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.

Use Your Words

The poisonous pollination of college and university campuses by purveyors of hate speech can cause administrators angst. Determining how best to strike a balance between allowing the free flow of ideas while rejecting the racism inherent in the mere presence of such communicators is making the work of college administrators one of the most stressful jobs in the professions.

If we are not diligent about preserving the value of ongoing dialogue, in a very short period of time, we will become uncomfortable in our own skins questioning every gesture we see and deciphering every word we hear. Despite the skittish times in which we live and the temptation to try not to be seen or heard, we must heed the mother’s advice to her child: “Use Your Words.”

Reflections on Adult Learners from the Jersey Shore

Children were everywhere! Toddlers were digging holes in the sand, pre-schoolers were building sand castles, babies were getting their diapers changed, and most of the children were racing out to meet the waves.

As I sat next to my husband in a low-slung canvas chair under a bright orange umbrella enjoying the exquisite beauty of the Jersey Shore, I marveled at how these children are completely fearless and comfortable in this environment. They are comfortable because they have been coming to the beach since before they could remember, and many learned to swim before they could walk.

Being near the ocean during the summer months is as natural to these children as riding bikes in their neighborhood. Being close to the ocean is not natural for me. I was 23 years old before I felt wet sand between my toes. Although I’m a swimmer now, I don’t venture into the ocean to swim, not even close to shore. I sit and I watch.

Increasing Adult Learner Persistence and Completion Rates A Guide for Student Affairs Leaders and Practitioners

If you want to better understand the needs of adult learners and how to effectively meet them, I recommend a NASPA publication funded by a grant from the Lumina Foundation and supported by the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission and the West Virginia Community and Technical College System, Increasing Adult Learner Persistence and Completion Rates: A Guide for Student Affairs Leaders and Practitioners, edited by Marguerite McGann Culp and Gwendolyn Jordan Dungy.

Students who see college as part of a continuum, a natural progression of what is expected for their educational career, are like these children who grow up going to the beach – or “down the Shore” in New Jersey. By contrast, those who decide to attend college as adult learners may feel more like “watchers,” never quite comfortable in a college environment. Comfort level, however, is just one of the challenges facing adult learners. These learners can feel like outsiders taking a chance on college.

In addition to beautiful beaches, New Jersey also is home to Atlantic City, the Las Vegas of the East Coast. Beaches and casinos! What more can one ask for from a single state? Just for fun, my husband and I drove north to Atlantic City one evening. After relaxing on the beach for hours, I just wanted to be where the action was. I wanted to experience what the advertisements promised. I wanted to try my luck.

Entering the casinos, I could not tell one from the other, either by sound, appearance, or ways to gamble. My eyes were dazzled by the colorful lights; my ears were bombarded by the pings, ringing bells, and R2-D2 sounds of the blinking machines; and I was entranced by the spins of the roulette wheels. It had been a while since I was in a casino not attached to an airport, and as I wandered through eyeing the machines and the people, I definitely felt out of time and place.

I was tentative and hesitant about sitting on one of the stools facing the slot machines. It seemed that these spaces were for real gamblers who knew what they were doing. The spots in front of the machines were not for a fish out of water like me.

When I finally took a position in front of one of the noisy blinking machines, I remembered that the slot machines used to jokingly be called “one-armed bandits.” This time, I didn’t see any machines with one arm. The machines are so technologically advanced, I don’t know if they are even called slot machines any more.

I had to push a “HELP” button to see how to begin playing the machines. The “HELP” button was not much help, so I just put my money in the place for bills and pushed some buttons. The few times in the past when I played the slot machines, I used to be thrilled to see the three cherries straight across because that meant I had won something. I guess these cheap thrills are no longer available. Even when I had three of a kind of something on these machines, it was not enough for me to win. I needed five of a kind or more!

As I looked around at those who appeared to know what they were doing, I knew that the thrill I had hoped to get from being where the action was supposed to be was not real. It was just an illusion for an outsider like me. After feeding the hungry, blinking, groaning monster $7.00, my winnings totaled $0.53. One does not have to be good at math to know that this was not a good return on my money.

Just as the casinos dazzle potential gamblers with how much they could win by playing the games, our colleges and universities spend a lot of money on appealing to the dreams of prospective students. For me, the casino experience was a diversion. For most adult learners, college is no diversion – these learners are motivated by a desire for self-improvement that could potentially change their lives.

Just as I was dazzled by the many lights and sounds, adult learners may be confused by the array of opportunities found on a college’s website. And as I could not tell one casino from another, they might not be able to discern the quality or fit of a particular college. Just as I had no idea how to play the games, adult learners tend not to know how the bureaucratic process of higher education works. Just as I was looking for the one-armed bandits of yesteryear, they may be looking for something that no longer exists.

The “HELP” button on the machine did not enlighten me. I wonder if the service equivalents to the slot machine “HELP” button at colleges and universities are better at meeting the needs of adult learners. Adult learners are putting their money into the game of college and hoping they will get back more than they wagered.

