Category Archives: Student Affairs

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.

Don’t let negativity hijack your focus: It’s all about students

When I was growing up, I was taught never to use the word “HATE.” It was the four-letter word that was taboo in our family. Whenever I would use the word, it was usually about some chore that I didn’t want to do. If my grandmother was within earshot of my profanity, she would say, “Honey, we don’t use that word in this family. Find another word.” Growing up this way makes the word “HATE” especially heinous and destructive to me.

Imagine how I must have felt when, as Dean of Student Development, I was told by four different administrators in the course of one week that a top-level administrator who was my boss’ boss “HATED” me. Naturally, I ruminated about what I had been told. Realizing that running these negative messages over and over in my mind was crippling me emotionally, I had to find a way to get back to what I had been focusing on before I received these messages.

The first thing I did to get out of the rumination rut was to reflect on what may have caused this person to express hatred toward me to other people. Thinking as objectively as possible about my last interactions with the person, I could understand why this person might not be happy with me. I had dared, in a meeting of several administrators, to strenuously disagree about an impending decision regarding student activities funds. Despite the fact that I thought I was in the right position on the matter, upon reflection, I could imagine that this person, by dent of the position held, would be extremely angry with me. For my part, I concluded that there were more effective ways with fewer negative consequences that I should consider when reacting to positions in opposition to my own. Nonetheless, for the administrator to express hatred toward me seemed over the top.

I then considered how I might put this situation in perspective because the backlash of my own behavior had distracted me from my goal of being the most effective administrator I could be. I didn’t think an apology would be accepted, and I couldn’t reveal how I knew that the administrator was angry beyond the pale. I thought my best way forward was to refocus on the expectations and responsibilities of my job.

When I look back at what I accomplished during this period of serious distraction, I might have intuitively known that I needed to shine brightly in bringing value to the college through my efforts to support students. I was realistic enough to know that I might be fired if I did not bring the kind of value that was over and above expectations. Receiving evaluations of “exceeds expectations” in the stated responsibilities of the positions would have been fine for most people, but I knew that I needed to bring more to the table.

I was already working as hard as I could, having accepted the added responsibility of being one of the academic deans in addition to being the Dean of Student Development. Having two entirely different staffs and two separate offices, working hard not to drop the ball in either area of responsibility, was hard and exhilarating. Having responsibility for some of the faculty, as well as the counselors and advisers in Student Development, put me in the best position possible to do what we all wanted in regards to supporting students.

I threw myself into trying the impossible, such as bringing faculty and counseling advisers together for student academic advising. The gods looked upon us with favor when a popular faculty member and an influential counselor coordinated the joint advising effort in a space dedicated for this collaboration. Despite the fact that this effort was fraught for a number of reasons, we were all passionately committed to how the collaboration would benefit all students.

During this same period, I initiated something else that kept me from being distracted by the negative messages I was receiving. I approached the director of the county schools’ program for gifted and talented students to pitch the idea of a Middlestart Program. The county schools’ director and I brought the idea to our respective institutions and the program was embraced by faculty, staff, and administrators from the college and from the county schools. It was not long before 50 junior high school students were taking summer courses taught by our college faculty. In addition to the courses, students were receiving an excellent orientation to college and would hopefully consider our college in the future.

I have reason to believe that anyone who is a member of an academic community, whether on college and university campuses or in association work, may find themselves distracted by negative interpersonal issues that block creativity and enthusiasm for one’s work. Knowing that I was contributing to larger goals in significant ways worked for me. Focusing on initiatives and being exhilarated by the challenge of doing two full-time jobs boosted my confidence and sense of safety despite functioning in an environment that was anything but nurturing. Though my focus might have been hijacked momentarily, remembering that my raison d’etrewas all about students removed all traces of the distractions resulting from messages about my being hated.