Category Archives: 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.

Finding the right time…

It was a decision that had to be made.  In my comment following this excellent presentation, do I only reference the parts of what I heard about the vision for IT at our College or do I also attempt to help everyone who is not in student affairs understand that IT can also play an important role in improving the educational experience of students by supporting the work of counselors and advisers who want to use technology to be more efficient and effective in their work with students?

Why did I have this dilemma?

The CIO made a most impressive presentation introducing concepts of the hype cycle, the trough of disillusionment, the slope of enlightenment and the plateau of productivity. He talked about the history of technology, where the College has been in its use of technology, where we are going, and various faculty and student initiatives in regard to instruction.

The bottom line is I loved the presentation! Yet, something really bothered me.

During the presentation, the CIO was quite specific in outlining how what he was proposing would work with the “academic areas.” Following the presentation when the administrators were making comments, the academic vice president framed his remarks with the words “on the academic side.”

I was surprised to hear this clear delineation of what was academic and, by inference, what was not, especially at a critical time when the entire College has been restructured to insure that advising is done by everyone to some degree.

To insure consistency, accuracy, continuity and a developmental model for advising, counseling faculty in student services are encouraging the use of a system where advisers are encouraged to place notes about their work with students so if a student changes a major or decides on a major after being advised as an undecided students, the next adviser has some prior information about the student.

The system also allows students to select the same adviser by scheduling their own appointments. The system will insure that students are on a pathway towards a degree or certificate, and data can be collected from the system to gauge the impact of interventions to help students succeed in their courses.

A wealth of information can be collected and shared among students, faculty, and administrators with a system that is technology dependent. Why the CIO and the vice president for academic affairs found it necessary to carve out the “academic side” in talking about the future of technology at the College was a puzzlement to me.

I chose not to attempt to enlighten my colleagues at this presentation because there is a time and place for everything, and my attempt at enlightenment following an outstanding presentation would have been seen as negatively disruptive, and no one can hear our message if there is the noise of negative disruption.

I will find other times and occasions to talk about holistic learning, the value of advising, and the fact that all of our work with students is “academic.”

The faces behind the numbers

Assessment…culture of evidence…outcomes…data-driven…accountability…. By whatever name it’s called, I am an advocate for using numbers as evidence of the impact of the work of student affairs.

There are times, however, when an anecdote or story is exactly what is needed to help others understand what we do in student affairs. An anecdote or story is also what student affairs sometimes need to let us know that what we’re doing does, indeed, make a difference.

On opening day of the spring semester before students returned, the Montgomery College community held its convocation for faculty, staff, and administrators. The president spoke courageously and eloquently, as always, and each of us who is a senior vice president had an opportunity to report on the work of our areas of responsibility:

  • I’m amazed at the activity and many accomplishments in academic affairs that included the acquisition of grant funding and other numbers;
  • Administration and finance is doing a great job with the budget despite fiscal constraints faced by most institutions of higher education and this report was about the numbers;
  • The office of advancement had nothing but good news and the report was composed of many numbers.

When it was my turn to give an update on the work of student services, I could have talked about the numbers of students who had enrolled, highlighting the work of admissions and the access team; the number of students receiving financial aid; the number of students seen by advisers; the number of students who received disability support services, and more.

Instead, I decided to talk about a student I had gotten to know. So with that student’s collaboration on what I could share, I told his story. At a time when community colleges are focusing particularly on the enrollment, retention, and success of African American and Latino/Hispanic males, this story was about an African American male.

hurdlers on trackI showed a visual of young athletes running and jumping hurdles in a competition and then I began the story:

Imagine that one of these talented students is James who is typical of many of our students who despite their gifts and talents have many hurdles to clear before they reach the finish line. For the sake of these students and their peers, we all should be grateful that there is a Montgomery College with talented and dedicated faculty, staff, and administrators such as you.

James graduated from a high school here in Montgomery County and began his college career at Bowie State University. He was at the University but not really engaged because he went home every weekend.

At the end of his first year, he found out that there was not enough money for him to re-enroll for the second year. This fact was a disappointment, but he was not passionate about college and really didn’t have any direction.

Because he is a talented person, he was able to easily get a job with the Park Service. After some time in this job, he became bored because he was not using many of his numerous skills. While he was working at the Park Service, some of his friends from high school talked about their ambitious plans, and he began to feel as if he was being left behind.

Bored and discouraged, he began to spend his money on drugs and quickly became addicted. This was a really low point in his life where it seemed that everything he touched, rather than turning to gold, became ashes and worthless. One day he had a really bad car accident. One so serious and catastrophic that he should not have been able to survive, but he did. During his time of recuperation, he began to reflect on his life and realized that he was throwing it away. He was grateful to be alive and wanted to change the trajectory of his life.

When he thought about what he might do, it was as if everything he could imagine himself doing was a closed door, and when he opened the door, the message was always “a college education is the gateway to success.” So as soon as he was well enough, he quit his job and applied to Montgomery College—the College in his community. He was feeling great with these decisions, and he said that there was fire in his belly to make something of his life.

After being admitted to the College, he applied for financial aid and discovered that he was ineligible for aid because he had worked at what he called “that dead-end job” the previous year. He felt as if the door of opportunity had been slammed in his face; he felt rejected and discouraged.

Someone in the Financial Aid Office told him that he might be able to get a job on campus as a student assistant (student assistants are paid from the College’s operating budget) and walked him through the process. He had skills and was readily hired to work in one of the offices at the College. Working at the College gave him more time on campus, and he felt as if he was finally connected to a community. He felt he belonged.

He sought counseling and advising. Working with a counselor, he was able to regain confidence in his abilities. He began to think about his purpose in life and wanted to chart a path to some concrete goals.

Working with an adviser, he was able to develop an educational plan that outlined what courses he needed to take in what sequence in order to reach his academic goals. Doors were opening again, one right after another.

After a year and a half, he was able to qualify for financial aid. The collaboration between financial aid, counseling, and advising provided the kind of assurance and monitoring that James needed to know that he was on the right track and that people cared about whether or not he succeeded.

The next Student Service James took advantage of was Career Services. Here he explored his options related to his interests and what he wanted to accomplish. Encouraged by his family, he was able to begin to dream big and see himself in a career beyond college.

James says that he is grateful to Montgomery College for being a major part of his life during a critical period. He hates to leave the College because of all the support he received and because of the fine faculty and staff he encountered. He knows that he has a solid foundation to be successful at the University of Maryland Baltimore County where he has been accepted. He completed his Associates Degree in December 2014 and will begin his studies in psychology in just a few weeks.

Montgomery College has great resources and an outstanding educational program. Collaboration up and down and across the College in a seamless manner is what contributes most to the success of students like James.

Out for constituent review shortly is a draft of the Student Success Policy. The Policy formalizes the College’s commitment to student success and the procedures outline clear and concrete ways that the College will implement key conditions that will have a high impact on student success.

Many of our students will not have the motivation that James had, so some of these key conditions for student success are mandated, such as advising for the creation of educational plans, assessment for appropriate course placement, and accessible and informative orientations. Our virtual orientation will be available for students who are unable to make a scheduled face-to-face orientation because we believe that orientation provides a vital bridge for students to transition into College.

As students return and as new students arrive, let’s keep James and his fellow students in mind that might have many hurdles to clear before they reach their goals.

A number of faculty, staff, and administrators told me after the convocation that they also had “James” stories, and they were glad to hear one of them shared.