Lifting up the N of 1

I could barely manage to get out of bed this morning. I had lain awake thinking about recent surveys and polls about the waning confidence in higher education among some specific groups and possibly the public at large.

I remember in the mid-1990s when the discussions with heads of higher education associations were upbeat because there was so much public support for higher education. In these meetings, we viewed the positive public opinion about colleges and universities as leverage to use to persuade Congress and the Administration to increase funding levels for financial aid. In fact, there was a groundswell of support for the government to do more to help middle class families, in particular, afford to send their students to college. New technology companies demonstrated support by appealing to congressional leaders. Some even declared that making college more affordable was an issue of national defense.

Various reasons have been suggested as to why the people surveyed have negative opinions about colleges and universities. There is no question that college costs have put a college degree out of reach for some families. However, even at the same time that we were surfing on a tide of support for higher education in the mid-1990s, cost containment and the impact on tuition was a major topic of concern. Yet, there was still the belief that a college education was of critical importance and an American value. It is concerning that those of us who see the merits of higher education may be unable to have our voices heard above the din of naysayers.

I tossed and turned most of the night because I do not want to accept as fact that the gulf between those who demean higher education and those who value it may be unbridgeable at this time. So I searched for the common denominator for all who think about education, whether positively or negatively. That common denominator is the impact college has on students who attend.

Rather than relying on survey results of groups outside of college, students should be asked questions about what they think about their college experience. As I thought about surveying students, I reminded myself that the term “students” represents an exceptionally varied and diverse group, and looking at data from them in the aggregate may not be precise enough to be used to take any action. Then, I thought about disaggregating the data gleaned from surveys of students. How the data is disaggregated can also be an issue in interpreting the results. What to do?


As my thoughts swirled during my restless night about polls, surveys, aggregated and disaggregated data, I recalled the denigration of the “anecdote” as evidence of anything as we search for accountability. I thought about how any research to be credible needed a large sample. Then I remembered a single student that I spoke with recently. I began to relax as I thought about my conversation with the student and the potential beauty of the N of 1.

The student I spoke with was struggling with a decision about whether or not to return to college in the fall. Having already made the financial commitment and selected courses, the student was twisted into a knot, virtually paralyzed because of how consequential the decision was about whether going to college was the best route to reach the desired goal.

Notwithstanding the financial obligations of borrowing money – during the first year and the debt that will be accumulated in subsequent years – the student just did not see the connection between a college education and reaching the dream. The student had many entries on a list of “cons” about not going to college, and only one on the list for “pros,” and that was that family expected that everyone who had an opportunity to go to college should go. Among the “cons” the student listed negative press about the costs of college, friends and acquaintances who had not attained the jobs they hoped for upon graduation, role models in the high-tech industry who never went to college or did not complete college, and the time and effort to complete the degree. I could understand the student’s dilemma. Making a step in any direction at this point in the process would make the student unhappy or the family unhappy.

Listening to the student and viewing the current context through the student’s lens; encouraging the student to share the desired dream; sharing relevant parts of my journey through higher education; helping the student envision multiple future scenarios with and without a college degree; sharing ideas about the joy of discovering knowledge that goes beyond training to do a specific kind of work; and sharing examples of how a college education could increase one’s competitive edge filled our time together. I told the student that a college education is a ticket to ride, and there are no limits to where a college graduate could travel.

Whether or not the student returns to college in the fall, I believe that our conversation could help unravel the knot that may be holding back a talented student from a bright future. We need not feel impotent in the midst of the swirling smoke of negativity about the value of higher education when we can give time to a student in need one at a time if necessary. Polls, surveys, data disaggregated. Collect the anecdotes and lift up the N of 1.






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.

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants – Honoring Dr. Bobby Leach


Dr. Bobby Leach
NASPA President

NASPA has a brand new award for equity, diversity, and inclusion, and it is named in honor of Dr. Bobby E. Leach, who served as NASPA’s first African American president (what would today be the board chair) from 1985-1986.

It was my honor to accept the “inaugural” Bobby E. Leach Award this past month at NASPA’s 2017 Annual Conference in San Antonio. Dr. Leach was an extraordinary man who accomplished much in his life. Extremely well educated, he attained an undergraduate degree in mathematics and science by the age of 21, and a Masters Degree and a Ph.D. after also excelling in military service.

His work life included serving as a high school principal for 10 years, associate dean of students at Wofford College from 1970-1973, and dean of students at Southern Methodist University from 1973-1976.

Bobby E. Leach Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Award Recipient Gwen Dungy with NASPA President Kevin Kruger and Board Chair Lori White.

Bobby E. Leach Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Award Recipient Gwen Dungy
with NASPA President Kevin Kruger
and Board Chair Lori White.

In 1978, Dr. Leach was the first Black administrator hired at Florida State University, and the highest ranking African American in the Florida State administration. He served as vice president for student affairs at Florida State until 1988. He passed away much too soon in 1989. In 1991, Florida State University named its new Student Recreation Center in his honor.

Following are brief remarks I made about Dr. Leach at the NASPA 2017 Awards Luncheon when I accepted the award named in his honor: