Author Archives: gwendungy

Reflections on Adult Learners from the Jersey Shore

Children were everywhere! Toddlers were digging holes in the sand, pre-schoolers were building sand castles, babies were getting their diapers changed, and most of the children were racing out to meet the waves.

As I sat next to my husband in a low-slung canvas chair under a bright orange umbrella enjoying the exquisite beauty of the Jersey Shore, I marveled at how these children are completely fearless and comfortable in this environment. They are comfortable because they have been coming to the beach since before they could remember, and many learned to swim before they could walk.

Being near the ocean during the summer months is as natural to these children as riding bikes in their neighborhood. Being close to the ocean is not natural for me. I was 23 years old before I felt wet sand between my toes. Although I’m a swimmer now, I don’t venture into the ocean to swim, not even close to shore. I sit and I watch.

Increasing Adult Learner Persistence and Completion Rates A Guide for Student Affairs Leaders and Practitioners

If you want to better understand the needs of adult learners and how to effectively meet them, I recommend a NASPA publication funded by a grant from the Lumina Foundation and supported by the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission and the West Virginia Community and Technical College System, Increasing Adult Learner Persistence and Completion Rates: A Guide for Student Affairs Leaders and Practitioners, edited by Marguerite McGann Culp and Gwendolyn Jordan Dungy.

Students who see college as part of a continuum, a natural progression of what is expected for their educational career, are like these children who grow up going to the beach – or “down the Shore” in New Jersey. By contrast, those who decide to attend college as adult learners may feel more like “watchers,” never quite comfortable in a college environment. Comfort level, however, is just one of the challenges facing adult learners. These learners can feel like outsiders taking a chance on college.

In addition to beautiful beaches, New Jersey also is home to Atlantic City, the Las Vegas of the East Coast. Beaches and casinos! What more can one ask for from a single state? Just for fun, my husband and I drove north to Atlantic City one evening. After relaxing on the beach for hours, I just wanted to be where the action was. I wanted to experience what the advertisements promised. I wanted to try my luck.

Entering the casinos, I could not tell one from the other, either by sound, appearance, or ways to gamble. My eyes were dazzled by the colorful lights; my ears were bombarded by the pings, ringing bells, and R2-D2 sounds of the blinking machines; and I was entranced by the spins of the roulette wheels. It had been a while since I was in a casino not attached to an airport, and as I wandered through eyeing the machines and the people, I definitely felt out of time and place.

I was tentative and hesitant about sitting on one of the stools facing the slot machines. It seemed that these spaces were for real gamblers who knew what they were doing. The spots in front of the machines were not for a fish out of water like me.

When I finally took a position in front of one of the noisy blinking machines, I remembered that the slot machines used to jokingly be called “one-armed bandits.” This time, I didn’t see any machines with one arm. The machines are so technologically advanced, I don’t know if they are even called slot machines any more.

I had to push a “HELP” button to see how to begin playing the machines. The “HELP” button was not much help, so I just put my money in the place for bills and pushed some buttons. The few times in the past when I played the slot machines, I used to be thrilled to see the three cherries straight across because that meant I had won something. I guess these cheap thrills are no longer available. Even when I had three of a kind of something on these machines, it was not enough for me to win. I needed five of a kind or more!

As I looked around at those who appeared to know what they were doing, I knew that the thrill I had hoped to get from being where the action was supposed to be was not real. It was just an illusion for an outsider like me. After feeding the hungry, blinking, groaning monster $7.00, my winnings totaled $0.53. One does not have to be good at math to know that this was not a good return on my money.

Just as the casinos dazzle potential gamblers with how much they could win by playing the games, our colleges and universities spend a lot of money on appealing to the dreams of prospective students. For me, the casino experience was a diversion. For most adult learners, college is no diversion – these learners are motivated by a desire for self-improvement that could potentially change their lives.

