Category Archives: Students

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.

Awakening to notions of who one is and what one believes

On Saturday, January 18, I went to “Awaken 2020” at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Arizona. Kanye West and his Sunday Service Choir performed for just about an hour of the 12-hour event. To describe what Kanye and the choir did as a performance does not nearly capture the impact they had on the thousands of people in the stadium.

Awaken 2020 in Tempe Arizona

Awaken 2020 in Tempe, Arizona,
from Awaken 2020 Facebook page

What struck me most was how the music of the Sunday Service Choir seemed to have the power to compel thousands of people to lose themselves in a common trance. On the jumbo video screens, we saw close-ups of the faces of individual choir members as the setting sun shone brightly on their uplifted faces; we heard the hypnotic and mesmerizing drum beats in the music that insisted that bodies move in sync; we responded to energetic invitations of the choir director to sing along; we stretched our arms to raise our right hands in unity.

There were other great gospel choirs before I arrived and, throughout the event, various people famous in particular arenas spoke their thoughts about Jesus, God, and the Bible, and gave testimonies of personal experiences of depths and heights.

As a participant observer, I was impressed not only by the power of the music spectacle to invoke ecstatic feelings among people as diverse as the universe, but also by how it caused me to reflect on the critical role a trusted mentor might play in helping one to discern messages.

What if someone were severely criticized by family and friends for attending Awaken 2020 because they did not trust the veracity of Kanye’s conversion? Having experienced such good feelings only to be admonished later by those closest could cause doubts and questions about who and what to believe.

I’m using Awaken 2020 and a possible subsequent experience to point out the benefits of college beyond exposure to facts and critical thinking based on a preordained curriculum. On college and university campuses, mentors are found, more often than not, in student affairs and among the faculty, administrators, and staff. Whether or not they see themselves formally in such a role, these “mentors” offer students of all ages the opportunity to share who they are beyond the traditions and often admonitions of family and long-time friends.

Stepping out beyond one’s inner circle is a way to learn the essential skills for a well-lived life. Being in a community of learners provides opportunities to constantly weigh opinions of others against personal beliefs. The act of daily living among people who are not one’s natural protectors gives students opportunities to self-determine what is important to their own well-being and their image of themselves as citizens in community with others. Whether on campus or online, college provides the context and laboratory to experiment with notions of who one is and what one believes in light of others’ opinions and perceptions.

I understand that a college education is not necessarily for everyone and no longer the defining asset for a financially successful life. But for those who elect and are fortunate enough to attend a college or university, what is learned in dialogue with others or when someone just listens helps one look inside oneself for the personal integrity necessary to glean the rightness of a situation or belief. These “aha” moments can also bring the wonder and awe of a religious experience.

What kinds of challenges will Student Affairs professionals address in the next five years?

It goes without saying that what is occurring in the larger environment will have an impact on the attitudes, beliefs, and motivations students bring to their college life. Regardless of the inevitable challenges to be addressed, I see a positive vision for the work of student affairs remaining committed to promoting learning and development of the whole student.

Change_coverTwo of the pillars on which my optimism is based are the flexibility and adaptability of student affairs in meeting the needs of all students and, upon reflection on years as a student affairs professional, what I have discovered about the nature of perennial challenges to be addressed. In my article for the 50th Anniversary edition of Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, I describe how many of these challenges appear to be predictable and finite in number, falling into the following categories:

  • Demographic change
  • Student activism
  • Resource constraints
  • Government intervention
  • Catastrophic events

When asked why they are so passionate about their work, student affairs professionals generally reflect on the opportunity to change students’ lives. In order to continue in this critical work, it is instructive to heed the lessons of the past in anticipating future challenges facing higher education.

We must realize the importance of external and internal environments and the likely reactions of colleges and universities to these stimuli. Student affairs – with prior awareness of these categories of challenges – has an opportunity to proactively and  innovatively create ways to blunt possible negative impacts and use the challenges as vehicles to address needed change or transformation.



Following are excerpts from an Accepted Manuscript of an article published by Taylor & Francis Group in 
Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning in 2018, available online: http://www.tandfonline.com/10.1080/00091383.2018.1509600.

