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.

On Beginnings & Endings

For many of us in U.S. higher ed, this week brings the start of a new semester and academic year.  For me, this year is striking–in ways both sad and wonderful.  This January, I will have been at my current home institution for five years–almost a record for me–but this milestone also finds me reflecting on change, particularly institutional change.

When I arrived for my first day of work, I met a host of colleagues–none of whom work here anymore.  In fact, many of the colleagues I worked most closely with in my first year of work have moved on to different positions and institutions.  So, now I go to meetings where I have been around the longest and have the most institutional memory, which is a very odd thing at not quite five years in.  This does not happen, however, when faculty are in those meetings, too.  Faculty are the institutional memory of a place–when they are tenured or tenure-line (and ultimately successful).  This dynamic–with changing staff and administrators and a consistent faculty–can be both wonderful and challenging, but as students cycle through classes and graduate, the institution changes with them.  For me, in this time of reflecting, that fact comes most clear.

My first students here at TCNJ have all graduated now and are off to bigger and better things.  That also means that our first international degree-seekers have graduated.  When I look back across these five (nearly) years, I note that most: the long, slow, climb with many hands that have moved us from no international alumni to some and to a fresh, bright cohort of international students joining the Class of 2020.  Sometimes, I look around and see all the faces that are no longer here–owning the hands that helped us up or didn’t and the younger faces of those alums who are making the futures they dreamt of before they arrived.  But most of the time, I look around and note the many ways our campus and its life have changed in these few years: new buildings, new technologies, new ways of doing things, and, of course, new world views and experiences coming with students, faculty, and staff colleagues.

I don’t know what the year ahead will bring for my home campus, myself, students I work with, or my colleagues and our students I don’t work with, but I look forward to this next level of work and feel like the fruits of my years here are finally ripening for the benefit of this place I dedicate my time and energy to.  May you all find some of the same in your own new academic years.

 

A Good Girl

In the last many weeks, I have spoken to several women working in higher ed about career development, advancement, and professional development. And over this weekend, I watched a Law & Order episode that, surprisingly, brought some things together. I won’t add more specifics here because of the confidential nature of those conversations. This post is a meditation on a swirling synthesis of things related to what might be called “good girl syndrome.”

The women I spoke with are all at professional crossroads or considering a next professional step ahead.  They are all afraid that asking for more in their careers will make them seem greedy, selfish, self-important, aggrandizing. I have long held the philosophy that we work in a business that won’t ever tell us we are good enough, so we had better start telling ourselves and others that we are, but that is not the way of many or most women in higher education or any work environment.  We are often told, as are many women, that if we wait long enough, if we wait our turns or allow others to take what should be our first turn, we will eventually be recognized, be acknowledged, be chosen.  These are dangerous things to accept.

This is not to say that I have not accepted them.  Most often, for me, such things have come in the guise of being a good deputy, which I have been for many, many years. But those discussions have not been gendered.  When I am asked to present a certain position publicly, I am being a good deputy.  When I am told to present it a certain way that seems more feminine or soft than a male colleague or superior, that is wrong–and it is asking me to be a good girl.  When I am asked to let a male colleague take public credit for my work because it will be easier (because he wants to or already has), that is wrong and is asking me to be a good girl.  When I am told to wait because I am not senior enough even though a younger, male colleague with less experience is green-lighted, that is wrong and is asking me to be a good girl.

You might be asking why this matters to the future of higher education and what this blog is about. Well, ask yourself what a young woman who sits on a committee with me, studies in a department where someone like me is a senior faculty member, works for an office headed by someone like me, thinks when women like me are told to wait even when it is our turn. The colleagues I spoke to were all women who have spent many years in higher education, all under 45, all advanced in their tracks of work, all with superior credentials.  And they were all asked or told to consider “being a good girl” and waiting to be chosen or asked or moved ahead or allowed to take the next step. And they all felt like they should–given how many times they have  done this same thing before. But our daughters are watching, and as much as we tell them they can do anything, how often do we show them that?  Let’s remember that they are well over 60 percent of our students in higher education today in the U.S. Shouldn’t we be showing them that women get there–but also get there on their own merits, hard work, and personal strengths? That means ending “good girl syndrome” and no longer asking talented women to wait because some gender bias indicates that they aren’t ready, even though men with less have been.

Our Shared Mission

Quite some time ago, I wrote a blog post and later deleted it.  I deleted it after a professional grapevine indicated that the post—and perhaps this entire blog—was viewed by some as my self-aggrandizing and dismissing the knowledge and experience of senior colleagues.  Especially those with more time in the faculty chair than I had.  Basically, I deleted it because some folks didn’t like what I had to say.  Or so I heard.

But deleting something I had to say is not why I’m here.  Or it shouldn’t be.

I wrote in that post about the odd position I often find myself in as an academic, trained as a scholar and teacher, but so often required to operate in my work life in a whole host of ways and with a host of skills not really provided by my graduate study.  I wrote about “translating” between academics and non-academics in higher education.  And my words gathered the responses that they did—from others and, ultimately, from me.

