Events have revealed a truth, and it’s a truth we must acknowledge and understand so we may best serve our students. There is great value in knowing where the country truly stands and clarify our role as Student Affairs professionals.
So, how is our work different now?
Let’s start where we usually do not – with ourselves. Some of us were elated at the outsider being placed in a position in which he could tell insiders how things should be run. Some of us were crest fallen when it was clear the glass ceiling had not yet been shattered by the first female president.
Add to that the students – Trump and Clinton supporters alike – who sought counsel from us. Black women wept, telling us they feared for their safety. Black men asked us, “How are you doing?” White women in both camps were in disbelief. Women who supported Trump felt empowered by their belief that political correctness around equal pay and affirmative action would be dissolved. Women who supported Clinton were stunned, some wondering aloud about what kind of sexist workplace awaited them post-graduation. Legal and undocumented immigrant students feared for themselves, their parents, and their siblings.
Not only were there incidents of “fisticuffs” between roommates at the University of Nevada, Reno but deep divisions also surfaced among staff, characterized by chilling silence and sensitivity to words like “aftermath.”
As Student Affairs professionals, we now are put to the test to stand by a belief in a “no-censorship” approach to life – both on and off campus. We recommit to that principle of higher education.
Journalist and activist Gloria Steinem points out that the election is evidence that we are not living in a post-sexist, post-racist society. Seeing opportunity in the election results, scholar Shaun Harper wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education (January 9, 2017), “The polarizing nature of the 2016 campaign makes improving the racial climate a more urgent matter for higher education leaders…Donald Trump has given us a gift – in that the racial ugliness of our nation has been exposed.”
If the silver lining of the presidential election is that there is no longer any doubt that racism and other biases and prejudices persist, Harper also provides the following warning: “If we’re not careful, we will see a very serious clash of races on campuses. We shouldn’t wait for that to happen.”
Jon Stewart said “there is this idea that anyone who voted for [Trump] has to be defined by the worst of his rhetoric. There are guys in my neighborhood that I love and respect, that I think have incredible qualities, who are not afraid of Mexicans, not afraid of Muslims, and not afraid of Blacks. They’re afraid of their insurance premiums.”
What is our role as Student Affairs professionals, then? I will tell you! It is to help students, faculty, and staff avoid viewing any group – Trump supporters, Clinton supporters, Muslims, immigrants, ANY labeled group – as a monolith.
The Student Affairs professionals needed today will help students wrestle with ideas, with perspectives and viewpoints that offend. These professionals will console, challenge, and affirm who students are and their aspirations for who they will become personally and professionally. Our time to develop this openness and willingness with students is brief. We are all on a lifelong journey to determine who we are – each of our students is a part of our journey, and we are just one part of theirs. This is our time to help students on our campuses be courageous, open, resolute – even stubborn – and willing to change their minds. This is, after all, what the academic world prides itself on – intellectual inquiry that requires an openness for discovering new ideas, overturning assumptions and biases, all in pursuit of truth. Higher education should model for all the ability to take joy in learning and growing, as well as the ability to welcome the ambiguity of “not knowing.”
Versatile, disciplined, resourceful, and emotionally strong are some characteristics of successful Student Affairs professionals. These are transferable skills valued in many professions, but you chose to work in a college environment. Now is the time to navigate caution signs without losing either patience or direction and thrive, helping your institution prioritize students’ intellectual learning and emotional development by ensuring a supportive environment. Ensuring a supportive environment in times such as this will require different approaches, new tools, and a clear understanding of what you need to do your job.
While others may view the possibility of turbulence on campus as a problem, you see an environment where you can shape and contribute to the future of students and your institution, alike, in an unprecedented manner. You embrace your role as mediator when there are controversies related to diversity, equity, and inclusion. You support faculty and other colleagues who create a space for dialogue and conversation about sensitive and controversial issues.
Times demand you shift focus solely from students within the bailiwick of Student Affairs to the entire campus. No one office, division, unit or person can create an inclusive and equitable campus climate. Wrenching change demands a new approach to collaboration.
Collaborate with your Diversity, Inclusion and Equity Office. You are in an optimal position to help faculty, staff, students, and administrators contribute to a climate of inclusion. Who more than professionals in Student Affairs understand how important it is for every member of the community to feel a sense of belonging? Extend your reach. Actions speak louder than words. Equity and inclusion must permeate a diverse institution at every level, every position, and every role. All stakeholders are responsible for identifying who is marginalized and in what circumstance.
Executive leaders have important visible and symbolic roles to play when there are demands for a shift in the focus of the institution. With your support, your campus leaders will understand and address what students need in order to feel a sense of belonging, to be assured they are getting the quality education expected, and to believe their opinions matter. You can help these leaders become more knowledgeable about campus climate and help make inclusion the norm.
As a professional in Student Affairs, you also have skills that support faculty, but not all faculty may be aware of these skills. Help faculty identify common experiences for students to share that both support curricular objectives and allow for the expression of differing opinions and emotions in a facilitated academic environment. This kind of environment will help students experience deep learning and discover the core of who they are. Offer your help to facilitate these discussions. Be the champion of intellectual learning coupled with personal development.
Likewise, staff who employ or mentor students may need your help to ensure they take advantage of teachable moments.
It is during these times that you need to shift your focus to the community at-large. Your education, training, and access to students have prepared you to do this work. During times that are both propitious and unfavorable, you must increase your communication and visibility with all stakeholders. To play a major role as mediator, mentor, teacher, and leader in an educational environment during uncertain times is why you went into Student Affairs. This is it. This is the time for you to assume your role with confidence and to ask for what you need to do your job.