Just as I was dazzled by the many lights and sounds, adult learners may be confused by the array of opportunities found on a college’s website. And as I could not tell one casino from another, they might not be able to discern the quality or fit of a particular college. Just as I had no idea how to play the games, adult learners tend not to know how the bureaucratic process of higher education works. Just as I was looking for the one-armed bandits of yesteryear, they may be looking for something that no longer exists.

The “HELP” button on the machine did not enlighten me. I wonder if the service equivalents to the slot machine “HELP” button at colleges and universities are better at meeting the needs of adult learners. Adult learners are putting their money into the game of college and hoping they will get back more than they wagered.

Lifting up the N of 1

I could barely manage to get out of bed this morning. I had lain awake thinking about recent surveys and polls about the waning confidence in higher education among some specific groups and possibly the public at large.

I remember in the mid-1990s when the discussions with heads of higher education associations were upbeat because there was so much public support for higher education. In these meetings, we viewed the positive public opinion about colleges and universities as leverage to use to persuade Congress and the Administration to increase funding levels for financial aid. In fact, there was a groundswell of support for the government to do more to help middle class families, in particular, afford to send their students to college. New technology companies demonstrated support by appealing to congressional leaders. Some even declared that making college more affordable was an issue of national defense.

Various reasons have been suggested as to why the people surveyed have negative opinions about colleges and universities. There is no question that college costs have put a college degree out of reach for some families. However, even at the same time that we were surfing on a tide of support for higher education in the mid-1990s, cost containment and the impact on tuition was a major topic of concern. Yet, there was still the belief that a college education was of critical importance and an American value. It is concerning that those of us who see the merits of higher education may be unable to have our voices heard above the din of naysayers.

I tossed and turned most of the night because I do not want to accept as fact that the gulf between those who demean higher education and those who value it may be unbridgeable at this time. So I searched for the common denominator for all who think about education, whether positively or negatively. That common denominator is the impact college has on students who attend.

Rather than relying on survey results of groups outside of college, students should be asked questions about what they think about their college experience. As I thought about surveying students, I reminded myself that the term “students” represents an exceptionally varied and diverse group, and looking at data from them in the aggregate may not be precise enough to be used to take any action. Then, I thought about disaggregating the data gleaned from surveys of students. How the data is disaggregated can also be an issue in interpreting the results. What to do?

Nof1

As my thoughts swirled during my restless night about polls, surveys, aggregated and disaggregated data, I recalled the denigration of the “anecdote” as evidence of anything as we search for accountability. I thought about how any research to be credible needed a large sample. Then I remembered a single student that I spoke with recently. I began to relax as I thought about my conversation with the student and the potential beauty of the N of 1.

The student I spoke with was struggling with a decision about whether or not to return to college in the fall. Having already made the financial commitment and selected courses, the student was twisted into a knot, virtually paralyzed because of how consequential the decision was about whether going to college was the best route to reach the desired goal.

Notwithstanding the financial obligations of borrowing money – during the first year and the debt that will be accumulated in subsequent years – the student just did not see the connection between a college education and reaching the dream. The student had many entries on a list of “cons” about not going to college, and only one on the list for “pros,” and that was that family expected that everyone who had an opportunity to go to college should go. Among the “cons” the student listed negative press about the costs of college, friends and acquaintances who had not attained the jobs they hoped for upon graduation, role models in the high-tech industry who never went to college or did not complete college, and the time and effort to complete the degree. I could understand the student’s dilemma. Making a step in any direction at this point in the process would make the student unhappy or the family unhappy.

Listening to the student and viewing the current context through the student’s lens; encouraging the student to share the desired dream; sharing relevant parts of my journey through higher education; helping the student envision multiple future scenarios with and without a college degree; sharing ideas about the joy of discovering knowledge that goes beyond training to do a specific kind of work; and sharing examples of how a college education could increase one’s competitive edge filled our time together. I told the student that a college education is a ticket to ride, and there are no limits to where a college graduate could travel.

Whether or not the student returns to college in the fall, I believe that our conversation could help unravel the knot that may be holding back a talented student from a bright future. We need not feel impotent in the midst of the swirling smoke of negativity about the value of higher education when we can give time to a student in need one at a time if necessary. Polls, surveys, data disaggregated. Collect the anecdotes and lift up the N of 1.

