Dan

To know him is to love him.

He’s innately good and he was born that way.

He’s kind and thoughtful. Like the time his kindergarten teacher wrote, “He has a good attitude toward others; wants to please and do the right thing and is bothered if others do not.”

He’s compassionate. Like the time when he took blankets off his own bed and gave them to people in the neighborhood who had been negatively impacted by a snowstorm.

He’s generous. Like the time when, at seven years old, he took money from his bank, went to a neighbor’s garage sale, and bought his mother a letter opener and a cookbook.

He’s patient. Like when he slowly, without apparent annoyance, repeats what he has already explained. His kindergarten teacher described this as “good self-control.”

He’s positive. When people around him find fault with something or someone, he finds something to say that expands the perspective so others can see the person or situation in another light. 

He’s disciplined. He decides on a goal and, without falter, takes the steps to achieve it. His kindergarten teacher wrote, “He is very conscientious about his work—tries hard to do well, and completes what is expected, and enjoys doing it! He’s very well-disciplined—but also enjoys just being a boy sometimes.”

He’s optimistic. Like when his best efforts in pursuing a goal appear to fail, he perseveres, looking for the rainbow.

He’s responsible. Like when he got his first job at age 12 and has not been without a job from that point on.

He’s confident. Like how he never seems to doubt his abilities. His kindergarten teacher wrote, “He seems pleased and happy about himself, school, and others.”

He’s courageous. Like the times when he has been selected as the spokesperson for a group and takes the role regardless of the possible consequences. 

He’s fair. Like the times when during a discussion he often asks, “Is that fair?”

He’s funny. Like the many times he makes those around him laugh out loud even when the situation is what might be described as “dark” and “not funny.”

He’s curious. Like when he finds just about everything interesting and, judging from his behavior, in need of further study and work.

He’s self-possessed. Like when he seems to be walking too leisurely and never wears a watch, yet always gets to where he intends and on time.

I like being in his presence because there is a lightness of being around him.

I like seeing him live his life unstintingly, stretching it out to experience and enjoy every inch of it.

He is the light of my world. The joy of my life.

He is our son, Danton.

Intent vs. Impact: Educational Access and Opportunity

Guest post by Shannon Ellis

I need your help.

Gwen has offered me this platform to speak up in defense of a post-high school education, especially for Black students. Right now, increasing numbers of students of all colors (and their parents) are being sold on the idea that education just isn’t worth the time and money.

They would be wrong.

A recent Chronicle of Higher Education article by Oyin Adedoyingave us all the dismal report. “Black enrollment grew from 282,000 in 1966 to more than 2.5 million in 2010 but from 2010 to 2020, as overall enrollments fell, the number of Black students fell even more sharply, to 1.9 million.” 

Adedoyin cites a number of very valid reasons for this decline including the rising cost of college, skepticism about the value of a degree, economic hardship in many Black communities, and Black students not feeling welcome on campuses. I wish this were not true but on any given day at predominantly white institutions (PWI) this is the experience of many of our Black students.

Many of us who are White work to understand the experience of isolation and even hate that a Black student may experience at PWIs. I work with colleagues in the field of student services who face the truths of such experiences and embrace the mission to create a more welcoming and supportive climate for Black students and others who have been historically marginalized, excluded, and discriminated against. I am not alone. Staff and faculty of all colors with vast life experiences stand ready to work with Black scholars to make the leap into a PWI classroom, Western curriculum, loan debt, and a predominantly White surrounding community.

It is no wonder that historically Black colleges and universities are seeing record numbers of applicants in the midst of decline everywhere else. Yet we know that this is not an option for many Black students who want or need encouragement to pursue a post-high school skill and degree. PWIs struggle, have successes, hire more Black faculty and staff, engage in successful and unsuccessful recruitment and retention efforts, and continue to move forward even with setbacks. PWIs strive to be better places for Black students who want to pursue a vocational, community college, or university degree.

As institutions find effective ways to market themselves to Black communities, we need to acknowledge the realities many Black students experience. We need to assure Black students and their families that we mean it when we say we will put the time and money into change. Many of us commit to be leaders and allies, but no one more than Black students stands to suffer lifelong setbacks if we do not succeed. Put in a more positive way, compared with other historically excluded groups of people, Black students stand to gain more from American higher education in economic gains, generational wealth, career advancement, and health. Maybe even more than White students.

