Category Archives: Students

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.

 

 

Effectively supporting first-generation students

Like many, I was a first-generation college student whose family lacked the economic means to send me to college. With a state tuition scholarship from high school, loans, campus jobs, and help from my friends, I was able to attend and graduate from Eastern Illinois University (EIU).

First-generation students were probably the majority of students at state colleges and universities in the Midwest when I first attended college, but unlike today, most of the first-generation students then were not minority, low-income, or students who were new in the United States.

Today, students whose parents have had no postsecondary education or experiences are given the opportunity to participate in pre-college programs while in high school, and the equity-minded colleges these students attend often provide special programs to ease the transition from high school into college. Committed to their success, colleges who identify students as first-generation generally provide special support programs that include advising, tutoring, and opportunities for engagement with the broader academic and local community.

All first-generation students are not the same. As I recall my experience as a first-generation college student, it was another identity that distinguished some of my peers and me and caused us to experience college differently than other first-generation students. Being a Black college student on a White college campus less than a decade after the Brown v. Board of Education decision compounded the obstacles already inherent to my success as a first-generation student.

I was not aware of any special programs to help level the playing field. Upon reflection, however, I realize that for me, more important than a special program would have been a concerted effort by the college to create an inclusive and welcoming environment. I believe the president wanted Black and other first-generation students to feel welcome, but it takes every individual in the academic community to create such an environment.

I can’t speak for other Black students who were my peers, but I dreaded going to the faculty advisor I was assigned. I needed support as a first-generation student, and what I received was indifference. I felt as if the advisor hated this part of the faculty role. When I attempted to share my goals, he did not listen. My advisor made no effort to get to know me, and I felt that he hated me because I was Black and looked down on me because I was poor. The selection of advisors for first-generation students is critical not only for making the climate supportive, but for the ultimate success of students.

My being in class was awkward for everyone. No one looked at me and I didn’t draw attention to myself. I kept my eyes on my textbook, my notebook, the chalk board, and the professor. When I would feel someone staring at me, I would resist the urge to look directly at the person, but would just begin to turn my head in their direction. That always broke the stare.

One professor, who was my favorite, stands out for me because he was the one faculty member who looked directly at me when his eyes surveyed the classroom. All the other professors had this uncanny ability to look around the classroom and never see me. I should have stood out since I was the only Black student in any given class.

With the diversity of students in classes today, faculty who do not know how to help all students feel included should request professional development. At minimum, faculty can incorporate basic strategies to develop an inclusive classroom environment by making eye contact with all students, pronouncing their names correctly, finding creative ways to encourage all students to participate in class discussions, and providing opportunities for group projects in which students are randomly assigned.

As I was nearing the end of my first quarter at EIU, I began to worry about what grades I would receive at the end of the term. An uncaring advisor and awkward classrooms did not help my grades and neither did the fact that I had been having a good time with my Black peers and our new-found freedom. I decided to call my mother to alert her to what might happen if my grades were as bad as I expected them to be.

I remember using a pay phone in the Student Union. My mother was surprised to hear from me because I didn’t have the kind of money to make long distance telephone calls unless there was something important to convey. To begin this difficult conversation, I asked about every single person in the family. I could sense that my mother wanted me to get to the reason why I called.

Finally, I said, “My classes are really hard, and I don’t think I’m going to make it.”

“What do you mean when you say you don’t think you’re going to make it?” she responded.

“My grades may not be good enough for me to stay in college, so I might have to come home.” I waited for her response.

After a short time she said, “That’s too bad. You can’t come here because your sister has your room now. I don’t know what you’re going to do.”

I just hung on the line for a beat or so because I was afraid to let go. In just a few words, my mother made it clear that she was not going to rescue me. Shocked and afraid, I realized that what happened to me from this point on was entirely up to me.

I believe that support programs, caring advisors, inclusive classrooms. and an overall inclusive campus climate make a difference for first-generation and all students. I also believe that every student will have unique motivators that are separate and distinct from anything the college or university can provide. Being self-motivated is a powerful impetus to succeed. What first-generation students may need most is someone to help them identify what motivates them most.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Understanding how students learn in order to be more effective educators

All I want to say is thank goodness for Jane Fried!

Of Education Fishbowls and Rabbit Holes book cover with fishbowl

I just read her book titled Of Education, Fishbowls, and Rabbit Holes-Rethinking Teaching and Liberal Education for an Interconnected World. Don’t let the long title deter you from this compact gem at just 100 pages. I am thankful for Jane Fried because she has discovered what my personal experience and the science of learning indicate is the truth about how real and deep learning occurs and, most importantly, she is determined to help the rest of us understand it.

