Category Archives: Student Affairs

April Was the Cruelest Month

Many of us will remember where we were and what we were doing on April 16, 2007, when we learned about the unspeakable tragedy of the campus murders and subsequent suicide at Virginia Tech.

At the time, I was executive director of NASPA. I was grabbing lunch at a restaurant with the incoming president of the board of directors, Dr. Jan Walbert, vice president for student affairs at Arcadia University.  I was looking forward to a scheduled meeting with her university president in the afternoon, in which I would give her “boss” a sense of the importance and far-reaching influence of Dr. Walbert’s volunteer position with NASPA.

The tragedy at Virginia Tech altered the trajectory of Dr. Walbert’s year as president of the board of directors. Within weeks after the mass shooting, Dr. Walbert was giving testimony at a congressional hearing in response to their request for guidance on what campuses could do regarding effective emergency preparedness with the potential of increasing the safety of students and the campus community.

I say “potential” because it’s not possible to predict or prevent violence. Indeed, within the year, another tragedy would occur at Northern Illinois University. What can be done is to provide requested resources in order for mental health professionals to be as accessible as possible to the increasing number of students who need and seek help. What we were reminded of in the wake of these campus shootings is that the median age of onset for mental illness is in the range of late teens through the early 20s, with young adults aged 18-25 years having the highest prevalence of any mental illness, and this doesn’t take into account the effects of a yearlong pandemic.

In an Inside Higher Ed survey of student affairs leaders conducted by Gallup in 2020:

  • 78 percent of student affairs leaders said the number of campus visits to mental health professionals had ‘increased a lot’ in the last five years, and
  • 63 percent said the same for the number of students on prescription medicine for mental health issues.

When these leaders were asked about the issues on which they had spent a significant amount of time during the past year, 93 percent at public institutions and 96 percent at private institutions listed student mental health.

Even before the pandemic, mental health had been an increasing issue for college and university students for more than five years. When students return to campuses, their need for services may be greater than ever before, and the need will have to be met. No college or university wants to experience what Virginia Tech went through during the cruel month of April 2007.

The Prime Need of the Hour

Mary McLeod Bethune

In promoting the importance of education, Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955)—educator, activist, African American hero, and founder of Bethune-Cookman University, among many other notable accomplishments—said, “Knowledge is the prime need of the hour.”

Whether in the 19th, 20th, or 21st century, knowledge continues to be the prime need of the hour. Considering the dark hours we have seen recently, it is particularly alarming to read that “Degree-seeking enrollments in U.S. higher education have been down for 10 consecutive years” (Brandon Busteed, “21 stats for 2021 That All Higher Ed Leaders Should Know,” Forbes, Jan 4, 2021).

Notwithstanding this ominous trend, and despite the criticism about how both K-12 and higher education are failing Black students, “almost half of Black high school students reported that they were ‘very sure’ they’d go to college to pursue a bachelor’s degree. Among students in the lowest income quintile, Black high school students were the most likely to express that certainty” (Sara Weissman, “ACE Supplementary Report Paints a “Stark Picture” of Higher Education’s Racial Inequities,” Diverse Issues in Higher Education, Nov 19, 2020).

Reading about Black students who, against all odds, have a desire for pursuing higher education should be the impetus for a shift in the dominant way of thinking about low-income Black students. If a student wants to learn and makes it to a campus, it must be the duty of higher education to create the conditions for the student to achieve. Of course, we must not ignore the barriers students encounter along the way, but we can, perhaps, take a moment to be encouraged and take a break from obsessing about statistics that focus only on achievement gaps and noncompletion rates of low-income Black students.  

U.S. Education Secretary nominee Miguel Cardona

U.S. Education Secretary Nominee Miguel Cardona echoed these thoughts in his nomination acceptance speech, saying, “For far too long, we’ve let college become inaccessible to too many Americans for reasons that have nothing to do with their aptitude or their aspirations and everything to do with cost burdens, and, unfortunately, an internalized culture of low expectations.”

Abandoning perpetual psychological pessimism and encouraging hope at this hour are dimensions of a new reality for Black students and higher education.

Campus Climate: The Significance of Thoughts and Feelings

It used to make me angry and demoralized to think that my race, gender, assumed economic position, body image, sexual identity, religion, or my divergence from commonly accepted standards of beauty could diminish the power of my contributions, whether in public speaking, writing, or being part of a group where I was the minority. These prejudices were wrong and will never be right. In hindsight, though, I am grateful for the results these challenges afforded me.

I think that these challenges and experiences have…

  • been invaluable in enhancing my desire and capacity to learn about the lives and experiences of others, especially those who are often described as “marginalized;”
  • deepened my well of empathy and compassion for others;
  • honed my skills in identifying and supporting individuals and groups who feel that they don’t belong and are not valued; and
  • fueled my resolve to be ever diligent in remaining self-aware in my interactions with others.

