The season between Thanksgiving and spring semester is usually a joyous break for universities. Students celebrate Chanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa or winter solstice after slogging through final exams. Faculty grade final papers and exams and then look forward to the time off. We staff try to take the time we’re in the office to catch up on paperwork. However, not everyone enjoys the slow period between Thanksgiving and New Years and these are the students we need to keep an eye on.
This winter period for some students is the end of their collegiate career. Many students go home and hear from their families that they cannot return to school because the family cannot afford to send them anymore. Although the greater economy has “recovered,” many of my students’ personal economies have not – not at all. Families wait until the student is home to tell them so that they can at least pass their fall classes.
Some students do not receive family or community support to attend school in the first place, and retreat home where they feel valued. Many of these students actually do not return after Thanksgiving. Many times this group includes first generation college students because they are learning new values and cultural norms that may be in conflict with what they learned at home. Families may reject the student for being too “uppity” “brand new” or “out of their place.”
Finally, many students experience depression and suicidal thoughts. They aren’t coping well with school already and the change in the weather to dreary days exacerbates their illness. If grades come in and the student has not done well this problem can descend into deadly territory quickly. Some students do not have consistent families and the cheer and love of the holidays feels like someone is steadily reminding them of their lack.
What should we do as practitioners? Be a bit more mindful that sometimes the grades we see and the excuses we get have some underlying cause. This time of year can be especially frustrating as we get students “grade grubbing” for marks they did not earn, or students come in with problems we could have helped them solve had they talked to us months ago. We not be able to work with every student to become an academic superstar, but we can let them know that no matter the outcome of their grades or academic standing that they are valued as people, and there are options.
Families, and community members, hug your students this winter break. Remind them of why you care for them outside of their accomplishments or lack thereof. If they have not met your expectations certainly remind them of where you stand, but try to be gentle. If your student comes home with “newfangled” ideas talk to them about their new beliefs and see if you can find some way to have a family discussion about your own values with them.
We in academic affairs want all of our students to come back to us in the spring semester, or at least be well enough to live out their dreams through a different path. We want our students to be mentally well and to feel supported. The most wonderful time of the year is not always so wonderful for everyone, so let’s try to help make it a little better where we can.