What We Mean when We Talk about Students

I’ve spent the last four days at the AIEA conference, attending workshops, panels, and roundtables on international higher education leadership.  I’ve had many lightbulb moments, but one of them was most important: students have identities or, rather, a student has identities.

You might be saying, as I did at first, that this fact is obvious.  However, the plurality of identities in a single student is key to the work that I do–and that many of us–do to help diverse students settle into and be successful in university study.  Let me explain why.

Our students do not necessarily build their identities from the same categories that we do, as stakeholders inside the institution.  For example, admissions operations may group students as in-state or out-of-state, international, green card holder, transfer, Honors Program student, and a whole host of other possible dividers.  And then other offices use those designations to further divide–into housing cohorts, groups receiving or not receiving certain information, slotted to attend certain events or paying certain fees.  After that, we all treat them according to whatever divides we have imposed upon them that matter to our work–class year, major or program of study, etc.  And we end up with a campus rhetoric that frames these students as “ours” or “yours.”

But how do students see themselves?  Initially, many of our institutional divides are false to them.  Why shouldn’t why shouldn’t “international students” and “global citizens” have access to the same advice, events, services, etc.?  Why shouldn’t first generation students and international students be supported by the same or analogous student success programming when they have the same questions most of the time?

These are questions students ask, when we take the time to let them, that should inform what we do on our campuses to recognize the false divides and dichotomies WE create among our students.  When we work harder to see them as students, work from their similarities and not their differences, we are more likely to foster student success for everyone–because they begin to form a cohesive identity as belonging to our institution.  And isn’t that how we help them find home away from home, achieve their goals, and become alumni we are proud of?  So, when we talk about students, we need to see them as they see themselves and build campus constructs that both support their identities as they exist and strengthen them with the support of our community.

Culture & Learning Beyond the Classroom

Most of the work that I do in my current position is with international students coming to study in the US, and one of the big challenges we will be tackling in the next year is preparing colleagues across campus to support growing numbers of students from abroad studying and living on our campus.  That has made me reflect on my own travels and the cultural aspects of transition for international students.

On a recent recruitment trip to China, the hotel I stayed in while visiting Zhengzhou (pronounced “Jung-joe”) was right across the street from the school whose students we were presenting to and interviewing.  On the gray morning I woke before our full day visit, I heard music outside my window, which faced the school.  Outside on the large walk in front of the main school building, students in identical dress were stretching, bending, and reaching in unison.  Standard calisthenics required of all students each morning.  I only had a few minutes to watch before heading out myself, but this display made me think of the huge cultural shift students coming to study in the US must experience at colleges and universities.  To go from morning workout to weekend partying?

It’s not something we always account for or are even aware of in higher education.  We don’t think about the need to explain a system we inherently understand, but even if we academics do think about it, we focus on the classroom experience, perhaps the shift from face-to-face time toward homework done independently or the need to engage in class discussion rather than take notes and learn facts.  However, our students—international and not—see us in a panorama, across disciplines, across divisions.  To them, we are one silo and fundamentally un-siloed.  In the case of international students coming from many places around the world, schools have often been one cohesive, integrated experience for them, and they bring that idea with them even more fully than our domestic students coming out of US high schools.

So, what do we do with that as teachers, administrators, and people who care about the future of higher education?  First, we listen and we learn.  Our students know where they come from and how things were for them in past schools, and we enhance our ability to support them in and out of class when we learn about their expectations, assumptions, and needs.  Second, we explain.  When we pull the curtain back on the parts of the machine that they need to understand the workings of, when we give words to the motives for the things we do, we are helping students see how the rules have changed, how their expectations need to change, and why they need to respond to the reality of their current context and not what they thought it was.  The next time they need to decode part of US higher education, they will be better equipped.  And isn’t that our shared ultimate goal?

Diversity & Employability

The AAC&U recently released a report called “Falling Short?: College Learning and Career Success.” Here is the press release.

Much of the news coverage—and that press release—focus on the differences between what students thought about their career preparedness and what employers thought about the same. However, the very questions raise a different issue: the presence and integration of diversity on campuses across the country.

Diversity can mean so many things, and on my own campus, we have been reexamining what “diversity” means to our community. Given my position, I am often the person in the room raising the question of cultural diversity.  The questions in this survey and responses seem to make clear that the ability to communicate, build teams, and produce products across cultures is important, but how can higher education institutions do a better job of that?

First, we have to value cultural diversity across campus by recognizing it and greeting it with respect and a desire to learn. By this I mean that we need to acknowledge that a student who has just arrived in the US from, say, Kazakhstan, has a set of cultural (and not just language) challenges that will be different from those of a student from the same country or region who has been in the US for two years.  But they will both have challenges.  We have to see how an African American student, a Latino student, and a white student from the same city will all bring different cultural understandings of education to campus.

Then, we need to serve those differences in our classrooms, offices, and residence halls. Yes, students who come from places where education was segregated by gender will have some difficulty integrating into a co-ed campus or co-ed classrooms.  Yes, students who were raised to listen to teachers and take in knowledge will struggle to participate in some classes, depending on the student dynamic.  And our responses need to come with the recognition that these are often cultural barriers and not a language deficit or lack of ability.

To achieve this second step, higher education leaders need to equip their campuses—across units—with the tools to do this well. This can take a host of forms, depending on one ‘s campus context, but it requires identifying areas where development is needed and dedicating resources to faculty development, staff with particular expertise in student affairs, a reconfigured Writing Center—just to name a very few.  This kind of planning is necessary not just for the future but for the present.  This diversity is already here and everywhere, but if we don’t know how to support it and work within it, we cannot serve as the role models students need when encountering difference and help them better adapt to what America’s international workplaces demand.