Category Archives: Higher Education

Voices of Three African American Women (Pt. 2): Advice for Women of Color Facing Double Jeopardy

Jacqueline Woods

Jacqueline (Jackie) Woods, early-middle Baby Boomer (BB)

Eboni Zamani Gallaher

Eboni Zamani-Gallaher, middle Gen X-er (X)

Tangela Feemster

Tangela Feemster, early Millennial (M)

In the recent inter-generational conversation on gender I had the privilege of facilitating, the generational differences among the three African American women were perhaps most evident in the responses to the following question:

I’ve spoken with several women of color who have been given incredible responsibility for achieving goals without the power of authority to accomplish the goals. They work themselves to the point of exhaustion fearing the consequences of failure. Some become emotionally drained and suffer illness as a result. As successful Black women, what advice would you give to other women of color who experience something similar to what I’ve described?

The Silent, or Traditional, Generation and the Baby Boomers were the first to have the doors opened to more opportunities for education and careers. We were entering a world in which the climate was overtly racist and sexist. We knew that we were always working against negative stereotypes. While we could never be fully prepared for the challenges we would face, we understood that we would have to stand out among the best; that we could not be tardy; that we could not be unkempt; that we would have to speak clearly; and that we would have to always be seen as giving our best efforts. We knew that we would not be given a second chance if we failed. I’d like to believe that, as Jackie said, we no longer have to be the smartest person in the room.

Millennials, such as Tangela, regardless of race, having not experienced being shut out of opportunities on a broad and overt scale, do not feel “gratitude” for being “allowed” in the game, seeing it, instead, as just as much their right to be where they are as anyone else’s. They demand justice and equity in treatment. They want reasonableness in expectations, and they have strategies to create some balance between their personal well-being and their career success, as you can hear in the following clip.


As a Gen Xer, Eboni understood both the age-old admonition of having to work harder and that the generations coming along after would not be influenced by the same kind of thinking. Having found herself in the middle of these generational shifts, as the discussion delved deeper into different strategies, Eboni offered thoughts on racialized role strain, noting that as we consider whether things have gotten better or if it is just as difficult or harder now that there are nuances to the persistent challenges that are more specific to time, space, place with each generation.


Full Transcript for “Advice” Question

Gwen (Traditional/ Silent Generation – T/S): I know you’ll be able to relate to this because you’ve all had very illustrious careers, but I’ve spoken with several women of color who’ve been given incredible responsibility for achieving goals, but they haven’t been given the power or authority to accomplish the goals. They work themselves to the point of exhaustion, fearing the consequences of failure. Some become emotionally drained and suffer illness as a result. As a successful Black woman, what advice would you give to other women of color who experience something similar to what I’ve described?

Jackie (BB): Gwen, this is Jackie. That question is almost like you took a page out of my life, because it definitely describes many of the things I’ve gone through. My response will be evident based on the old adage that our mothers and our grandmothers used to give us that we had to be twice as good in order to be considered relevant. And, at least from my generation’s point of view, I think that is so important and so relevant – that, in my career, I heard that I had to be twice as good in order to be accepted at the table or to be considered as someone equal to the rest of the people at the table. Unfortunately, I’ve heard many of the young women who I’ve mentored or developed friendships with say that it still applies to them, as well, but I know that for my generation, that was extremely relevant and important. And we were told to work hard, and I don’t think we had the same filters that the young women have now in terms of drawing back and – doing you best, but – not necessarily overwhelming yourself with so much hard work and trying to be the best at the table.

A new phrase that I use on a regular basis – and I didn’t develop it – to young women is that you don’t have to be the smartest person in the room. And, so, I think it’s critically important that you show that you can be a strong participant, and that you’re good, but that you don’t have to show and demonstrate that you’re the smartest person in the room.