Recalling and reflecting on my experiences leads me to conclude that they have been instrumental in making me the person I am, for which I’m grateful. However, the intellectual analysis is only part of the reflection:

  • The feelings of pain, humiliation, and anger are easily relived when I recall how vulnerable I felt as a student. I sometimes wonder how I might have achieved at my university if I had not feared and distrusted my academic adviser, who was also one of my professors.
  • These feelings were magnified within me because I felt that assumptions were being made about my intellectual abilities leading to questions about whether or not I had the right to walk the grounds and enter the classrooms.
  • The times when I felt worse were those times when I was made to feel invisible.

Recalling my feelings and thinking as I do now, I’m encouraged that many colleges and universities are taking their role as humanist institutions seriously by taking giant steps to create a campus climate where no one—faculty, staff, student, or administrator—will feel as I often felt on college and university campuses in each of these roles.  

Pushing on…

Despite intermittent squalls, heavy rains, and poor visibility, students, faculty, staff, and administrators push on in preparing for what used to be the beginning of the traditional academic year.

Why students push on

To increase their learning, which contributes to the development of the means to challenge the fairness of the distribution of power and thereby contribute to the fulfillment of the promise in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all [people] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

Why faculty push on

To provide learners the opportunity to develop critical-thinking tools in order to discern for themselves whether or not there is a systematic plan to stratify people into groups where some are always the most needy.

Why professional staff push on

To provide the environment in which students have the opportunity to create experiences that will help them develop the skills to speak up about inequities and lead communities in public problem solving so necessary for a democracy.

Why support staff push on

To provide the safety net of strong, sometimes invisible, sinews that hold the academic community together.

Why administrators push on

To demonstrate strong leadership in turbulent times because our hope is in a new generation of leaders who can help the nation move toward the fulfillment of the promise in the Preamble to the Constitution: “We the People of the United States…promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”

 

Do You Know Where You’re Going To?

orientation_SLCCM79It’s 1979. I’m at St. Louis Community College at Meramec, a suburb outside of St. Louis and it’s my turn to be the lead counselor in planning the fall semester orientation. All students are required to attend orientation, followed by a one-on-one session with an educational adviser or counselor in order to select their course schedule for the semester.

In satisfaction surveys across colleges and universities, orientation always fared poorly. Students didn’t want to take the time to attend and when they were required to attend, they often rated it as poor and a waste of time. Ever the optimist and striver, I wanted the orientation that I planned to be different than some of those I had suffered through along with students in previous years.

I had two objectives in mind as I planned the program. First, I didn’t want the program to be boring, so I needed something that was a little unusual. Second, and most importantly, I wanted the program to meet students where I thought their heads were when they decided to attend the community college.

Although mostly white, the students were diverse in age and background. Similar to today’s students, the one thing they had in common was their desire to acquire the necessary credentials to meet their career aspirations although many had no idea just what that eventual career might be.

The setting for the orientation was a large meeting room on the second floor of the Student Center. Following the orientation presentation, students would sit across from educational advisers and counselors at long rectangular tables where they would discuss their desired courses and schedule.

As my colleagues entered the room prior to the students, they exchanged glances with one another; some smiled and some rolled their eyes upon hearing the theme song from the 1975 film Mahogany starring Diana Ross, Billy Dee Williams, and Anthony Perkins. I was sure the students would know the lyrics, since Diana Ross’ rendition of the theme song had been more popular and successful than the film, but just in case I had the opening and most pertinent lyrics on a screen at the front of the room:

Do you know where you’re going to?
Do you like the things that life is showing you?
Where are you going to? Do you know?
Do you get what you’re hoping for?
When you look behind you, there’s no open doors.
What are you hoping for?

I chose this song because I wanted to encourage students to think about their future goals and not just the immediate courses they would take during the semester.

Using a cassette tape recorder turned up to the highest volume, I clicked through images on a slide projector to encourage students to think about connecting what courses they were planning to take with what their eventual career might be.

orientation_slides

As antiquated, hokey, and uncool as this effort might have been, I believe that my intention was on target. If students could not yet imagine a career, my goal was to let them know that it was okay to feel confused and that there were specific steps they could take to better understand where they were headed.

After a decade of one-on-one and group counseling and career advising of community college students, I realized that many of our students had no previous help in connecting what they were being taught with how these courses would help them in attaining a career. Many students saw college as one of the hoops to jump through for a better life, after which they needed to figure out what career they wanted.

Although St. Louis Community College at Meramec was better resourced with staff than many community colleges, counselors could not serve all the students who sought career counseling help when they were well into their college career. In addition to offering one-on-one and group career counseling, the Counseling Center created an efficient self-serve career resource center that included one of the first in the nation experiments with computer-assisted career counseling. Even with all these resources committed, there were still long waiting lists for students to see counselors about their career goals.

We know that when students can connect what they’re learning with what they need to know for a possible career, their confidence in their own abilities and their motivation to learn increase. Colleges today with reduced resources and increasingly high demand for career services will need to decentralize the responsibility for the career support process. This decentralization needs to be done broadly and consistently, enlisting a combination of personnel and online tools to help students organize their steps to decision making, preparation, and implementation of plans.

Helping students along their journey to work–life fulfillment is a continuing and ongoing process with better tools and more evidence of the need today than we had in 1979.