Students and Student Affairs: Facing Perennial Challenges in Ever-changing Contexts

In reflecting on student affairs as an organizational entity within higher education, I am keenly aware of the impact of the environmental context on the strategic directions and responsibilities of professionals who do student affairs work. In this essay, I offer observations on how the environment has, over time, had an impact on the tenor and content of the work of student affairs.

A significant strength of student affairs has been its ability to adjust education and support strategies as students and the context in which they are learning change. Professional development and the diversity of backgrounds, skills, and routes into student affairs enable student affairs professionals to be flexible and adaptable in effective ways.

While those of us in student affairs and higher education often speak about “change” and “transformation,” we typically pivot and adjust when nudged. In fact, many of the challenges that bring about shifts and adjustments appear to be predictable and relatively few in number:

  • Demographic change is a constant;
  • Student activism ebbs and flows;
  • Resource constraints arise at unpredictable intervals;
  • Government intervention in higher education is as predictable as clockwork; and
  • Catastrophic events and crises demand concerted reactions.

The best hope for student affairs is that in responding to this perennial set of challenges we are innovative and generative in building on strengths. We must preserve best practices, learn about new perspectives, and create ways to more effectively and efficiently meet the needs of all students, all while promoting the overall mission of our particular institution.

Defining Student Affairs: Student Affairs through the Decades…

The Sixties and Seventies – Demographic Change and Student Activism

…As a result of the important roles student affairs played during the height of student activism and the Civil Rights Movement, as well as in the implementation of new government guidelines for student equity, student affairs could no longer be narrowly defined. Instead, student affairs administrators began to be seen as campus leaders who had their finger on the pulse of what students needed. They were indispensable to helping institutions address students’ demands and remain committed to the ideals of higher education and institutional mission. …

Another significant and unanticipated change was how student affairs professionals viewed their roles. …They emphasized the congruence between what was occurring in their programmatic interventions and theories on human development. These professionals claimed their roles as specialists who supported both academic success and personal development of students. …

The 1980s – Resource Constraints

Near the end of two turbulent decades marked by demographic change and student activism, the nation’s attention turned toward constraints on resources in the midst of a recession in the early 1980s. Additionally, fewer high school graduates threatened a decrease in college and university enrollment and, consequently, a reduction in revenues.

… some administrators were concerned that critical functions of student affairs might be in jeopardy if those making decisions about restructuring or eliminating programs did not understand how student affairs contributed to the mission of the institution.

In response, a group of leaders in what was then the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA) reexamined the 1937 Student Personnel Point of View. Fifty years after publication of this original philosophical statement that underpins the profession, this group of leaders reaffirmed in A Perspective on Student Affairs (1987) that the academic mission of the institution was preeminent, and the role of student affairs was to support this mission, as well as to address the affective and cognitive growth of students.

The 1990s – Student Affairs Educators and Expanding Diversity

With continuing changes in the demographics of students, the overarching goal of many colleges and universities during the 1990s was to reduce the achievement gap between newer populations of students and those who had traditionally had access to higher education.

Diversity – defined broadly to include LGBT students – was a priority for a critical mass of students in the 1990s.  Marginalized students advocated for their own spaces on campus, often housed in the student union or student center under the umbrella of student affairs. Student affairs and faculty worked closely together to facilitate intercultural dialogues. …

Approaching the Millennium – Constraints, Catastrophes, Crises

… the late 1990s were lean years for higher education. Resources were once again constrained. Following previous patterns, higher education took its cues from business: re-engineering, re-structuring, re-forming, and re-imagining organizational structures.…

During the last decade of the twentieth century and through the millennium, student affairs and higher education were influenced by national events that either threatened to be catastrophic (e.g., the Y2K scare) or were catastrophic. Campus communities felt the impact of the unthinkable tragedy that disrupted the entire nation on September 11, 2001 and shared in the nation’s collective grief. …

Adding to the anxiety students felt about the outside world, a mass shooting by a student at Virginia Tech in 2007 disrupted the apparent safety and security of colleges and universities. When this was followed shortly by another attack at Northern Illinois University, campus safety and security aspects of student affairs became more prominent. The challenge of creating preventive measures to keep students safe from attacks was more than a nudge.

