Category Archives: Identity

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Intersections of Identity: Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings

Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings book coverThomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings, a novel by Stephen O’Connor is over 600 pages, and I’ve been reading it intermittently for weeks.

A friend who I admire for his intelligence and for his depth of knowledge about writing and life in general liked the book so well that he gave me a copy as a gift. After beginning the book, I went away and left it at home. Then other priorities took precedence and I didn’t read.

It has been important to me to complete the book, not only because I want to demonstrate my appreciation for the gift, but equally as important, I want to see how I feel about a novel written by a white man about the often referenced relationship–if I dare call it a relationship given the power imbalance–between a slave master and a slave woman. Not an ordinary slave master, but Thomas Jefferson, a founding father of this country, author of the Declaration of Independence, and father of the University of Virginia, among other notable accomplishments.

The author, Stephen O’Connor, did not write this fictional biography as a traditional novel. His biography of the long liaison between Jefferson and Hemings is infused with fantasies, dreams, and meditations, including characters such as James and Dolly Madison in colorful and fantastic musings.

The author acknowledges that there is literally no biographical information about Hemings and no known photographic likenesses. In his creation of the character of Sally Hemings, O’Connor brings an important element about this slave woman. She looks like a white woman in every aspect of her physical features. I don’t know why, but this made a difference for me in reading the book.

O’Connor created a woman, not a slave without gender identity. He adds dimension to a historical character that most have only known as a slave whose children were fathered by Thomas Jefferson.

O’Connor gives us a view of the power and emotional conflict that could occur in the life of a woman in circumstances that were, on the one hand beyond her control, and on the other, we’re not sure.

Through her character, we also see what we’ve always known about Jefferson, such as his complexity and the conflict between his universal moral positions and his way of life. This novel forces the reader to see the intersections of identity within individuals and the wide variations of perceptions within groups of people, regardless of their stations in life and despite the power imbalance in the world where slavery existed.

This book defies any simplistic notions of black and white and slave and master, though as one reviewer notes, “This book is a history of oppression. . .”

For me, O’Connor’s insights as told through the voices of Jefferson and Hemings give him credibility when creating a voice for Sally Hemings. For example,

People adjust to their circumstances . . . Even if it can also be their undoing.

In reference to those who felt fortunate that Jefferson was not a cruel slave master:

Yes we were lucky, but such luck is a mere drop in an ocean of misfortune.

And so the desire to lie to oneself or to make much of small blessings becomes irresistible, and thus to further humiliation. The very songs we sing to escape our chains themselves become our chains . . . .

[Sally Hemings to Jefferson] You think it enough to speak beautiful words, but that beauty is nothing unless those words are lived.

I am partial to biographical novels and sensitive to any efforts to soften or deny the cruelty and moral degradation of slavery and, because of these prejudices, I am impressed with O’Connor’s work in adding a critical piece of Jefferson’s life by creating a persona for Sally Hemings.

Allowing one to be what he imagines himself to be…

We will celebrate our son’s birthday in a couple of days, and this occasion makes me have a moment of nostalgia about our relationship as mother and child.

I could tell you that the doctor kept telling me that I was not pregnant with him, despite the fact that I had missed my period for four months. According to this physician, if I were pregnant, the rabbit test would confirm it, and since the test did not confirm it, I was not pregnant.

I could tell you that he was born close to a month early, and it was a complicated delivery that caused him to be without oxygen for quite some time, according to the doctors. This led them to forewarn me that this child could experience some developmental or other problems. I’m grateful that their warning was not confirmed and he was a perfectly healthy baby.

I could tell you more about the pregnancy as mothers are wont to do, but what I want to tell you is that I have been in awe of this stealth child who fought hard and arrived unscathed to be the light of his mother’s life.

From the beginning, I consciously decided that because I loved him so much, I would have to fight not to allow my love to possess him. I decided that he would belong to the universe and that he was God’s child, and it was my privilege to have the role of mother in his life. Holding him close in my heart and seeing him as not belonging to me or any one person, I have always had adoration for this child that I have the privilege of calling “son.”

I have always respected him as his own entity, and I worked to play the role as parent with nuanced control, not holding the reins too tightly. Growing with him has been like performing a modern dance following the beat of a jazz composition and going with the flow. Rather than attempting to mold him into my conception of what he should be, I trustingly reinforced his unique nature and characteristics. When I think about it, it has not been so much “raising” him as allowing him to be what he imagines himself to be.

I’ve often said that he grew up like a cabbage because cabbages can grow just about anywhere. Though his dad and I did our best to provide the right conditions for his thriving, like cabbages “soil texture is not critical” for him. Because he is an only child, he was often treated as the third adult in the house, with some limitations, whose feelings and ideas were valued. I always wanted him to see the worth of his own efforts despite the opinion of others. Whenever he did something praiseworthy, rather than first telling him that I was proud of him, I would ask, “Aren’t you proud of yourself?”

With adoring, respectful love and not too much pressure from hands-on parenting in the traditional sense, I should not have been surprised at his response when he was asked by a third party what he thought had the most impact on his development as a man. He responded that his college fraternity was the most important influence on him in being who he is today. I’m also not surprised when he does not remember all the cute incidents I remember about his childhood because his childhood and adulthood, in some ways, have been seamless, in that he has enjoyed and continues to enjoy my unconditional love, devotion, and respect because I have always thought and continue to think that he is awesome.

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.

Reinventing and Helping Students Shine

There is nothing like the possibility of having a new start or the opportunity to reinvent oneself. Whether just out of high school or coming later in life, beginning college is an opportunity to remake oneself into one’s own image and leave behind the perceptions of those in one’s past.

The beginning of a new academic year is also a time for student affairs to innovate and influence  the perceptions of colleagues with whom we want to collaborate to help students “shine.” The final line of John Legend’s song Shine tells us that “ordinary people can be a hero; don’t put out the light.”  If we are not helping students shine, we may be guilty of putting out the light. The challenge is great. What can we do with the opportunity a new beginning affords?

This past week, there was a lot of questioning and opining about what Jeff Bezos of Amazon fame and fortune would do as the new owner of The Washington Post. Certainly a new owner is another kind of beginning or opportunity to redesign, innovate, and transform in order to change the perceptions and the culture of a well-respected institution.

The speculations about what Bezos would do ranged from whether he would be the death of journalism or the founder of its golden age. Regardless on which end of the argument continuum one sits, change seems inevitable. If Jeff Bezos came to your college or university, what kinds of changes do you think he would make that would have an impact on student affairs in order to help students shine?