 

 

 

 

 

Low-income High School Graduates

once upon a time, printed on white paper

Eric Hoover’s article, “Where the Journey to College is No Fairy Tale(Chronicle of Higher Education, June 19, 2017), provides a glimpse into the harsh reality of students who don’t even make it to the starting line to become first-generation college students. Students with tremendous potential – who could begin the pattern and set the standard for siblings and generations to come of family members attending college – are often left on the sidelines at the time of high school graduation because, even with financial aid, they are unable to attend the college to which they have been accepted.

And it’s not just finances. I’ve spoken with students whose families were  unable to give them any kind of support because they did not understand the requirements of the college admissions process, nor did they have any idea about what their student would experience once in college. I’ve spoken with students who navigated the entire application and FAFSA process without any assistance from a family member or counselor. Students who have a tireless and dedicated counselor are indeed fortunate. But, as Hoover’s article points out, there are limits to what a counselor can do. In the end, it comes down to how much financial assistance students are able to garner.

In addition to financial aid and other college support, there are charitable organizations that raise funds to help local low-income students begin college. With financial assistance from multiple sources, some students are able to cobble together enough for tuition, fees, and books for the first semester or year. During this first year, they often work while taking a full load of classes to have enough money for living expenses. If these students are unable to continue college to graduation, they feel as if they have failed; the college questions whether or not the support services provided were adequate; and the charitable organization that raised funds to help the student becomes discouraged, thinking that students they help might not be giving their all to succeeding in college.

In figuring out what else students need to continue on to degree attainment, the tendency is to look for the no-cost answers, such as the need to assign role models, coaches, and mentors to low-income students. Although I am a strong proponent of all types of support and encouragement for students, without realistic and adequate financial support, students from low-income families are not going to get to the starting line. And without realistic and adequate financial support beyond the first year, those who are able to reach the starting line may not be able to cross the finish. If you talk with low-income students like those Hoover found in his visit to Seagoville High School, you will find that financial insecurity is a major barrier to a college education.

It’s daunting to think about how much is required to fully support a college student today. But, if the longer term entire expense is not factored into the plan for the student to attain the degree, there is a high probability of loss regarding goal achievement. Of course, there are the lucky students who find a way to hang on despite the financial hardship. However, luck is a risky gamble – one that many low-income students understandably don’t think they can afford to take.

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants – Honoring Dr. Bobby Leach

Leach

Dr. Bobby Leach
NASPA President
1985-1986

NASPA has a brand new award for equity, diversity, and inclusion, and it is named in honor of Dr. Bobby E. Leach, who served as NASPA’s first African American president (what would today be the board chair) from 1985-1986.

It was my honor to accept the “inaugural” Bobby E. Leach Award this past month at NASPA’s 2017 Annual Conference in San Antonio. Dr. Leach was an extraordinary man who accomplished much in his life. Extremely well educated, he attained an undergraduate degree in mathematics and science by the age of 21, and a Masters Degree and a Ph.D. after also excelling in military service.

His work life included serving as a high school principal for 10 years, associate dean of students at Wofford College from 1970-1973, and dean of students at Southern Methodist University from 1973-1976.

Bobby E. Leach Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Award Recipient Gwen Dungy with NASPA President Kevin Kruger and Board Chair Lori White.

Bobby E. Leach Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Award Recipient Gwen Dungy
with NASPA President Kevin Kruger
and Board Chair Lori White.

In 1978, Dr. Leach was the first Black administrator hired at Florida State University, and the highest ranking African American in the Florida State administration. He served as vice president for student affairs at Florida State until 1988. He passed away much too soon in 1989. In 1991, Florida State University named its new Student Recreation Center in his honor.

Following are brief remarks I made about Dr. Leach at the NASPA 2017 Awards Luncheon when I accepted the award named in his honor:

Untapped Resource for First-Generation, Low-Income Students

You send a notice to faculty and staff who you think are more aware of who the first-generation low-income students are on campus. You ask them to please let students know that there will be an opportunity for first-generation and low-income students to have a conversation about their college experience with a visitor to campus who has a special interest in this population of students, and, of course, there will be refreshments.