The Twenty-first Century – The Old is New Again

…Calls for accountability required higher education to show evidence of effectiveness through data instead of anecdotes. Although assessment plans were being developed, it was difficult for student affairs to measure the effectiveness of interventions beyond head count and student reports of satisfaction…

While student affairs divisions were adjusting to new demands and needs of students in an atmosphere of external calls for accountability, …I convened a group of higher education graduate faculty, student affairs administrators and practitioners from both generalist student affairs associations, NASPA and ACPA, [which resulted in] the publication of Learning Reconsidered: A College-wide Focus on the Student Experience (2004). …

Student affairs professionals’ enthusiasm for the concepts and suggestions in Learning Reconsidered could not mask the reality of the 2008 recession. Student affairs made adjustments and shifts in order to accommodate new demands and resource constraints.  During this period student affairs professionals demonstrated their selflessness and commitment to students and their institutions. They shared ideas about how to use innovative approaches to do more with less, guided by the precepts of Learning Reconsidered.

Future Visions of Student Affairs

In the future, student affairs will be defined largely by advances in technology and by students themselves. …

Student demographics, especially the increasing age of college students, will have significant influence on how student affairs will provide educational support programs….

The second half of the twentieth century demonstrated how student activism ebbed and flowed. … Student affairs will continue to play a critical role in helping students acquire the tools and skills necessary to sustain the movement they have begun.

Conclusion

With institutional mission as a foundation, and educating the whole student as a basic principle, student affairs has had a key role in addressing the perennial challenges facing higher education. However, anticipating the same challenges is like looking to the past to predict the future. A strength of student affairs is learning about new perspectives. Dropping assumptions about students based on status such as the first in their family to attend college; what groups have been marginalized and privileged in the past; and the belief that education is the equalizer will enhance the ability of student affairs to be innovative and generative in building on strengths.

Finding new ways to integrate co-curricular experiences into academic course work will be the way to educate the whole student whose focus is on life after college. Listening intently and continuously to students and helping them find a way to help create the learning environment that is most congruent with their needs will help student affairs address perennial challenges and create opportunities to more effectively meet students where they are in order to help them reach their potential.

America to Me: A clear assessment of racial reality in America through the eyes of one student

Having grown up on the west side of Chicago, when I heard that there was going to be a documentary film that featured students at a high school in a suburb of Chicago, I wanted to see what it was about. Oak Park is an affluent white community just a few miles west of where I grew up. In miles, the distance between the west side and Oak Park was not great, but in racial and economic demographics, they might as well have been different countries.

During my years in high school, when people of color were seen in Oak Park, the assumption was that they were working in someone’s home or tending the yards, and not working in places of business or having a residence in the community. Decades after I finished high school and left Chicago, people of color began to move into Oak Park and many white people abandoned their homes to avoid living in a diverse community.

America to me starz documentary promo imageDuring the ten episodes of America to Me on the Starz network, filmmaker Steve James – known for making Hoop Dreams – and a diverse crew interviewed and filmed students during school and at home with their families.  They also filmed portions of Board of Trustees meetings. Some faculty were willing to be filmed in their classes and to be interviewed. I was impressed with the courage of faculty members who allowed themselves to be vulnerable for the sake of students, given that the leadership of the school and of the school system were not willing to be interviewed and were clearly not happy with the filming.

When I began watching the series, I was surprised that most of the students featured were students of color. If I’m recalling correctly, there were only two white students featured and two biracial students. One of the two white students in the film revealed that another white student told her that her parents refused to allow her to be part of the documentary because the film would probably be about white privilege. I found this comment interesting and telling because the school is known for its diversity and the current Oak Park community is considered politically liberal because these are the families that stayed as the community became more diverse.

