpeting was in fine shape, they should get new carpeting in the living room just so everything would look brand new. They were extremely proud of how the house looked and they were assured by friends that the house would sell immediately.

Colleagues who are applying for their ideal next position also do a lot of preparation in order to show well. They write draft after draft of their resume or vita in order to streamline it and highlight their strongest skills. They even get help from professional career counselors who advise them on the best way to present their resume or vita and themselves. Their colleagues encourage them to go for it.

When my friends’ house did not sell by fall, they changed real estate agents figuring that their agent must not be as good as another agent. The next agent told them that the reason the house did not sell immediately was because it was not priced correctly. So they adjusted the asking price. When that didn’t garner buyers, the sellers and all of the sellers’ friends concluded that the prospective buyers were just stupid and didn’t know what they wanted.

Colleagues who are in the job market ask experts to help them with their interview skills when they have not been selected following what they thought was a good interview. After getting sound advice on how to interview well and doing a superb job but still having the position is offered to someone else, the candidate and all their colleagues conclude that the search committee members or the potential employer are all idiots and don’t know what they are looking for in a candidate.

In frustration with the stupidity of buyers, my friends took their house off the market for a while figuring the timing must not be right. Colleagues drop out of the job search mode for a while for the same reason. Then something totally unrelated to preparing the house for sale occurs and my friends say, “It’s providential! This occurrence needed to happen first and that’s why the house didn’t sell sooner.” Colleagues have something totally unrelated to their search occur and they and their friends declare that the jobs they applied for were just not right for them and their dream job is waiting.

We really don’t know why the house did not sell as quickly as expected, and we don’t know all the variables that went into decisions not to hire our colleagues. The best thing we can do is to get our houses in order to the best of our ability, take the risk of having what we offer not accepted, and if we determine that we want to stay in the game, know that we may really never know why we were not selected, and take solace in the idea that not being selected may not have anything to do with you or how well you showed. And remember that reasoning why is just an interesting mental exercise.

Nothing New Under the Sun: Of Mentors, Mentees, and Common Experiences

I think it’s true of everyone; it’s just that I have lived so long, it probably happens to me more frequently…

It seems that no matter what someone says to me, I have an experience that is similar that I can relay. I have to work really hard not to jump in when they take a breath and tell them how the very same thing happened to me! I hope that when I do share, it will help to establish that we are similar and therefore have something upon which to build a relationship or at least a common reference point.

When I’m out and about among young professionals, they frequently take me aside for a private conversation or ask for time to talk with me by phone at a later date, particularly about their career direction.

I’m always open to hearing and helping in any way that I can. Sometimes, they want me to just look over their resume and give my thoughts; other times they seek an introduction or nomination for a professional position; and some want to bring me up-to-date on their career in order for me to serve as a reference.

Some of the most intriguing conversations are those when I’m asked to critique a recent interview at a time when the person was not selected for the position. During these conversations, I turn myself into a fly on the wall and imagine the space and the interactions from the perspective of the interviewers and the interviewee. I imagine what the conversation was among the search committee members prior to the candidate’s interview, and I make assumptions about what the conversation would be following the interview as described by the candidate.

What’s uncanny about my mental reenactment is that the candidate and I come to the same conclusion about what was a strength of the candidate during the interview and what needed strengthening. Sometimes one’s reflections upon an experience needs a mirror outside of one’s self.

In a recent conversation with a tremendously talented mid-level administrator, I was struck by how our experiences were so similar. I was able to share my experiences and what I learned upon reflection. I also found that the person in describing her experiences used the exact same words that I used when I wrote in my journal following our common experience!

While time marches on and the circumstances in regard to climbing the career ladder may differ, I continue to be amazed how the experiences elicit many of the same responses and reactions that colleagues generations before also expressed. It’s these kinds of encounters that convince me that mentors can be useful.

Seldom am I stumped for words when I’m in conversation with those who want a sounding board. I use my communication skills that have as the first rule that I listen attentively and encourage the speaker to continue. When I do respond, because this person has trusted me with their deepest dreams, aspirations, and fears, I have moved them to my inner circle of people I love and want to protect and help succeed.

While I have at times shied away from being a mentor in the formal sense because I didn’t think I had enough to offer, I realize now that it’s not what the mentor thinks she has to offer, but what the person who wants a mentor thinks one has to offer. And, if the potential mentor has reflected on experiences and gleaned lessons from them, the relationship can be mutually beneficial.

After listening and sharing with some of my colleagues who are thinking about the paths they want to take for the next stages of their career, I feel energized, hopeful, and useful. There are not many experiences that can leave me with such a feeling of euphoria.




Reflections on Cool Passion: Challenging Higher Education

NASPA’s latest book Cool Passion: Challenging Higher Education by Arthur Chickering will be available to the public in mid-March.