Tangela (M): So, the question is like multi-fold to me. I would say that a woman going through that should do a few things, and the first is to right-size the task. What that means to me is having a conversation about the extent and limits of your authority for even accepting an assignment – and getting it in writing, and then taking the temperature of the person that is delegating you that authority, so that you have the right bandwidth to do what you feel your responsibility is, but also understanding that responsibility is the ability to do the work. And multiple people can do the work; accountability is monitoring those folks responsible, and authority is having the power to make decisions for those who are accountable and are responsible. And so, any one of those levers can be pulled so that whomever is doing that work is more meaningful. And the last point is self-care. Know who your support is. Be vocal in reaching out to them. Ms. Woods here is definitely mine. I’ve had many a hard day where the job felt like it was hell, and so she reached me to call and I needed that reset.  The answer I think is two-fold: we’re talking about your emotional health and your ability.

Gwen (T/S): Fantastic. Thank you so much.

Eboni (X): So, I guess my response would be, we’ve seen some improvements, but overall, our positioning could still stand for improvement, right? So, by that I mean, if there’s a way in which oftentimes, when women ascend to leadership positions, in particular Black women, that there aren’t significant investments in advancing support and rewards for our hard work and commitment, so that we have ambitions that have – resources that have not kept pace with those ambitions. And, I think sometimes that, in part because of these age-old tropes of Black women as being strong and inheriting situations when we do say we want to lead, we’re given, you know, the Hail Mary – the devastating context of “turn it around,” you know, “it’s on its last leg” and has the least resources. And so, I think that there’s much more to do where the rhetoric follows the reality of what we have in terms of a commitment that, in some form, in terms of the value we bring, advancement and support that is needed, and the resources so that we’re not having to lead and also be in unchecked situations of resource dependency.

Gwen (T/S): That’s something that I hear resonating throughout your responses that, you know, as Jackie began about working harder, and Tangela’s talking about right-sizing the task, which is not usually the right size, and then that idea of turning it around – so many women I’ve talked with…they come in and they’ve been in horrible situations and they’re asked to make it work. They don’t want to turn down an opportunity. What would you advise these women? I think Tangela said about right-sizing the responsibility. How do you go about right-sizing that?

Jackie (BB): Gwen, I need to interject something here, please. As part of Tangela’s statement, she was saying that you need to get agreement on your topic, or your task and your goals, and then get it in writing, and you don’t have that luxury in most situations. When you report to a board of trustees or you report to a board of people, they’re not going to put it in writing for you. If you report to a governing body, they’re not going to put that in writing. And so that’s a very difficult thing – you can’t require that or ask that of them, because it’s not going to happen that way. I had several organizations that I was the titular head of the organization, and yet the governing bodies that I reported to basically said to me, “These are the goals of the organization.” One of the things that helps you self-direct, if you will, is to develop your own set of goals and present them to whoever you report to or who you are responsible for. And that makes a difference. So, I was able to, in a couple of instances, submit my own goals and talk about how they were achievable in that space, and get them to agree to my goals, rather than waiting for them to give me goals, because that makes a big, big difference. So often we sit and wait to be given our jobs, and sometimes we have to submit our own goals, and we have to do it in a caring and submissive way. You’re proactive, but you’re proactive not necessarily in an aggressive way. And so, a couple of times I’ve had to say, “As I’ve studied this organization – or as I look at where it’s been as an organization and where you want it to go – these are some of the goals that I think we might want to achieve to get there.” And then that starts a discussion in a very, very different way, and you can get agreement then on most of those things. But, to get them to put it in writing – eh, that’s not gonna happen…

Tangela (M): And, so, I think you misunderstood me. It’s not that they should put it in writing; it’s that you should have your own plan – right? – and when you have your own plan, you should be able to articulate your own plan and your vision, so that you get buy-in from both the top and the bottom.

Jackie (BB): We’re in agreement there.

Gwen (T/S): Right. Well., you know, this is something. When Jackie talked about doing this in a way that may not be as assertive as you would want to be, it goes back to what Tangela said about the messenger. There may be some people who could just come in and say, you know, “This is what I think needs to be done,” but, being a woman, being an African American woman, that may not be possible, so there are times when we have to, you know, be a little less assertive.

Jackie (BB): Oh, absolutely.

Eboni (X): That’s a lot, right?