During an interview on NPR with Joshua Johnson, host of The 1A, James revealed that in making the film he wanted to present America “principally through the eyes of students.” He said that he thought that black and biracial students in this generation were thinking about racial equity in what he saw as “extraordinary and deep ways.”

In addition to James, other guests interviewed by Johnson on The 1A were Amanda Lewis, Director for the Institute on Race and Public Policy at the University of Illinois, Chicago; David Stovall, professor of African American Studies and Educational Policy Studies at the University of Illinois, Chicago; and Charles Donalson, former student from Oak Park and River Forest High School.

Johnson asked his guests to comment on racial equity in public education. Dr. Stovall and Dr. Lewis spoke about redistribution of resources, opportunity hoarding, racial academic hierarchies, and such. Then the host asked Donalson his thoughts on racial equity in the following manner:

Charles, how do you see this? This difference when you were in high school, and I won’t ask you to speak for anyone’s high school but yours, but in terms of white students, students of color achievement. Those comments about students of color getting advantages just because of the color of their skin. Does that reflect your experience at all from high school or do you see it differently?

Here I am quoting Donalson as verbatim as possible because I don’t want to add to or subtract from his response:

Um, I think in general there is kind of like—There’s this blanket we put over white kids. It’s like they’re always going to be warm regardless of what happens. All of them are always going to be warm. When it comes to kids of color, there’s like, ok, we get like a whole bunch of sleeping bags, but we ain’t got one blanket for everybody and why some people get that sleeping bag, you know.

I definitely think for people like me and Gabe, who was also featured in the documentary, the school has prominent interest in us because of what we do with our extra-curriculars, so it was first already a thing. Ok. Well, we need to make sure those kids are good, you know, but for someone who isn’t in extra-curriculars, who doesn’t have any type of non-student-teacher relationship with any adult in the building, like it’s hard. They get trapped in between the margins because they don’t get the sleeping bag I was talking about. They’re not even considered to get one. And I think that’s the whole thing right there. It’s blankets versus sleeping bags.

Whereas all the white kids, all those kids who come from those types of homes, have stakes in the school, their parents are big funders, their siblings went there, whatever. Luckily I found Spoken Word.

As I listened to the student’s response, I wondered if Donalson realized the profundity of his analogy for white privilege. The image of a blanket brings to mind the comfort and warmth of a bed, togetherness, and everyone being covered. By contrast, the image of sleeping bags is one of being on the floor or ground, a feeling of discomfort, and each person being alone. There are never enough sleeping bags for everyone.

After hearing the student’s comments in response to a question about racial equity, I went to the Langston Hughes poem from which the title of the documentary is taken and read and reread this stanza:

Oh, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

Langston Hughes
Let America Be America Again

This documentary series is hard to watch for those who know, and can be insightful for those who want to know. Most encouraging is the idea that the grandparents and parents of these current students started the Civil Rights Movement, and this new generation will carry it forward with a clear-eyed assessment of racial reality in America.

Enrollment Management: Integrated from Beginning to End

waiting graduates in cap and gowns - African American student facing camera

Source: Flickr/ via U.S. Department of Education (CC BY 2.0)

Enrollment managers hold an important and key role to helping colleges and universities enhance the student experience. Every institution has them. They are key players not only in helping the institution meet enrollment goals, but graduation goals as well. These professionals share values and accountabilities with faculty and student affairs, as well as every functional area of the college or university. They are, therefore, favorably positioned to help faculty, staff, and administrators provide the return on investment that today’s students expect.

Several years ago, I was to be the commencement speaker at a college. It was a bright sunny day, and there were rows and rows of people as far as I could see. The stage was full of robed dignitaries and student speakers. I was one of the two African Americans on stage – both getting honorary degrees. In addition to my being unnerved by my own audacity in accepting the role of commencement speaker, the other African American who was receiving an honorary degree was none other than the excellent speaker and brilliant astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson! To say that I was anxious is an understatement.

Once the preliminary remarks and introductions were over, students’ names began to be called. As they walked across the stage, I forgot about my own stage fright and began to enjoy the celebration. As each student’s name was called and the happy student walked across the stage to receive the diploma and shake hands with administrators, some were beaming with grins and others were crying tears of joy.  I was so happy for them that my face began to hurt from smiling so broadly for so long.

