Put Your Own Mask On First

This morning I attended a wonderful ceremony for students graduating from a summer program intended to develop their interest in health care careers. Students from a variety of universities came together to take courses in math, statistics, physics, and chemistry. However, the end of the ceremony left me most saddened after the student speaker delivered his remarks.

The student who closed the ceremony was well liked, affable, and thoughtful. He had finished in the top five of the class. At the very end of his speech he recognized one of his classmates who had aided him with his studies, and often stayed up late at night helping him understand the material. She did not finish in the top five.

I have seen this phenomenon over and over again. Community involvement has been so ingrained into black women’s lives that we often sacrifice ourselves in order to be sure we all get ahead. Yet, as the flight attendants tell you before takeoff on an airplane, you must put your mask on first before you can assist someone else. You must take care of your own health and well-being before being there for others.

Self-care has become a buzzword in many spaces, but self-care does not always have to mean luxurious bubble baths. Self-care can also mean prepping for your own exams alone until you feel sufficiently prepared to do well.

I’m sure the young lady will do well as she pursues her medical dreams, but I hope she also recognizes that she has to take the time out to help herself first. Keeping that in mind will ensure she is truly lifting as she climbs and not being stepped past.

What about the Xennial?

I reject the term Xennial. I was born at the end of Generation X, and I walked myself home from school, fixed my own snacks, remember the beginning,and end of, dial up, and am paying my own education debt. The Baby Boomers received the life altering support of the Servicemember’s Readjustment Act, affectionately known as the GI Bill. Generation X received increasing tuition and student loans after our Boomer parents decided we they did not want to pay taxes anymore. To add further insult the attempt of late Gen Xers to protest rapid tuition hikes went unheard until the millennials, with their vast numbers, started attending school. Generation X – forgotten again.

After defunding higher education for decades states are beginning to reconsider the damage they have done to their college students and their own economies. As retailers are finding out, graduates with high debt loads do not (cannot?) live the way their Baby Boomer parents did. They are not purchasing homes or cars or the must have granite upgrades to make their gourmet kitchens socially acceptable for the perpetual group of neighbors that people on House Hunters seem to entertain. Instead Generation Xers and early Millennials are gutting it out and trying to hold jobs and get out of debt.

As states course correct and begin offering free college it seems that Generation X is again a latch key kid. Many of us have no problem paying our fair share of taxes to support education, roads, bridges, etc. However, the question of how states are going to pay for free college is hanging out there. What will those of caught in the college tuition escalation of the 90s and 2000s do if we are paying additional taxes to subsidize someone’s education, while also paying off our own debt? How can states look to the future, while also making up for the mistakes of the past?

Income based repayment and public service loan forgiveness were to be the saviors of those of us caught in the matrix. However, the current federal administration is considering modifying both programs in such a way that they are no longer effective.

Those of us caught between two generations need less names to define ourselves and more suggestions regarding how we can survive a volatile job market, actually pay back what we owe, rear the families we now have, and care for our boomer parents who are aging.

Generation X is the one who has been perpetually skipped over, and some of that is to our good.  We are resilient folks who rode on handle bars, and drank from outside water hoses. Our mommas listen to us chastise them about our semi-neglected childhoods and basically ask “did you die”? We didn’t. But we did pay the price waiting for higher education, and policy in general, to figure out that putting the cost of running universities squarely on the backs of students would lead to long term problematic outcomes. We are pleased that policymakers are starting to get it right, but Generation Xers are left asking, as we always have, what about us?

One and Done: The Game vs. The Student Athlete

Summer television is fairly boring, but this summer ESPN is re-airing its most current iteration of its 30 for 30 series. I grew up in a religious household, so sports was about all I could watch growing up without risking the wrath of Jesus.

This past Saturday “One and Not Done,” told the story of John Calipari, the beleaguered college basketball coach who seems to leave chaos and revoked titles in his wake. “One and done” refers to players who leave college after one year to enter the NBA draft. Students go to college because the league requires that the student’s high school graduating class be out of school at least one year before they are eligible to be drafted.

What struck me most, however, wasn’t Calipari’s story of intentionally recruiting players who want to leave after a year. It was the segment where other elite coaches made their arguments as to why college basketball players should stay in school and play rather than jump to the NBA after one year. Syracuse’s Coach Calhoun went so far as to state that the kid’s should stay for the sake of the game.