Gwen (T/S): I know, I’m thinking, “Do I really believe it?” I haven’t done it well…

Eboni (X): Well, you know, I was thinking about this whole notion of racialized role strain. That there are ways in which there’s a representation for the group that we have, and that’s minimally two-fold, right? It’s for the race, it’s for the gender, you know, as women… And, so, reconciling what our various tools are in terms of the different roles and the different hats that we wear or roles that we have, and how much of that, in many ways, can provoke or produce kind of a racialized role strain – or at least that’s been my experience in some of what I have seen bubble up in some of the research that I have done. And, so, when I think about this question of, “Have we gotten better through the generations, or is it just as difficult or harder now?” in some ways it is, and in some ways, it’s become more complex. I know, this is probably a conversation for later, but as we think about some of the contrasting differences between the 20th and the 21st century in terms of challenges for women, and namely Black women, this whole social media piece – that’s a whole ‘nother beast, you know. And particularly for Black women in terms of cross-sections of Black women. So, not just professional Black women and women that lead, but I think about the imprint that it has on impressionable youth and Black girls, and what may be strengthened and what actually may be chipped away at in the way that they see themselves and what their worth and their value is, and who they can be and what they can be and what they should achieve. So, I think, it’s intergenerational – the challenges – but as we all face the challenges, there are nuances to them that are more specific to time, space, place with each generation. And, so, that there’s’ a different cross to bear that my daughters have that was just not even front-of-mind for me at their age as a teenager, or that my mom, when I was in my formative years, that just wasn’t on her radar that she didn’t have to contend with because of the time.

Voices of Three African American Women on Gender Across Generations

Jacqueline Woods

Jacqueline (Jackie) Woods, former executive director, American Association of University Women (AAUW); Jackie served as a senior consultant for Academic Search, and she shares her wisdom as a member of a number of advisory boards. Jackie is in the early-middle age group of the Baby Boomers.

Eboni Zamani Gallaher

Eboni Zamani-Gallaher, professor of higher education and leadership, and director of the community college research and leadership office at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Eboni falls in the middle of Generation X.

Tangela Feemster

Tangela Feemster, lobbyist for Express Scripts; Tangela directs legislative strategy across eight states and the District of Columbia, and also is a member of the Associate Board of Young Women’s Leadership Charter School in Chicago. Tangela is an early Millennial.

I recently had the opportunity to facilitate an inter-generational conversation on gender with three African American women. The overriding assumption for the dialogue was that participants would represent multi-generational viewpoints on the questions posed, exploring, in particular, commonalities and differences in opinion regarding gender across generations.I will be sharing different parts of the conversation over the coming weeks, as well as some of my takeaways. All of the dialogue participants are connected to education in some manner, so I expect that responses will resonate with students and those who work with students.


Introductory Question and Audio Clip

I’m going to ask you just an open-ended question here about your life and career. It’s obvious that each of you has been successful in your careers. Now is there anything in your experiential journey that has implications regarding your gender – either positively or negatively? How did gender come up as you were moving forward in your career?

[The above clip is taken from Tangela’s answer to this question.]

Takeaways

These three generations of African American women have experienced both the positive and negative impacts of gender on their career journey. Strikingly, they did not separate gender from race. Jackie Woods spoke of a “combination.” Eboni Zamani-Gallaher found it hard to “decouple” race and gender. Tangela Feemster references both race and gender when she gives an example of the message and the messenger.

In my personal experience, when you don’t have a commonality of either race or sex with the receiver, it’s difficult for the receiver to hear and acknowledge the message you bring. Women, in general, complain about the phenomena of having their comments ignored until repeated by a male who is heard and often praised for his insights. During my career journey, when my comments were not recognized in a meeting or when I was making a speech, I used to say, “they can’t hear me for looking at me.” It was as if the people with whom I was speaking could not hold in their minds three things: woman; black; meaningful.