I noticed that the line that had been going rather swiftly up to the point of shaking hands with the administrators was backed up where students were exiting the stage on my far right. I peered around to see what was happening and saw that, as the students were exiting the stage, an admissions professional was standing where the students descended, smiling, shaking hands, fist bumping, high fiving, and being enthusiastically hugged by many of the graduates. I smiled and thought to myself how right and fitting that the first person students encountered during the critical time of choosing this college was there to congratulate them as they graduated.

The idea of being there at the beginning and at the end makes me recall a conversation I had with a student at this same college who had been told that he should take this college off his list of possibilities for all the usual reasons first-generation students might not attend highly selective colleges. The student, however, left the college on his list and his high school counselor scheduled an appointment at the high school with someone from the Office of Admissions. He was late for the appointment and the admissions director asked him why. Usually reticent to talk about himself, especially with strangers, this simple inquiry from the admissions director opened the door for him to share more about himself than he ever would have expected. He thought his chances were not great for being accepted and, if he were accepted, he knew he could not afford to attend. He couldn’t even afford a trip for a campus visit. To make a long story short, he was accepted, received a scholarship, and received funds to visit the campus. Seeing the campus was love at first sight for this student. But something was bothering him.

He said he hated systems and didn’t want to be just another number in an affirmative action system where he wasn’t really seen for who he was. He said that this feeling was a like a cloud overshadowing all the good that was coming his way.

He told me that, early during his first semester, he had an occasion to see the admissions director who interviewed him at his high school. She remembered him and everything they had talked about. He was amazed that she remembered him, and this made him feel good. Shortly after the conversation with this admissions director, he had an encounter with another director from the admissions office. When the director learned the student’s name, he said with a friendly smile, “Oh, yes, I remember reading your essay.” The student said that he thought, “Wow! Maybe I’m not just a number in a system after all.” The student said that these same admissions directors reached out to him to see how he was doing throughout the semester. He said that their genuine attention was a strong motivator for him to do well because his family was in another country and had no idea what life was like for him as a college student in the United States. I can imagine the long hug at the end of the line during commencement when this student crosses the stage and sees his admissions directors.

So, if you find yourself confounded by how different your incoming class is than previous classes of students, don’t wait for the next popular publication: talk with your colleagues in enrollment management. They can give you information about students who are attending your college or university rather than a generic broad-brush description of a new generation of students.

Enrollment managers, more than anyone else on campus, know why students choose to come to a given college or university. It would serve institutions well, then, if enrollment management staff were significantly integrated within the academic community. We all know that a major reason why students do not persist in college is because their expectations are not met. Congruence between expectations and what students find is what is ultimately called “fit.” We speak of “fit” during the recruitment process, but “fit” is really not determined until the retention process is in play.

Professionals in enrollment management do much more than recruit students and provide a pathway to aid. They share the responsibility for students’ success with every other part of the academic enterprise.

It’s Complicated…

I was listening to Neil Pasricha, host of the Three Books podcast out of Toronto, interview American author Gretchen Rubin about the three books that had been most formative in her life. I was surprised to hear that her number one book was the same as mine. Unlike me, she was unabashedly enthusiastic to share that the book that had had the most impact on her as she developed was The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. Her enthusiasm caused me to think about how I have been embarrassed to let people know that the Franklin book had a profound influence on me as I was growing up.

Considering the optics, sensibilities, and expectations of being black in the United States, if asked to name a book that helped shaped the character of who I am, I might be tempted to name a book by and about a woman, at minimum, and optimally by and about a black woman who is known for her race work.

On one occasion, as an adult, when asked about a book that had the greatest impact on me as a child, I revealed that the book was the Benjamin Franklin autobiography. I expected that some would find my response humorous. Instead, I was questioned about why I would choose a book about the life of a racist.