While attending a college or university is not essential for all, providing the opportunity for everyone to realize their potential is. Do you have a relative, coworker, neighbor that someone talked out of pursuing a post-high school vocational program or community college path or four-year degree? Maybe you know someone who expressed an interest in pursuing an educational program after high school but also expressed a lack of confidence. Well-meaning people often believe they are doing the right thing by affirming that self-doubt instead of working through the many ways to address each worry (money?) and set back (tutoring?). In my experience, it is often a loving and well-meaning friend or relative who affirms the fear, uncertainty, and lack of confidence that often surfaces when someone talks about “going to college.” If we think we are saving someone from debt or racism or frustration or even physical and mental harm, let’s stop.  We are not.

College graduates earn a million more dollars over a lifetime than those without a degree. Taking on loan debt is only a mistake if you allow yourself to drop out with no degree and increased earning power with which to repay the debt. View it as an investment and exhaust every scholarship application easily found online and in the brains of professionals in an institution’s financial aid office. Sticking with a full-time course schedule designed to get a scholar out in two or four years saves money in the long run (tuition goes up every single year) and gets a student out into the workforce with a salary and benefits.   Remember, we are playing the long game here – one for a lifetime.

Who do you know who could use that nudge, affirmation, and encouragement to sign up for a class? Did you support someone’s decision to abandon such a step in their life? Would now be a good time to go back and offer guidance and support? Maybe it’s you who told yourself that higher education wasn’t for you. Can I give you that gentle push to take classes, apply for financial aid, and connect with someone in the campus multicultural center?

Let’s be unrelenting in our campaign to create access and opportunity for Black students in the world of higher education. Regardless of a student’s academic record, there is an available community college, vocational program, or four-year school. The payoffs occur over decades of career advancement and earnings that are also associated with better health and longer lives.  At any age, Black students should create a lifetime of opportunities through education, so no door is closed.


Shannon Ellis is Vice President for Student Services at the University of Nevada, Reno. Ellis has served as president of NASPA–Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, and has published numerous articles and chapters in professional journals and books. Her ongoing research focuses on organizational transformation and the role of student services in tomorrow’s college and university.

Warriors

A lot of deserved attention is being given to Viola Davis, who stars in and produced The Woman King. Before I get into more about Viola, I want to draw attention to the director of The Woman King and other more-than-noteworthy films. Her record is one of excellence in creating films that have strong moral and positive messages.

Historically, women have not been in the director’s chair. For a Black woman to be in the director’s chair the number of times Gina Maria Prince-Blythewood has is truly an amazing accomplishment. Thank you, Director Prince—Blythewood, for your contributions to the film industry and to our culture.

Although the focus of The Woman King is Black women warriors, another warrior who ran up against a ceiling created for Black folks is John Boyega. Being a man, notwithstanding, John Boyega has felt the oppression of being Black in a world acculturated to seeing only White people as heroes in films. This was the reality that fueled what some saw as a backlash against having a Black man as one of the heroes in the Star Wars sequel trilogy. Thank you, John Boyega, for sharing your talents as King Ghezo in this epic film that focuses on Black women warriors.

As Viola Davis and the other stars of The Woman King make appearances throughout the media universe, Viola shares strong messages that refute the endemic negative messages that Black girls and women have historically received not only from folks who were not Black but also from Black people who put down women because of their particular shade of blackness.

Here are snippets of messages that Viola sent that resonated with me:

Clear up space for yourself.

Do not disappoint yourself; disappoint others instead.

Don’t say “Yes” so people will love you. They don’t love you.

… weighed down with a cultural history that tells you that you are nothing.

Life is a relay race and you run every leg of it yourself.

I have a new term—“I’m worth it!”

If you have not seen interviews with the stars of The Woman King, I recommend that you take a look at some of them to hear about the six-year experience of getting the film from concept to reality.

Director Gina Prince-Blythewood, in response to an interviewer’s question, responded that she hoped that women would see themselves reflected in the film. She also hoped that when they leave the theater after seeing the film, women feel enlightened, inspired, and empowered.

A constant refrain that remains with me after seeing The Woman King and hearing comments of those who made the film possible is “spirit of the warrior within.”

Thank you, Viola Davis

Viola Davis is the only African American to receive what is called the “Triple Crown of Acting”—Academy Award, Emmy Award, and Tony Award. She has been in close to 30 films and has numerous television credits.

I’m no professional critic and won’t attempt to critique her films. I just want to say: Thank you, Viola Davis, for being real Black for me, for portraying Black women in all our pain and glory.