Full Transcript for Introductory Section

Our participants today, in addition to myself – I’m Gwen Dungy, executive director emeritus of NASPA – Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education –

  • Jacqueline Woods, former executive director for the American Association of University Women – she says she’s in semi-retirement. She’s served as a senior consultant for Academic Search, and she shares her wisdom as a member of a number of advisory boards.
  • Eboni Zamani-Gallaher, professor of higher education and leadership, and director of the community college research and leadership office at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
  • Tangela Feemster, lobbyist for Express Scripts. She directs legislative strategy across eight states and the District of Columbia. She’s also a member of the Associate Board of Young Women’s Leadership Charter School in Chicago.

The overriding assumption for this dialogue is that participants will represent multi-generational viewpoints on the questions I will pose. In particular, we want to explore where the commonalities and differences in opinion are regarding gender across generations.Now, all of our dialogue participants are connected to education in some manner, so I would expect that responses will resonate with students and those who work with students. When we think about who students are on college campuses, it’s generally agreed that there are five generations on campus today:

  • The Traditionalist or Silent (T/S) Generation are those born between approximately 1925 and 1946;
  • The Baby Boomers (BB), born 1946 to 1964;
  • Generation X (X), born between 1965 and 1980;
  • The Millennials (M) – sometimes called Generation Y – born around 1980 through the 1990s or later; and
  • Generation Z (Z), born late-1990s to 2010.

Now, notwithstanding the arbitrariness of these labels, it would be helpful to know within which generation we all might be classified. Now, I would be in the category of the Traditionalist or Silent Generation, and my birth year falls on the tail end of these years. So, Jackie, will you begin by sharing in which category your birth would fall and is it on the early, middle, or tail end of that range?

Jackie (BB): Okay, I’m in the Baby Boomer group; I would be in early-middle age group of the Baby Boomers.

Gwen (T/S): Eboni, could you say where you are?

Eboni (X): I’m a Generation X –

Gwen (T/S): Generation X? And would you be on the early, middle, or tail end of that?

Eboni (X): – in the middle

.Gwen (T/S): And Tangela…

Tangela (M): I’m an early Millennial.

Gwen (T/S): Okay, great…this is great. I’m going to ask you just an open-ended question here about your life and career. It’s obvious that each of you has been successful in your careers. Now is there anything in your experiential journey that has implications regarding your gender – either positively or negatively? How did gender come up as you were moving forward in your career?

Jackie (BB): It has impact on my career at every stage of my career. I definitely think that many of the opportunities and challenges that I experienced as a professional – that my gender had implications for them. And so, promotions that I received, advisory groups, boards, activities that I participated in, my gender played a heavy role in that occurring. And I think I had many positive experiences because of my gender, but I also think that I had some challenges because of my gender, as well.

Gwen (T/S): So, do the positive experiences outweigh the challenges?

Jackie (BB:  Yes, I guess in many ways, but they were equal at certain times in my career. I’d have a positive experience one day, and a negative one the next, so…

Gwen (T/S): So, how did you determine that it was about gender?

Jackie (BB): Well, in my experiences, and because of where I fall in the categories that you read, I think mine was both gender and race. I think it was a combination of both that played heavily into both my positive and my challenges.

Gwen (T/S): Mm hmm. Okay. Well, thank you, Jackie. Either Eboni or Tangela?

Eboni (X): Okay, this is Eboni. Some of my experiences – you know, it’s interesting, because I feel that gender has always been salient. I know some people who, they think about their gender some of the time or often; I think about it all the time, every day, and I have a hard time decoupling it from other aspects of myself. And, so, every day, all day, I am filtering and experiencing everything as a Black woman. I think that some of the ways in which my successes or the things that have affected me positively or negatively, with regard to gender, they really come up where they’re “even-Steven.” So, there’s been some things where I’ve had messages that suggest that there are certain spaces I shouldn’t occupy, or there’s doubt regarding my capability, but on the other hand, I have been positively fed and fueled, and see that intersectionality as a strength that emboldens me to navigate and to persist.

Gwen (T/S): This is great. Thank you, Eboni. Tangela?

Tangela (M): I would say that there have been both positive and negative implications, but the overarching that’s hitting them both is sometimes it’s the messenger and not the message. So, there are instances where I’m the appropriate messenger and it’s well-received and it’s positive, and there are times when I am not the appropriate messenger, even though my message is correct, and that is going to be negative. And so, sometimes those instances happen daily, sometimes in a specific meeting, and sometimes they’re overarching in my career. But, every day, I get to do this job, so I’m going to go with positive for the overwhelming impact.