Whether or not he was a racist is not the purpose of my comments here. The podcast and the mention of The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin brought to mind how some AHANA [African, Hispanic, Asian and Native American] students today feel burdened by the expectation that they must be motivated and act according to their perceived identity group.

Some students say that if they are identified as AHANA students, there is an expectation that they socialize primarily with other AHANA students even if they feel that their experiences and their preferences are more similar to other students. They say that they feel pressure to be on the same page politically as their identity group. They say it’s hard to find their niche and risk being judged no matter what they do.

In one of my conversations with an African American student, the student seemed to agonize in attempts to explain the difficulty of feeling free to be an individual in a diverse and politically divided community. After several thoughtful pauses and seemingly at a loss to describe the depth of feelings, the student gave up and said,  “It’s complicated.”

Allowing Room for New Growth

When I arrived as Dean at this community college, the staff surprised me with a corn plant as a welcome gift. It was a tiny little thing that, over the years, grew to over seven feet tall, nearly touching the ceiling. I loved the plant both because my colleagues gave it to me and because it was so hardy and beautiful. During one winter, I was surprised to see that the tips of the leaves had begun to turn brown, and brown and yellow spots appeared intermittently throughout the leaf structure.

As the winter progressed, the spots became more prominent and the plant looked as if it were not going to survive. Despite my inexperience in resuscitating plants, I became more attentive to my corn plant. I changed the size of the pot to allow the roots to spread; I put fertilizer on the plant for the first time; and I watered it when it seemed to need it instead of when I just happened to think about watering it.

cornplantInterestingly, as unsightly as the plant became, it continued to grow tall. One day, while leaning in close to water the plant, I noticed something next to the bottom of the stem just barely on top of the soil. Upon closer inspection, I realized that it was a tiny shoot. What amazed me was that it had the shape of a fully developed corn plant. It was the tiniest corn plant one could imagine.

While I continued to attend to the ailing larger plant, within months, the tiny shoot grew to nearly half the size of the original plant. The new plant was hardy with thick green leaves. In the meantime, the original plant began to bend its stem away from the new plant. This allowed room for the new plant to spread its leaves in new growth. I didn’t know what to make of it, but it seemed that the original plant had nurtured a new version of itself. I thought to myself that this was a perfect example of a transmutation.

What I think is happening in higher education today is like the transmutation of my corn plant. To some observers, higher education seems impaired and not as healthy as it once was. Yet, it continues to grow because of grant-funded research, exemplary scholarship by star faculty, increased endowments generated by gifted fundraisers, and increased numbers of students seeking a degree as a way to move a step up on the economic ladder.

If higher education leans in closely, as I did when I discovered the tiny new plant, it will see that it must recast its role to actually and truly put students at the center of the enterprise. Putting students at the center requires meeting students where they are today. Where they are today includes expecting that their unique place in history and their stage in development will be respected. While they share some commonalities with all students, they will not allow the system to paint them with the same brush.

Common among today’s students is the fact that they are learners, as well as producers of knowledge. Therefore, they want the kind of partnership with colleges and universities that will enable them to negotiate a better match between their personal goals and their desire to be activist citizens in the current social movement.

Colleges and universities can learn, and will, like the dying corn plant, know how to nurture its rebirth by bending away from some of its practices and traditions in order to become congruent with the needs of a new culture that is demanding something different.

Outlets for addressing psychic violence

You might say it’s generalized paranoia or an unusually heightened sensitivity to slights, but if you were born Black in the American South like I was, seeing the indignities of Jim Crow laws heaped upon one’s parents and grandparents day in and day out, every word and gesture of White people would be filtered through the cheesecloth of racism leaving a residue of threat. Racism is not only about skin color: I see it as using perceived power to deny other humans their rights, dignity, and respect.

Recently, a friend and I were on a small intimate tour of a man-made lake in the Southwest. We were the only people of color among the tour group; the tour guides also were White. For the tour, we were all seated at tables inside the boat. To begin, one of the two tour guides visited each table to find out where everyone was from. For easy reference, the guide wrote the various places down. Using a microphone, the guide recognized each table by saying where everyone was from and who came the furthest for the tour and who was the closest to home.

