Category Archives: Students

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.

Low-income High School Graduates

once upon a time, printed on white paper

Eric Hoover’s article, “Where the Journey to College is No Fairy Tale(Chronicle of Higher Education, June 19, 2017), provides a glimpse into the harsh reality of students who don’t even make it to the starting line to become first-generation college students. Students with tremendous potential – who could begin the pattern and set the standard for siblings and generations to come of family members attending college – are often left on the sidelines at the time of high school graduation because, even with financial aid, they are unable to attend the college to which they have been accepted.

And it’s not just finances. I’ve spoken with students whose families were  unable to give them any kind of support because they did not understand the requirements of the college admissions process, nor did they have any idea about what their student would experience once in college. I’ve spoken with students who navigated the entire application and FAFSA process without any assistance from a family member or counselor. Students who have a tireless and dedicated counselor are indeed fortunate. But, as Hoover’s article points out, there are limits to what a counselor can do. In the end, it comes down to how much financial assistance students are able to garner.

In addition to financial aid and other college support, there are charitable organizations that raise funds to help local low-income students begin college. With financial assistance from multiple sources, some students are able to cobble together enough for tuition, fees, and books for the first semester or year. During this first year, they often work while taking a full load of classes to have enough money for living expenses. If these students are unable to continue college to graduation, they feel as if they have failed; the college questions whether or not the support services provided were adequate; and the charitable organization that raised funds to help the student becomes discouraged, thinking that students they help might not be giving their all to succeeding in college.

In figuring out what else students need to continue on to degree attainment, the tendency is to look for the no-cost answers, such as the need to assign role models, coaches, and mentors to low-income students. Although I am a strong proponent of all types of support and encouragement for students, without realistic and adequate financial support, students from low-income families are not going to get to the starting line. And without realistic and adequate financial support beyond the first year, those who are able to reach the starting line may not be able to cross the finish. If you talk with low-income students like those Hoover found in his visit to Seagoville High School, you will find that financial insecurity is a major barrier to a college education.

It’s daunting to think about how much is required to fully support a college student today. But, if the longer term entire expense is not factored into the plan for the student to attain the degree, there is a high probability of loss regarding goal achievement. Of course, there are the lucky students who find a way to hang on despite the financial hardship. However, luck is a risky gamble – one that many low-income students understandably don’t think they can afford to take.

Untapped Resource for First-Generation, Low-Income Students

You send a notice to faculty and staff who you think are more aware of who the first-generation low-income students are on campus. You ask them to please let students know that there will be an opportunity for first-generation and low-income students to have a conversation about their college experience with a visitor to campus who has a special interest in this population of students, and, of course, there will be refreshments.

The demographics represented at the meeting include White, Latinx, African American, and Asian. As the students introduce themselves, it seems that half the students are neither first-generation nor low-income. As part of their introduction, some of their responses about why they chose to come to this conversation include the following:

“I’m not first-gen or low-income. I came because I want to hear about the experiences of first-generation students in order to find out what I might be able to do to make the campus more welcoming and inclusive.”

“I’m not first-gen or low-income. I want to learn more about first-generation students because I plan to teach and work with students who may be first-generation students, and I want to learn as much as I can.”

“I’m a first-generation college student and I came in order to meet other first-generation students and to learn more about the university from their perspective.”

“I’m not first-generation low-income but it has been extremely challenging for me to find other people of color for my friend group. I had to ask people and hunt for people of color.”

“I’m not first-generation and I’ve never had to worry about money for college, but I want to know where to put my efforts as a gay White man. I want to share my voice and perspective and I’m wondering how that might play out in class and on campus.”

“I’m a first-generation low-income student and I came to encourage other first-gen students to join a new group I’m forming that will be a First-Generation Student Union or Club.”

“I’m White and I can’t imagine how it must be for students who are not White. I want to learn about their experience.”

“I’m a first-generation low-income student, and I came to the meeting to open up to other people about my background and my experience at the University.”

When we have the spotlight on first-generation college students, we may tend to think about the many degrees of separation possible between them and their more privileged peers. We may need to facilitate their coming together to discover shared connections such as valuing equity and social justice.

Colleges and universities are making progress in understanding that it’s not just first-generation students who need to adapt to the college; the institution must adapt to students, as well. Creating a climate that fosters a sense of belonging for all students is the responsibility of all within the community, and special programs for first-generation, low-income students cannot be successful without collaboration on goals across the institution.

First-generation, low-income students tell us that they want faculty to reach out to them and not place the entire burden on students to become involved and engaged. Who else should reach out? A source that might not be tapped is those students who are not first-generation, low-income students, but have a desire to be active in creating a more welcoming and inclusive campus but don’t know how they can have an impact.

When a diverse group of students from widely varying backgrounds and college experiences can come together to share their stories and experiences, we may want to add this to our inventory of ways to reduce intangible institutional barriers to the academic success and positive college experience for first-generation, low-income students.