I just finished reading every line of this extraordinary work. I was hooked by the title even before I began to read. The opening paragraph of the preface is sheer poetry!

Chickering gives us an incredible gift as he shares his personal experiences, values, and beliefs, as well as his professional reflections. It is fitting that he shares a holistic perspective that is in line with his foundational philosophy of student affairs and the premise of promoting learning that lasts.

There is so much in this book that will appeal to a diversity of people who are at different stages of their life and to those who are working with students who are finding their way. For example, the Wesleyan University story will resonate with those who are having a rough beginning. To me, it speaks to having someone believe in you and the power of will. This part of the book says a lot about the influence of every educator on campus, including the deans in the admissions office.

Chickering’s candidness about developing self-esteem as a result of small acknowledgements and recognitions is so important to hear because of late the so-called “self-esteem movement” has put a negative connotation on any efforts to address self-esteem issues with students and colleagues.

As I read about the evolution of Chickering’s thinking about what variables had an impact on students’ learning, I realized that all of the insights that theorists and I have had about teaching and learning were already there in the Goddard educational philosophy. Chickering’s work continues to demonstrate how those insights can be put into action.

I take heart in the fact that though Chickering was never a student affairs professional, in his daily work, his insights have served the profession well. I was never a “student affairs professional” in the strict sense of the term, and I hope my insights have been beneficial to the profession.

The professional reflections Chickering and his colleagues share make this book required reading for graduate programs throughout higher education. What an incredible gift Art Chickering has given to higher education and all educators!

Modern-day Bias: Overcoming the “Where” Barrier

It’s funny how the mind works. Or, perhaps I should say, how my mind works…

In The New York Times last Sunday, Thomas Friedman’s Op-Ed piece seemed to be just the validation that student affairs staff need. It offered outside confirmation about the importance of skills that are not generally acquired in the classroom but in the work and interactions students have outside of class, usually through service and their involvement in the areas within the bailiwick of student affairs.

Rather than focus on these main points of the article, however, I keyed in on this sentence: “Talent can come in so many different forms and be built in so many nontraditional ways today, hiring officers have to be alive to everyone—besides name-brand colleges.”

This statement stood out for me because I am so disappointed in search firms and colleagues who overlook good people when hiring and good ideas when planning if the candidates or ideas don’t have the imprimatur of a “name-brand” college. Some potentially outstanding candidates are not given a second look if their resume or vita does not indicate that they have been connected in some way to a brand-name college or university. In the past month, I have talked with colleagues at three universities who could not accept innovative ideas because they did not consider the institutions where the ideas originated as their peer or aspirational institutions.

Just as I naively thought when I entered college that the professors and staff would be broad and open-minded and would not judge students by the color of their skin, I was hopeful that in today’s environment of innovation and leveling of playing fields that faculty, staff, and administrators would not judge people and ideas on their lack of connection to elite institutions.

I am not under the illusion that this attitude will change even though the experts at Google and Friedman assert that “The world only cares about – and pays off on – what you can do with what you know (and it doesn’t care how you learned it).”

I am hopeful that those who make decisions for hiring and planning in higher education will sooner than later adopt the attitude that we don’t care where you learned it.

Take a breath and keep doing your good work…

Take a breath and do not feel defensive. When the reporter from The Chronicle of Higher Education called to get my thoughts on the conclusions drawn from the Delta Cost Project’s report on the higher education workforce, I took a breath and did not become defensive. The conclusion of the report is that the big increase in the higher education workforce is attributable in large part to what is labeled “Student Services.” The question is whether the expenses are justifiable or unnecessary bloat.

I told the reporter that if one looked at the numbers under the classifications “Professionals” and “Student Services” and compared the numbers to full-time faculty, one would get the sense that more resources were going toward student services professional staff than to faculty. However, there is a problem with labeling what are student services.

The Lumina-funded study we did at NASPA a couple of years ago about resources expended on student services was a clear demonstration that what is described as student services is all over the place, depending on the college or university. Further, if one reads what is labeled as student services in the Delta Cost study, it’s obvious that student services cannot be aggregated and referenced as one would the classification of “faculty.” The bottom line, though, according to the study, is that “hiring practices favor non-instructional professional positions.”

I assured the reporter that one would be hard-pressed to find a college or university president who would choose to fund student services if there were a choice between the academic program and student services. Upon investigation, one will likely find that increases in student services are related to governmental regulations and avoiding the risks of liability.

The general conclusion from this study adds kindling to the smoldering between academic and student affairs, and I encourage student affairs professionals to not be defensive but to do the job you were hired to do. There is too much work to be done to spend energy justifying your existence or explaining the reality of your work to those who have already prejudged.