When the guide did not point to our table or call out our state, I raised my hand and, with a smile, proudly said, “We’re from Maryland!” Rather than apologizing for leaving our table off the list or making a self-effacing comment to account for the omission, the guide said, in what I thought was a begrudging or dismissive tone, “Maryland wants to be recognized.” Hmm, I thought. I see you.

The tour was just beginning and I was not going to dwell on what probably was just an innocent omission. The guide might have been having a bad day, as we all do at one time or another. I willed myself to be upbeat and told myself to remember the prevailing racist refrain, “Everything is not about race.”

There was a table with two elderly couples directly behind the table where my friend and I sat. While not intentionally listening to their conversation, our tables were close enough for me to hear bits and pieces of what they said. Some of the conversation was about unwelcome people in their neighborhood, such as folks who liked to ride motorcycles and the influx of gangs in nearby areas.

As the conversation progressed, one of the men said that he used to work with a Black man who did not have a car, and he would drive the man to a place to get his check cashed and then drive him home. I don’t recall his exact words, but he conveyed that he was uneasy at first about going into a Black neighborhood. He ended the story by saying that no one bothered him and nothing ever happened to him. Hmm, I thought. I see you.

My back was to the man, so I never saw his face, but I knew that the person telling this next story was the same person who spoke of his experience of going into a Black neighborhood. In this story, he and his girlfriend, many years ago, were in a crowd of Black people at some entertainment event and a riot started. He talked about how the Black people surrounded him and his girlfriend and got them to safety. As I sat there, I was wondering why this man was talking about his experiences with Black people. Was my friend’s and my proximity a trigger for these memories? Hmm, I thought. I see you.

As the tour progressed, the guides gave interesting facts about our location. When there was a negative fact about some blunder or catastrophic event that occurred near the site we were viewing, a woman at the same table of four directly behind us would say in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear, “It must have been a Democrat!” I was shocked that she would do this during these times that are so politically polarized. Why was this woman making this comment? Hmm, I thought. I see you.

As I worked it out in my mind, I concluded without much effort that this woman was making the assumption that my African American friend and I were Democrats, and she was heckling us. My first instinct was to turn around and give the rude woman a look that I hoped she would interpret as my calling her an “idiot!” As she kept up the harangue about incompetence being equated with being a Democrat, I wanted to engage the woman in dialogue about why she had this opinion about Democrats, and why she thought it was necessary to comment out loud in this setting. I resisted the urge to turn around or say anything.

After the tour, my friend and I talked about what happened on the boat. I said that I felt as if I had been psychically assaulted because, whether I wanted to or not, I gave energy to thoughts about whether or not my experience on the tour had anything to do with race. I felt singled out and harassed, but mostly I felt impotent and powerless to even use my words.

In the September 3, 2017, The Chronicle Review, assistant professor Jason N. Blum wrote an article titled, “Don’t Bow to Blowhards: It’s worthy speech, not free speech, that matters most.” Thinking about this experience on the boat, his words resonated powerfully with me:

Political preferences now function powerfully as identities, driving divisions that can be deeper than those defined by religion or race. The demarcation between words and actions has blurred, as psychologists and activists argue that language itself can be a form of violence.

Students are being assaulted daily by antagonistic rhetoric fomented by the current divisive political environment. They have to use brain space and energy to decipher if their negative experiences are acts of racism and, more importantly, whether they should react or not.

After the boat experience, I found an outlet for my feelings when I talked with my friend. And when I write about experiences such as this, I have an opportunity to do more processing and critical self-talk. Students also need a place to talk about what is happening to them, how they feel about it, and what, if any, actions they might take.

Listening groups, or whatever name fits the culture of your institution, are essential support services for students’ mental health. In addition to providing a place to be heard, such groups offer students an opportunity to practice skills that lead to effective interpersonal communications and intercultural competence. These groups can be built into classroom time as a laboratory or they can be part of the cocurriculum outside of class. If students are to maximize their learning and experience, they will need a way to attend to their emotional disruptions and psychic wounds caused, in part, by the current complex climate.