Gwen (T/S): Can you talk a little bit more about the message and the messenger?

Tangela (M): Sure. In my current space, I’m in health care. And so, historically, the folks that are walking into legislative offices have been “pale, male, and stale” – and I did not invent that phrase; a NASA director created it in 1992 when he was trying to increase diversity and inclusion in that agency. But, lots of legislators have told me personally how refreshing it is to have not only a young woman, but a young, Black woman to come in to their offices to talk about health care issues. And, so, you’re having them hear a different messenger and receive it differently than who might have been historically in their office discussion those issues with them.

Allowing Room for New Growth

When I arrived as Dean at this community college, the staff surprised me with a corn plant as a welcome gift. It was a tiny little thing that, over the years, grew to over seven feet tall, nearly touching the ceiling. I loved the plant both because my colleagues gave it to me and because it was so hardy and beautiful. During one winter, I was surprised to see that the tips of the leaves had begun to turn brown, and brown and yellow spots appeared intermittently throughout the leaf structure.

As the winter progressed, the spots became more prominent and the plant looked as if it were not going to survive. Despite my inexperience in resuscitating plants, I became more attentive to my corn plant. I changed the size of the pot to allow the roots to spread; I put fertilizer on the plant for the first time; and I watered it when it seemed to need it instead of when I just happened to think about watering it.

cornplantInterestingly, as unsightly as the plant became, it continued to grow tall. One day, while leaning in close to water the plant, I noticed something next to the bottom of the stem just barely on top of the soil. Upon closer inspection, I realized that it was a tiny shoot. What amazed me was that it had the shape of a fully developed corn plant. It was the tiniest corn plant one could imagine.

While I continued to attend to the ailing larger plant, within months, the tiny shoot grew to nearly half the size of the original plant. The new plant was hardy with thick green leaves. In the meantime, the original plant began to bend its stem away from the new plant. This allowed room for the new plant to spread its leaves in new growth. I didn’t know what to make of it, but it seemed that the original plant had nurtured a new version of itself. I thought to myself that this was a perfect example of a transmutation.

What I think is happening in higher education today is like the transmutation of my corn plant. To some observers, higher education seems impaired and not as healthy as it once was. Yet, it continues to grow because of grant-funded research, exemplary scholarship by star faculty, increased endowments generated by gifted fundraisers, and increased numbers of students seeking a degree as a way to move a step up on the economic ladder.

If higher education leans in closely, as I did when I discovered the tiny new plant, it will see that it must recast its role to actually and truly put students at the center of the enterprise. Putting students at the center requires meeting students where they are today. Where they are today includes expecting that their unique place in history and their stage in development will be respected. While they share some commonalities with all students, they will not allow the system to paint them with the same brush.

Common among today’s students is the fact that they are learners, as well as producers of knowledge. Therefore, they want the kind of partnership with colleges and universities that will enable them to negotiate a better match between their personal goals and their desire to be activist citizens in the current social movement.

Colleges and universities can learn, and will, like the dying corn plant, know how to nurture its rebirth by bending away from some of its practices and traditions in order to become congruent with the needs of a new culture that is demanding something different.

Outlets for addressing psychic violence

You might say it’s generalized paranoia or an unusually heightened sensitivity to slights, but if you were born Black in the American South like I was, seeing the indignities of Jim Crow laws heaped upon one’s parents and grandparents day in and day out, every word and gesture of White people would be filtered through the cheesecloth of racism leaving a residue of threat. Racism is not only about skin color: I see it as using perceived power to deny other humans their rights, dignity, and respect.

Recently, a friend and I were on a small intimate tour of a man-made lake in the Southwest. We were the only people of color among the tour group; the tour guides also were White. For the tour, we were all seated at tables inside the boat. To begin, one of the two tour guides visited each table to find out where everyone was from. For easy reference, the guide wrote the various places down. Using a microphone, the guide recognized each table by saying where everyone was from and who came the furthest for the tour and who was the closest to home.