I should have responded differently.  I should have responded by talking a bit about how I came to the skills I use every day in my work life.  In extreme brief, I was academic staff before I was faculty.  And I worked for years outside of higher education—to support my graduate studies, before ever beginning them, and between graduate degrees.  I took an unusual (to some) path that included newspaper work, extensive freelancing as a writer and graphic designer, desk-based work at non-profits and associations.  And that path helped prepare me—with my academic training—to manage an academic office.  I didn’t stay long in faculty-only employment by choice—because it wasn’t for me.  I’m one of those folks who turned down a tenure-stream job and has never held one.  I was lucky enough to move back into the work I really enjoy in higher education, which I love.  Faculty life isn’t for everyone who completes a doctorate, but higher education is not only for faculty.  Institutions run on the power of people with many kinds of educational backgrounds because they are necessary.  We all bring diverse perspectives that are needed, and I believe mine is one of them.  That is why I am here.  But my voice—and the voices of those in positions similar to mine—certainly should not be, cannot be, the only ones in the room, any room.

We have no universities without faculty, and my decade of work on higher education labor and contingency have taught me the unquestionable value of tenure.  We need faculty who are able to speak because they are not afraid for their jobs, and without that, we don’t have what a university should be, even if we have a university.  But we also have no universities without leadership and without operational staff of all kinds.  How could faculty fulfill their roles as faculty unless someone else was taking care of other business?

I guess what I am saying is that we are all in this together, and we need to do a better job of getting together because we can’t risk falling apart in our valuable enterprise—educating students for all of their tomorrows.

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.

Lessons from Home

In some of my posts here, I had shared that I was engaged in strategic planning at my own home institution.  I am and have been.  And that is where I have been focusing my strategic brain has been occupied—with my university’s strategic plan, with strategic and forward looking operations for my own office.  I’m returning to the public conversation because it seems time for lessons to be shared from this intense, professionally “inward looking”—if you will—work.

Lesson 1: Change can only succeed with input and support.

My campus has prided itself on collaboration and shared governance for far longer than I have been here.  However, this campus-wide strategic planning process has shown that to me in a new and special light.  Sure, some people come to town halls and feedback-gathering meetings to champion the thing that keeps them employed, but so many of my colleagues came wanting to think about the institution and what it would need to do for the students of tomorrow.

That has also been true in the smaller context of growing my own office’s programming.  My colleagues have been invaluable in helping me see possible roadblocks and challenges, in revealing new strategies and simpler processes.  That collaborative process, in turn, made the staff feel valued and valuable—which they are.

Lesson 2: Don’t sweat the details too soon.

Yes, someone must ultimately be responsible for getting things done.  Yes, the details do matter.  However, when you need to stay macro and focus on clarifying the big picture, needing the details stops you dead in your tracks.  We did this more than once in our large campus-wide committee.  The result was operational thinking that didn’t inspire or engage anyone.  Strategy should be exciting; vision should make people want to contribute.  No matter the level of decision making, strategy must precede operation.  Then, operational planning—and the details—can have the full stage.  I’m a “get-things-done” kind of person, and my current position requires that I have a handle of all of the macro and some of the micro.  The difference and the timing matter.

Lesson 3: Look ahead; think ahead.

I often joke with my colleagues that “it is already April in my head” or whatever far-off-seeking time I am actually planning for in my day-to-day work.  Strategy of any kind requires that you think toward the future.  Leadership, then, is seeing that goal and the road ahead that will take the organization there.  Any big picture conversation, almost by default, must begin with that future vision, but seeing the full path is what connects the idea to the operations that accomplish it.  This lesson, for me, is that it’s a good thing that I think so far ahead, but it also seems a lesson that many of us could use here in higher education from time to time.

 

These lessons learned in planning have helped my home institution see and plan for the future, but that future is the university for tomorrow’s students that we all must envision.

Next week, I’ll be thinking about what diversity can and should look like in that future.

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.

 

The Achievement Gap: Widening Our Lens

Last week, Kevin Kruger, president of NASPA, the professional organization for student affairs professionals, spoke on my home campus at The College of New Jersey, and made a claim about the future of higher education that struck me: The achievement gap is our next great civil rights challenge. He’s right, but I think responding effectively to this call to re-envision education and higher education will require that we change the cultural connotation of “civil rights.”

Here just after Black History Month, shortly after celebrations of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday and remembrances of his death and that of Malcolm X, and after media coverage of the anniversary of the Selma march and the movie, Selma, we would be tempted to continue to think of civil rights as a black/white binary. However, the skills gap is wider and more complex than America’s longest standing racial binary.

Kruger presented as part of his talk data that we should all be familiar with: tomorrow’s students are increasingly first-generation, increasingly Hispanic/Latino, and increasingly from lower income families. He also talked about how few African American students, particularly young men, are earning bachelor’s degrees. So, it is all of these categories of student who experience the achievement gap in differing degrees and are, therefore, part of this next civil rights challenge Kruger was heralding.

In urban centers, we know why this is happening: the long, slow suburbanization of middle class families, leaving poorer communities in America’s cities. Demographically, we know that this also means urban populations that are primarily ethnic minorities and new immigrants. But what about rural areas? What about first generation students in the American South and Midwest? Many of them are not ethnic minorities but do come from lower income families and face the same challenges as other first generation, low income students: a primary and secondary education that did not prepare them for the challenges of higher education, difficulty funding higher education, and—perhaps most importantly—no way to easily understand and navigate the complex system of a college or university in order to be successful.

It is all of these students who are the future (and even the present) of higher education. They are not the students that many schools are used to supporting and educating, but they must become so. If we widen our sense of the civil rights issue of the achievement gap, we see all of our students and their collective challenges. This will allow us to put into place the things they need on our campuses to succeed. Success is both retention and persistence, and we need to talk about them, about why they aren’t happening, and how they could.

Come back next week for a follow-up to this piece where I talk about that “how.”