Category Archives: Identity

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?

Slipping Into Darkness

We know when it’s happening and we want to believe that no one else notices. We have enough of ourselves to repeat those unique elements of our personality, yet the essence of who we are keeps slipping into darkness. My husband and I visited my mother-in-law a week ago in her very comfortable supportive living facility. Though she has her own apartment, it is less home and more a nice shelter in a facility. My mother-in-law will be ninety-four in a few weeks, and she craves independence and the preservation of her former self. She has done an incredible job in holding on to both. When we saw her in October, she was still regaling us with stories of her youth and the improbable romance she had with her late husband. Not so this time.

During one of our conversations, I said to her that we might want to write a note about something so she would be sure to remember to do something. She quickly assured me that she would not forget. For years the life of the party because of her loquaciousness, during this latest visit, she sat quietly responding with as few words as possible; I believe because she was fearful that someone would notice that she was slipping into darkness.

As we usually do, my husband and I were her guests at meal times in the dining room. She was gracious as always introducing us to each table of people that we have met on numerous occasions. The residents were happy to see us again, and some of them made eye contact with us that suggested that they, too, saw the slippage in my mother-in-law. All of the servers in the dining hall were “twenty somethings,” and my hope is that all of them have received the kind of education and training that will endow them with the expertise and grace to figuratively walk beside my mother- in-law as she holds her head high, stands ramrod straight, knows that she is still independent, and holds firmly to her sense of dignity.

Reading Between the Lines – Searching Out the Hidden Characters

According to Gallup’s StrengthsQuest my top strength is Learner. In addition to learning about New England families and the complex relationships they had with their slaves in Allegra di Bonaventura’s article “Finding Adam” in The Chronicle Review (April 12, 2013), I learned that as I embark upon my adventure to write about my life, I will need to do what Bonaventura did when he was reading the diary of John Hempstead to learn about this man’s life.  Bonaventura writes:

For Adam’s sake, I need to read between the lines of Joshua’s entries and look beyond the clapboards of his house to find out more about Adam Jackson and others like him.

Adam was a slave in the Hempstead house and definitely not a major character in the Hempstead diary.

I’m fortunate in the writing I’m doing because my mother left me a full account of her life, and at first glance, one could think that she has done most of the work for me. The first chapter of the book I’m writing was done in 1994, and my mother is the starring character as she is in the account she left for me. But as I’ve been reading what she left, I, too, must read between the lines and look beyond her perspective to find out more about other characters, particularly my father.

The Next Chapter – The Story of Myself

It was one year ago April 1 (of all days), that I began my retirement as executive director of NASPA. Because I did not want to look back on the year and wonder what I had accomplished and how I had spent my precious time, I set a number of goals for myself. I am satisfied with my accomplishments because they have cleared the way for me to devote time to what I’ve thought I have wanted to do for years. I began writing about my life experiences with a chapter in a book of essays in 1994, and never have gotten back to it. Now is the time…

When I think about the number of memoirs, biographies, and autobiographies already written and published, I tell myself that the world does not need one more of these. Yet, I feel compelled to put my memories on paper because even as a child as I experienced the dailiness of my life, I would tell myself that I should remember this for the story I would tell later.

I share my plan to write as a measure of accountability for myself. As disciplined as I am, I need to feel an obligation, such as this public promise, in order to devote the time to writing.

In some ways, I feel selfish in writing about myself. My saving grace will be that if I write something that someone else will attribute meaning, then I will have given of myself in exchange for receiving the satisfaction of telling my story.

Making Diversity Inclusive

Last week, I attended the AAC&U Modeling Equity, Engaging Difference Conference in Baltimore. The Associate Provost of Towson University in Baltimore and I put together a student panel to speak to diversity and equity. The Associate Provost and I were each responsible for identifying two students for the panel presentation, representing four different types of institutions, in total.

When I called my colleagues at two colleges to request two students to be on the panel, I only described the program and what the students would be asked to address. I did not specify any demographics about the students. While the Associate Provost and I had a phone conversation with the four students to discuss the presentation, we did not see the students until the day of the conference. One student was studying in the U.S. from Kenya; another student, the only male, was from Pakistan; and two Black students were from the Baltimore area. All of these students were leaders on their campuses and bright, ambitious, and very much engaged in their education.

The first question for the panel was, “What does diversity and equity mean to you?” I think the question is one that we as educators should ponder, and one for which we should be able to provide a response. While I was not surprised by there being no White student from the United States on the panel, a panel on diversity and equity that includes only students of color and international students may say that when we educators think of diversity and equity, we do not include White students. How can we help White students understand that diversity includes them if we do not behave as if we understand that diversity includes all of us?