When the guide did not point to our table or call out our state, I raised my hand and, with a smile, proudly said, “We’re from Maryland!” Rather than apologizing for leaving our table off the list or making a self-effacing comment to account for the omission, the guide said, in what I thought was a begrudging or dismissive tone, “Maryland wants to be recognized.” Hmm, I thought. I see you.

The tour was just beginning and I was not going to dwell on what probably was just an innocent omission. The guide might have been having a bad day, as we all do at one time or another. I willed myself to be upbeat and told myself to remember the prevailing racist refrain, “Everything is not about race.”

There was a table with two elderly couples directly behind the table where my friend and I sat. While not intentionally listening to their conversation, our tables were close enough for me to hear bits and pieces of what they said. Some of the conversation was about unwelcome people in their neighborhood, such as folks who liked to ride motorcycles and the influx of gangs in nearby areas.

As the conversation progressed, one of the men said that he used to work with a Black man who did not have a car, and he would drive the man to a place to get his check cashed and then drive him home. I don’t recall his exact words, but he conveyed that he was uneasy at first about going into a Black neighborhood. He ended the story by saying that no one bothered him and nothing ever happened to him. Hmm, I thought. I see you.

My back was to the man, so I never saw his face, but I knew that the person telling this next story was the same person who spoke of his experience of going into a Black neighborhood. In this story, he and his girlfriend, many years ago, were in a crowd of Black people at some entertainment event and a riot started. He talked about how the Black people surrounded him and his girlfriend and got them to safety. As I sat there, I was wondering why this man was talking about his experiences with Black people. Was my friend’s and my proximity a trigger for these memories? Hmm, I thought. I see you.

As the tour progressed, the guides gave interesting facts about our location. When there was a negative fact about some blunder or catastrophic event that occurred near the site we were viewing, a woman at the same table of four directly behind us would say in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear, “It must have been a Democrat!” I was shocked that she would do this during these times that are so politically polarized. Why was this woman making this comment? Hmm, I thought. I see you.

As I worked it out in my mind, I concluded without much effort that this woman was making the assumption that my African American friend and I were Democrats, and she was heckling us. My first instinct was to turn around and give the rude woman a look that I hoped she would interpret as my calling her an “idiot!” As she kept up the harangue about incompetence being equated with being a Democrat, I wanted to engage the woman in dialogue about why she had this opinion about Democrats, and why she thought it was necessary to comment out loud in this setting. I resisted the urge to turn around or say anything.

After the tour, my friend and I talked about what happened on the boat. I said that I felt as if I had been psychically assaulted because, whether I wanted to or not, I gave energy to thoughts about whether or not my experience on the tour had anything to do with race. I felt singled out and harassed, but mostly I felt impotent and powerless to even use my words.

In the September 3, 2017, The Chronicle Review, assistant professor Jason N. Blum wrote an article titled, “Don’t Bow to Blowhards: It’s worthy speech, not free speech, that matters most.” Thinking about this experience on the boat, his words resonated powerfully with me:

Political preferences now function powerfully as identities, driving divisions that can be deeper than those defined by religion or race. The demarcation between words and actions has blurred, as psychologists and activists argue that language itself can be a form of violence.

Students are being assaulted daily by antagonistic rhetoric fomented by the current divisive political environment. They have to use brain space and energy to decipher if their negative experiences are acts of racism and, more importantly, whether they should react or not.

After the boat experience, I found an outlet for my feelings when I talked with my friend. And when I write about experiences such as this, I have an opportunity to do more processing and critical self-talk. Students also need a place to talk about what is happening to them, how they feel about it, and what, if any, actions they might take.

Listening groups, or whatever name fits the culture of your institution, are essential support services for students’ mental health. In addition to providing a place to be heard, such groups offer students an opportunity to practice skills that lead to effective interpersonal communications and intercultural competence. These groups can be built into classroom time as a laboratory or they can be part of the cocurriculum outside of class. If students are to maximize their learning and experience, they will need a way to attend to their emotional disruptions and psychic wounds caused, in part, by the current complex climate.

