Category Archives: Race & Ethnicity

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Dream…moving forward but not yet realized

When I read Katherine Mangan’s January 19, 2015 article in The Chronicle titled “Scholars and Activists Speak Out About Why ‘Black Life Matters,” more than what the faculty said, I was impressed because the young people appeared to be African American and faculty.

This combination is still rare even today so many years after Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. It was clear that three out of four of the speakers/activists spotlighted had a faculty appointment. There was a professor, two assistant professors, and I want to believe that the director of higher education research and initiatives at Penn’s Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education also had a faculty appointment.

I am hopeful that young African Americans are choosing higher education as the place to use their talents and that universities and colleges are realizing their value.

I know that there should be many more worthy African Americans in highly valued faculty positions, and it would be nice if there were more professors than there are.

Acknowledging these realities, perhaps we are reaching a point where universities won’t have to steal star African American academics from their peers because there are too few available.

Perhaps we are reaching a point where one does not have to be “the only” African American in a department in order to be valued for what one can contribute. And perhaps on this day when we reflect on what MLK Day means to us, we can look at the parts of the dream that are being realized.

The young professors in the Mangan article are just beginning their climb up the academic ladder, and they may experience some challenges along the way. My hope is that they and others like them will not be discouraged to the point where they will leave higher education.

They have a foothold and others who follow them and those who have been on the margins of higher education will need to follow the path that these fine young academics are charting.

We are moving forward, but we’re not there yet given that I was still struck by the fact that these young African Americans are on the faculty in higher education.

What does welcome look like? Expectations of a multicultural campus

Demographic diversity does not define a multicultural campus.

Different cultures living in the same space do not make a multicultural campus.

A multicultural campus has expectations of members of the academic community. These expectations include all members – especially students – contributing to a welcoming and supportive environment.

Members of the academic community are not always aware of what welcome looks and feels like, and they often do not know that they are responsible for it.

I have been on many campuses this fall and, on one campus, I was looking out of a window just above where a student orientation leader or student adviser was giving remarks before beginning a campus tour. All the students taking the tour were white except for one black student with long braids who stood to the extreme right of the group on the front row.

During this beginning part of the tour, the guide never looked toward the black student. The tour guide had long hair that covered or shielded the right side of her face, and she never turned her head to see around the hair, therefore blocking off all vision of those on the extreme right where the one black student happened to be standing.

The black student might not have been welcomed and the student might not have felt welcome. The guide might not have been aware of how it might seem when she never looked toward this student.

This is why it’s necessary to make all members of the academic community who represent the college aware of what welcome looks and feels like. Something as simple as a student tour guide making eye contact with everyone could make the difference in whether or not a prospective or new student feels welcome and whether or not the guide is contributing to the culture of a multicultural campus.