A Helper’s FIRE

I’ve talked with people who after many years in a particular kind of work feel unsettled as if they are not doing the kind of work that fulfills their passion. Others I’ve had conversations with have changed the kind of work they do many times. They say that they get restless after the bloom of doing something different begins to fade.

Like those I’ve spoken with who wonder if there is something that they should be doing rather than what they are doing with their lives, I’ve had these thoughts. But for me, these thoughts have been fleeting. During my career journey, I took many of the assessments that purport to help career searchers begin to narrow their focus. Interpretations of my various assessment results showed a consistency in that whatever I chose for a career, I would be a “helper.”

I defined being a helper as someone who would provide support to others in reaching their goals and human potential. The question for me was how this might be realized in a specific career. Coming of age in the 1960s, I didn’t believe that the universe of options was open to me. Going into the medical field was my teenage dream. However, the reality of my financial situation made that dream unrealistic as a goal.

Being a teacher was one way that I could become a helper. However, it was a choice for which I settled rather than one for which I had a strong inclination. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was during these years that I thought I was settling that I found my passion. Teaching helped me realize that young people found it easy to relate to me and sought my counsel beyond the classroom. During these one-to-one sessions with students, I learned that many of them worked to the level that was expected of them rather than to the level of what they were capable of doing. They had more potential than they realized. Helping these students see beyond their current circumscribed existence brought me joy.

My sense of satisfaction in these relationships with students and their positive response to me confirmed for me that I was in the right place. Attaining a degree in counseling, I was prepared to be a helper. I found real congruence between who I imagined myself to be and who I could be in my career as a mental health and career counselor.

Even at this early stage of my journey, my touchstones of FIRE were part of my inner process:

I accepted the situation that I was in (fate).

I believed that I would be led to the right outcome (faith).

I focused on living a life infused with integrity.

I took initiative to get the required credentials to do what I wanted to do.

I was constantly reflecting on circumstances in a manner that I could glean lessons from my experiences.

I always tried to respect those with whom I interacted regardless of age and position.

I applied energy to achieve career goals and to carry out my responsibilities as a spouse and parent.  

I freely expressed empathy for others, and I allowed myself empathy when it seemed that I had lost my way.

My hopeful wish for young professionals is that you will find the path that will lead you to your place of passion and fulfillment in your professional and personal life.

Student Affairs and Social Change

When I was new to student affairs, one characteristic that my colleagues and I had in common was our background as student activists. With such a background, we understood the impatience of our students who wanted social change now and not later. As students learn the history of this nation and the history of the world, thinking critically about what they are learning often leads them to take actions in efforts to make a positive difference.

As I moved through the career ladder in student affairs, I kept thinking about the connection between student activists and student affairs professionals. At one point, I became inspired and excited about the idea of writing a book on student affairs and social change.

It was on Saturday, December 18, 1999, near the end of a five-hour beautiful dinner and conversation. L., our host, had “pulled out all the stops for J., K. and me,” Standing in the foyer of L’s home at the bottom of the stairs preparing to say our goodbyes, I was thinking about the year 2000 that promised a new and significant decade.

Suddenly, I asked everyone what they wished for in the coming year. All of us responded without hesitation:

  • J. wanted to have the book she was writing published and have Oprah love it.
  • K., who had lost a loved one and feared for the health of her spouse, wanted good health for her family.
  • L. wanted to win the lottery in order to establish a fun house for children and adults.
  • I wanted to write a book about the pivotal role of student affairs and social movements initiated and fueled by student activists.  

My response to this impromptu question was the first time I had articulated this idea. The idea had not surfaced so clearly before this moment.

Several days later, on Christmas Day, I was still thinking about the book that I had said I wanted to write. I was inspired.

On December 29, I wrote in my journal that I could write the book within a year despite all my other responsibilities. In my self-talk, I noted:

There is nothing to stop me but myself. Perhaps this book will be the doorway for future writing which could be my purpose. I want to make a selfless contribution to posterity in my lifetime. Maybe writing this book is my light that I must let shine.

Immediately after the holidays, I talked with respected colleagues who were authors of books related to higher education and student affairs about my idea. During each successive conversation, it became obvious to me that there was no support for the idea of the book or for my writing it.

Following these conversations, the energy and inspiration began to dissipate. I wrote a list of what I feared if I wrote the book and what I wanted to happen if I wrote the book.

In my next blog, I will share what happened…