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.

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.

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.