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.

College & The Dream

Some years ago, in a city I never thought I would be in–Ashgabat, Turkmenistan–I gave away one of my small number of college pennants, literally from the wall of my school booth, to a young woman who burst into tears and hugged the stiff piece of felt as tight as one would a most precious possession.  That is a country where most students, especially women, will not likely have the opportunity to study in the U.S. A living wage in Turkmenistan cannot begin to support the full cost of a year of undergraduate study here.

But this same issue is what we talk about when we talk about domestic students affording college.  How much loan debt is acceptable?  For what major and eventual planned career?  What is driving the high cost?  Those questions are parent and student questions, but those of us who work in higher education have our own versions: What are we spending all of this money on?  Which students are we “pricing out” of study at our school?  Why are we always doing more with less?

I wrote about the business of higher education in my last post, so I will not extend that conversation in the same way here.  Instead, what I do want to explore is the spirit of that young woman crying in Ashgabat, holding the pennant of a school she had never heard of or thought of before that moment.  Instead, what she had dreamed of was a life different from the one set before her as the path marked ahead, and that is just what our most vulnerable students in the U.S. are experiencing as they dream big, take advantage of the many ways they have to find the funds to pay for college, stretch themselves in every way to make that dream come true.  Unlike that student overseas, domestic students have access to federal aid of various kinds, private loans, grants, and scholarships.  So, first generation students, young people from immigrant communities, and those with less wealth or knowledge of the system may accrue huge debt without really understanding the possible financial consequences.

But what happens when the dream won’t come true?  Those same groups of students are our most vulnerable in the classroom as well, often lacking the same context and background knowledge about the academic enterprise of college as they do in respect to the financial realities.  I think about that between semesters, as lists of students on probation or being dismissed arrive in my email and as bills go unpaid or students inquire about extra work because of unexpected costs.  I wonder if we, as educators, could have done something differently to help those students understand what could happen, what was happening.  I know that we, regardless of whether we are faculty or administrators or staff, cannot solve all the problems, even for the students we would want to.  How prepared are we and were we for the ways that these students were unprepared?

As we look ahead to the next administration and the tough times it portends for those of us in academe, we need to keep our sights on the reason we do this every day: students.  That means we need to make ourselves more prepared to catch them as they stumble or fall in new or known ways.  And as systems and rules change, they will stumble and fall more.  How do we do that, exactly?  I’ll share my answer to that question here next time.

Selfhood and Study

Sometimes, you start writing for a space like this, and something else comes up in the world to make those concerns recede into the background. Sometimes, that happens repeatedly, for months on end. Then, something so critical happens that you know you must write about and to it.

For me, that is Orlando.

According to the most recent news reports, 12 of the 49 dead were college students. Seven from the same school. All young people seeking safe space, space of release, site or freedom. And what they found was not that.

As a young person in college, I had friends who drove nearly an hour to find a space like Pulse, and when I went with them, the feel was very different from the nightclubs down the road. The parking lots were quiet and no one wanted attention. Inside, everyone spoke or waved, and everyone danced. The lack of self-conscious inhibition surprised young me–but also delighted when my friends who always felt other and tucked themselves in at parties let loose.

In the years since, I have seen other friends come out who could not find a safe space at those night clubs or anywhere else when young, and I have sought to make myself a safe space. It’s brought me students who tell me I am the first “adult” they are coming out to, that I am the first person they could tell that they were trans, that they didn’t have a word but wanted one for what they were feeling.

I can’t say what any of these now-former students feels in response to the tragedy in Orlando, but I can say that I am glad I could help give them the space I could when they seemed to need it. We try in higher education to provide space and support. We don’t always succeed but must continue to try. In making it easier for trans students to change their names on rosters, in creating welcoming and inclusive spaces on campus in every kind of building, and making space for communities to form before students head to a nightclub. That won’t save anyone from what happened in Orlando, but at very minimum, this tragedy is a reminder of how much our students–all of our students–need us in ways we can never fully know.

Student Success & the K-16 Problem

Tonight, I am teaching my first class of the semester, and most of my students are future teachers with majors or minors in English.  That is the nature of the course I am teaching this term and also part of my institution’s identity.  As I wonder about them, I am also wondering how our current difficulties effectively moving students from secondary to higher education will impact the young people these current college students will eventually teach.

I’ve spent nearly my entire career in higher education working with programs oriented toward first-year students and/or general education, and in well over a decade, I have only seen the disconnect get worse—more students shocked by grades that aren’t A’s, more students seeking the right answer instead of learning, and fewer students able to cope with those challenges.  And I’m not alone.  Check out this article and this article.  Is it because students are less intelligent or lazier?  No.  These articles both address student stress and concern about their ability to succeed.  Are students today just under more pressure?  No.  I see this phenomenon as directly connected to the increasing disconnect between what is rewarded as success in secondary classrooms and what is expected in college and university classrooms.

Did you know that this year’s first-year students are the first class to have had No Child Left Behind govern their entire education?  I certainly am as I prepare to walk into a classroom filled with first-year college students who want to be teachers.  They will enter their first classrooms as teachers in 2019 at the earliest, but from my perspective that is just around the corner.

Yes, NCLB is no longer governing our schools in the way it once was, but the transition problems we face between high school and college will not instantly disappear with a change in policy.  What we really need are stronger working relationships between leaders in secondary AND higher education to better prepare students for the challenges ahead.  Otherwise, colleges and universities across the country will increasingly be forced to provide support for smart, hard-working, capable students who were not set up for success and—therefore—struggle to succeed.