The demographics represented at the meeting include White, Latinx, African American, and Asian. As the students introduce themselves, it seems that half the students are neither first-generation nor low-income. As part of their introduction, some of their responses about why they chose to come to this conversation include the following:

“I’m not first-gen or low-income. I came because I want to hear about the experiences of first-generation students in order to find out what I might be able to do to make the campus more welcoming and inclusive.”

“I’m not first-gen or low-income. I want to learn more about first-generation students because I plan to teach and work with students who may be first-generation students, and I want to learn as much as I can.”

“I’m a first-generation college student and I came in order to meet other first-generation students and to learn more about the university from their perspective.”

“I’m not first-generation low-income but it has been extremely challenging for me to find other people of color for my friend group. I had to ask people and hunt for people of color.”

“I’m not first-generation and I’ve never had to worry about money for college, but I want to know where to put my efforts as a gay White man. I want to share my voice and perspective and I’m wondering how that might play out in class and on campus.”

“I’m a first-generation low-income student and I came to encourage other first-gen students to join a new group I’m forming that will be a First-Generation Student Union or Club.”

“I’m White and I can’t imagine how it must be for students who are not White. I want to learn about their experience.”

“I’m a first-generation low-income student, and I came to the meeting to open up to other people about my background and my experience at the University.”

When we have the spotlight on first-generation college students, we may tend to think about the many degrees of separation possible between them and their more privileged peers. We may need to facilitate their coming together to discover shared connections such as valuing equity and social justice.

Colleges and universities are making progress in understanding that it’s not just first-generation students who need to adapt to the college; the institution must adapt to students, as well. Creating a climate that fosters a sense of belonging for all students is the responsibility of all within the community, and special programs for first-generation, low-income students cannot be successful without collaboration on goals across the institution.

First-generation, low-income students tell us that they want faculty to reach out to them and not place the entire burden on students to become involved and engaged. Who else should reach out? A source that might not be tapped is those students who are not first-generation, low-income students, but have a desire to be active in creating a more welcoming and inclusive campus but don’t know how they can have an impact.

When a diverse group of students from widely varying backgrounds and college experiences can come together to share their stories and experiences, we may want to add this to our inventory of ways to reduce intangible institutional barriers to the academic success and positive college experience for first-generation, low-income students.

 

 

Story Corps

It is a rare gift to be able to share parts of one’s story prompted by a highly skillful interviewer. As a gift to me, my dear friend and colleague, Paulette Dalpes, interviewed me in the summer of 2014 at Story Corps in Chicago. In recognition of Black History Month, I am sharing segments from that interview here on my blog.

Identity

Great Grandfather

Didn’t Feel Loved

Coat and Penny Loafers

Faith

Piano Lessons

Role Models

ROTC

Eastern Illinois University

 Student Teaching

Students Have Stories

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Obear’s Inspired Vision

How audacious and bold of Kathy Obear to put her inspired vision into action through this essential book for all who want to continue the work of dismantling racism. Ostensibly, But I’m not racist! is written as a tool to help white people. As an African American, I found the book not only intellectually enlightening but a courageous and hopeful foundation upon which we can all build.


From Kathy:

Get your FREE copy of “…But I am NOT Racist: Tools for Well-Meaning Whites” and encourage your colleagues, family, and friends to download their free copy!!! [URL to share: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01NCWVXEY]

And as a bonus, here are the links to the other 12 authors I am publishing with today! Get their books FOR FREE, too!!

Download these books while they are free and share the links with your friends!

How to reach Kathy:

Kathy Obear
President, Alliance for Change Consulting and Coaching
#1 Best-selling Author, Turn the Tide: Rise above toxic, difficult situations in the workplace
Co-Founder, Social Justice Training Institute
@kathyobear
Skype: kathy.obear
Pronouns I respond to: she/her/hers