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.

 

 

Effectively supporting first-generation students

Like many, I was a first-generation college student whose family lacked the economic means to send me to college. With a state tuition scholarship from high school, loans, campus jobs, and help from my friends, I was able to attend and graduate from Eastern Illinois University (EIU).

First-generation students were probably the majority of students at state colleges and universities in the Midwest when I first attended college, but unlike today, most of the first-generation students then were not minority, low-income, or students who were new in the United States.

Today, students whose parents have had no postsecondary education or experiences are given the opportunity to participate in pre-college programs while in high school, and the equity-minded colleges these students attend often provide special programs to ease the transition from high school into college. Committed to their success, colleges who identify students as first-generation generally provide special support programs that include advising, tutoring, and opportunities for engagement with the broader academic and local community.

All first-generation students are not the same. As I recall my experience as a first-generation college student, it was another identity that distinguished some of my peers and me and caused us to experience college differently than other first-generation students. Being a Black college student on a White college campus less than a decade after the Brown v. Board of Education decision compounded the obstacles already inherent to my success as a first-generation student.

I was not aware of any special programs to help level the playing field. Upon reflection, however, I realize that for me, more important than a special program would have been a concerted effort by the college to create an inclusive and welcoming environment. I believe the president wanted Black and other first-generation students to feel welcome, but it takes every individual in the academic community to create such an environment.

I can’t speak for other Black students who were my peers, but I dreaded going to the faculty advisor I was assigned. I needed support as a first-generation student, and what I received was indifference. I felt as if the advisor hated this part of the faculty role. When I attempted to share my goals, he did not listen. My advisor made no effort to get to know me, and I felt that he hated me because I was Black and looked down on me because I was poor. The selection of advisors for first-generation students is critical not only for making the climate supportive, but for the ultimate success of students.

My being in class was awkward for everyone. No one looked at me and I didn’t draw attention to myself. I kept my eyes on my textbook, my notebook, the chalk board, and the professor. When I would feel someone staring at me, I would resist the urge to look directly at the person, but would just begin to turn my head in their direction. That always broke the stare.

One professor, who was my favorite, stands out for me because he was the one faculty member who looked directly at me when his eyes surveyed the classroom. All the other professors had this uncanny ability to look around the classroom and never see me. I should have stood out since I was the only Black student in any given class.

With the diversity of students in classes today, faculty who do not know how to help all students feel included should request professional development. At minimum, faculty can incorporate basic strategies to develop an inclusive classroom environment by making eye contact with all students, pronouncing their names correctly, finding creative ways to encourage all students to participate in class discussions, and providing opportunities for group projects in which students are randomly assigned.

As I was nearing the end of my first quarter at EIU, I began to worry about what grades I would receive at the end of the term. An uncaring advisor and awkward classrooms did not help my grades and neither did the fact that I had been having a good time with my Black peers and our new-found freedom. I decided to call my mother to alert her to what might happen if my grades were as bad as I expected them to be.

I remember using a pay phone in the Student Union. My mother was surprised to hear from me because I didn’t have the kind of money to make long distance telephone calls unless there was something important to convey. To begin this difficult conversation, I asked about every single person in the family. I could sense that my mother wanted me to get to the reason why I called.

Finally, I said, “My classes are really hard, and I don’t think I’m going to make it.”

“What do you mean when you say you don’t think you’re going to make it?” she responded.

“My grades may not be good enough for me to stay in college, so I might have to come home.” I waited for her response.

After a short time she said, “That’s too bad. You can’t come here because your sister has your room now. I don’t know what you’re going to do.”

I just hung on the line for a beat or so because I was afraid to let go. In just a few words, my mother made it clear that she was not going to rescue me. Shocked and afraid, I realized that what happened to me from this point on was entirely up to me.

I believe that support programs, caring advisors, inclusive classrooms. and an overall inclusive campus climate make a difference for first-generation and all students. I also believe that every student will have unique motivators that are separate and distinct from anything the college or university can provide. Being self-motivated is a powerful impetus to succeed. What first-generation students may need most is someone to help them identify what motivates them most.