Though the book would be a resource for all in higher education, she spoke directly to student affairs professionals in 1995 when she and associates edited the ground-breaking book Shifting Paradigms in Student Affairs, Culture, Context, Teaching, and Learning. Prominent among purposes of the book was to emphasize that student development was part of the mission of colleges and universities, and student affairs practitioners were educators.

Fried located the concepts of the educative role of student development and student affairs in the different and interrelated cultures encountered in higher education in the United States and, indeed, the world. These different cultures were being aggregated under the term diversity in U.S. higher education and the best approach to seeing diversity as a resource rather than a problem was to see with new lenses or shift paradigms about learning. This paradigm shift is relevant today as students are creating their own laboratories for learning through their activism.

In Shifting Paradigms, Fried suggests that educators understand and accept the fact that sometimes the “student is the expert and the student affairs professional learns a great deal.” (112) She also points out that the role of the student affairs professional becomes one of understanding that students are learning from their experiences and the role of the professional is to help students reflect on that experience. (213) Those who desire to truly educate will need to help students reflect from the perspective that “cultural experience, historical experience and personal experience” all matter. (230)

As an original thought leader and contributing author of Learning Reconsidered-A Campus-wide Focus on the Student Experience, published by NASPA and ACPA in 2004, Fried championed the idea of the interconnectedness of learning where all of the processes and relationships a student encounters must be recognized as learning sites that students could use to make meaning of their lives. Therefore, each site must see itself as part of the learning community. In other words, learning occurs both inside and outside of the classroom.

I keep her 2012 book titled Transformative Learning through Engagement-Student Affairs Practice as Experiential Pedagogy close at hand for quotes for my various essays and speeches. It is rich with information about the psychology and biology of learning, and it reinforces what I think is the major take-away from Learning Reconsidered, mentioned above, and Learning Reconsidered 2, published in 2006: The most important factor is that transformative learning always occurs in the active context of students’ lives.

The most recent book speaks to faculty directly about their assumptions based on how they were taught and learned and how their world view influences how they see students and how they teach. By another name, Jane Fried is still working to help educators understand that there has to be a paradigm shift. She makes concrete recommendations about how faculty who teach undergraduates can do so more effectively. True to how we learn, throughout the book, she asks the reader to stop reading to do some exercises and reflections in order to move beyond learning “about” teaching effectively and to begin to understand how learning occurs through their own experience and reflection.

I will continue to read whatever Fried writes because it takes a while to unlearn what and how we have been taught and to shift our perspective in how we see the world.

Thank you, Jane, for continuing to move classroom faculty and student affairs professionals toward understanding how students learn in order to be more effective educators.

References

Fried, J., & Associates. (1995). Shifting paradigms in student affairs: Culture, context, teaching and learning. Alexandria, VA: American College Personnel Association; Lanham, MD: University Press of America.

Fried, J. (2012). Transformative learning through engagement: Student Affairs practice as experiential pedagogy. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Fried, J. (2016). Of Education, Fishbowls, and Rabbit Holes-Rethinking Teaching and Liberal Education for an Interconnected World. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Keeling, R. (Ed.) (2004). Learning Reconsidered-A campus-wide focus on the student experience. Washington, DC: American College Personnel Association and National Association of Student Personnel Administrators.

Demonstrating “The Confidence Effect” for Students

I just read The Confidence Effect-Every Woman’s Guide to the Attitude That Attracts Success by Grace Killelea. The book is an easy and quick read written in a conversational tone with anecdotes from the author’s own experiences as well as examples from other successful women. This book reinforces what other authors of leadership books have written about getting ahead. However, Killelea’s presentation style makes it easy to remember her advice with techniques such as the “4 Rs of Success” and the “IPO of Networking. ”

Though the target audience for the book is women, I recommend it for faculty, Student Affairs professionals, and all staff at colleges and universities. Why? Because while students say that their parents are their heroes, you are their role models. If you exhibit the twin goals for success that Killelea recommends—confidence and competence, students will be watching and some will be inspired to find their own paths to confidence and competence.

In addition to acquiring helpful tips on building confidence, there are some other gems that I think might resonate. For example, newer professionals in higher education or other careers often agonize over how long to remain in a position that might not be all that they would like it to be. As a role model for students and for your own success, you might want to heed Killelea’s advice:

The lane you’re traveling in right now might not be ideal; it may be full of challenges, potholes, conflicts, and politics, but the way out of it is through it. Don’t suddenly jump lanes and abandon the track before it’s appropriate to do so.

The author suggests questions to ask to help know when to switch lanes. These are the kinds of questions you will want to have handy when students seek your advice and counsel regarding their career goals. In building your own confidence through a track record of success, you can tell and show students how to move forward with confidence.

Students you don’t even know are watching you. You will want to show them The Confidence Effect.