Some good work in this area is happening already.  Read about it here and here.  It is not enough.  It is not coordinated enough.  We can and should do better.

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?

The Struggle

For the last several weeks, I have been struggling with the death of a good friend who helped me survive and even thrive in college.  When I learned late on a Friday night that she was too ill for home hospice but was going into residential hospice, my life became a 12-hour blaze of social media messages and constant communication.  It lasted only 12 hours because that is when she died.  But then it kept going.  The flood of people who knew what she had given them, who knew where they would not be if not for a piece of candy, a bummed cigarette, the thing that opened the door to personhood and possibility for so many.  Myself included.

You see, when I met this wonderful woman who became my boss and friend and mentor and role model, I was a first generation college student who knew so little about academia that I didn’t even know it had rules of its own, a language and a pecking order I could not see, and a hidden system navigable only with a password and secret map in a foreign language.  Claudia taught me how to detect the code of that language and how to live in it with grace and spunk, even when you wish it did not exist at all.  Basically, she is the first mentor-teacher-friend of my academic life.  And in case you are wondering, she was the assistant to the Dean of Students.

Why am I giving you this very personal start to a post on a very impersonal and issue-oriented blog?  Because I was then what so many of our students are today: first generation, unsure, afraid of the code we do not know.   Claudia was someone who helped me decode in the midst of this struggle, and when I heard about her much quicker than expected death, I was planning to write here about the responsibilities inherent in a first-generation Ph.D., but then I realized that the issue is not the Ph.D. and who does what.  The issue is the struggle our students face when they cannot decode the system, just like me.  Who helps them?  It can and should be every person in a classroom who was a first generation college student, but it must also be the folks who are “front line” for students in other ways–as professional academic advisors, advising student organizations, working in residential life, working in Student Affairs wherever student interaction happens.  And, yes, in as many classrooms as possible, giving personal contact and interaction.

Basically, Claudia was someone who understood the struggle and helped so many students through it.  I needed it; many others needed it.  Many more will need it.  The trith is that we must be the Claudias of the world offering a safe space, a friendly ear, and a roadmap of the way forward.

My own way forward finds me in China for the fourth time in 15 months working on educational development for my college, now successfully holding a 2+3 agreement in my hand.  Writing this, I think of how Claudia would have viewed my worldliness and my years today.  Lordy, she would have been proud–and had cause to–as without her, there would not be this version of me.  And now that she is gone, who will the Claudias be?

Supporting the Students of Today and Tomorrow

Last week, I promised to follow up on exactly how we can go forward in higher education to better serve tomorrow’s students and work to close the achievement gap that promises to do nothing but widen.  To do that, I will take you back to something I said about the future of higher education for a piece in University Business called “Higher ed thought leaders forecast 2015 trends” : that many of our students would look and seem like the students we have always known, but their needs will be very different.

As we have all spent the week talking and reading about Sweet Briar College and the decision of its Board to close, this point becomes even more important. For schools like Sweet Briar—and by way of disclaimer, I am a native Virginian—the future was already here, and the type of student they had been serving and were founded to serve was disappearing. Why else such a steep discount rate (high scholarship rate)? Combine that with a nearly 100 percent acceptance rate, from which less that 25 percent enrolled (or yielded), and the answer is clear: students were no longer choosing Sweet Briar and what they believed it had to offer. It wasn’t a question of quality—and likely not even of service—but of a reality of changing demographics.

How then do we respond in higher education? Certainly I started this conversation last week in response to Kevin Kruger’s comments.  However, what I didn’t say clearly is that we make assumptions about who our students are and what they need that need to change immediately.  Instead, we must accept that history is not our best teacher here and discover what students really need to be successful by paying attention to who they really are.  There are two specific support service areas our students today and tomorrow need for success:

1) Streamlined and Partnered Writing and ESL Support

As an increasing number of recent immigrants and international students seek to study in the US, the connections among writing centers, writing programs, and English language programs become essential.  Students who struggle in a composition class but don’t really belong in an ESL classroom are the most at risk.  How colleges and universities choose to bridge these students, support the development of vocabulary, and teach strategies for successful writing across the curriculum needs to become a focus for many schools, and the truth is that, currently, it is not. Data gathering on student demographics can help managers convince their leaders of the need for this work and the necessary financial support of it. Coordination among offices, as these tasks are usually spread across many units and even divisions will be key. It will also take time away from the hands-on work with students. That will mean staffing increases or increases in faculty for areas that too many schools consider adjunct to their core educational experience. Maintaining that view will be costly.

2) Mentoring and Advising for Academic Success

It has been many years now since colleges and universities started developing student success centers with various names in response to retention concerns. Okay, great, but depending on how those centers are framed and staffed, they may not be ready for the real challenge ahead. Specifically, they need to be available to and active with all students, not just those in specific classes, class years, or scholarship programs. They also need to be staffed by people who give them no only tools for “student success” like note-taking and time management but also a roadmap to the campus system. First-generation students need help understanding how to get things done, who to go to, what the basic expectations are for using office hours, attending class, reaching out—even what services are available for free. They won’t ask because they won’t want anyone to know that they don’t know. It will reveal who they are—and (they often think) decide they don’t belong.

 

Without these two important supports, students won’t persist, they won’t be retained. They won’t be enrolled. And that’s not what higher education is supposed to be about.