My jaw dropped. For decades the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) has emphasized that it wants its athletes to be students first. Nevermind that the term “student athlete” was created so that the NCAA wouldn’t have to pay a kid who was injured while playing for a college. Yet, here is a premier coach focusing on the game, and not the student part.

Furthermore, it’s only in revenue generating sports that we seem to care about the student part or the game. Baseball players often do not go to college at all, and get drafted right into the minor leagues. Tennis players and golfers turn pro as early as they are able. At some point we are going to have to come clean and talk about how “the game” doesn’t really accommodate the student part of athlete and either fix it, or get over being salty about a student leaving college and pursue financial security.

If I knew at age 19 that I was good enough to go right into a career that would leave me without student loans then I think I would have been “one and done” also.

On Mentorship

I’ve shown Ava Duvernay’s speech at the 2013 Film Independent Forum to every student with whom I have a mentoring relationship. I can only do as much work as the student is willing to do for themselves. I find that students can Google so many things, but the very things they want and need to advance their careers or their personal interests.

 

Admitted!

Today we’re proud of our student Katiera Rutledge! Katiera is a student we’ve worked with over the past two years who was interested in transferring from her community college to the University of Maryland at College Park. Her story was featured here.

Katiera was originally denied admission, but after some encouragement from us, called the Admissions Office to find out how to become a stronger application. At that point the Admissions Office discovered that her file had simply been misfiled! Katiera had earned admission to her dream school after all.

This student’s story tells us a few things about the transfer process.

1) It can sometimes be scary. 

Katiera was used to the community college setting, and, even though she wanted to transfer, was a bit reluctant to apply to the larger, flagship school. We worked to demonstrate just how prepared, and ready she truly is, to allay the “I’m not good enough” fears.

2) Follow up can make all the distance.

Katiera did not call the university ranting, but she did ask questions regarding her application, and what she could do to make it stronger. Not all universities are open to such calls, but the lesson here is to let them tell you no rather than assuming the answer without speaking to someone first.

3) Seek outside help. 

Katiera has worked with us over the two years to bridge the gap between her community college and her dream school. Guidance counselors, and university officials are great places to start looking for information about college or transfer, but don’t discount the web, and books! There are a wealth of people in the world who want to see students succeed, and are willing to answer questions. This site is one of those places as well.

Hiding from the Economy With Loans

Dear Student:

I know that the American employment landscape is quite frightening and has been for a while. Friends of mine are moving home to regroup and figure out how to survive while looking for work, or even as full time employees! It is tough for everyone and I want to fully acknowledge that. However, despite how safe school feels you have to go ahead and get out there.

I’m quite saddened and, quite frankly, startled to see young people staying in school unnecessarily to avoid facing the economy. Most colleges only require 120 credits to graduate, but I am seeing students with 150 and more. Some of these students say they are adding a second major to be more competitive. However, I implore you to figure out the long term costs.

Tuition at my institution is quite expensive. Tuition, fees, room and board tops 56 thousand dollars. 56 thousand dollars is more than many Americans earn per year. Staying in school to add extra credits at a cost of 56 thousand dollars does not make long term fiscal sense. Even if your university expenses are less think about what your starting salary may be and how you will pay off that extra year of schooling.

Even though the economy is tough it is better to get out there and start your career and build experience. You may have to live at home and that’s okay. You may have to share an apartment or house with several friends. Again, doing so is okay, and actually pretty fiscally sound if you put away the money you save on rent and pay down student loan or credit card debt contribute to your retirement or put it in a good old savings account.

If you insist on staying in school then I suggest that you earn another credential. Adding credits to your bachelor’s degree does not help in the marketplace. Also, employers may question why you did not graduate on time. Earn a certificate or master’s degree if you can instead. You may not be able to use the graduate education right away, but at least there will be tangible evidence of your extra time in school.

Sincerely,

Shonda

What are your fears about graduating and getting out there? Maybe we can offer some solutions. Leave a comment.

Most Wonderful Time of the Year?

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.

Square Peg – Round Hole

As a practitioner in higher education I see students at all stages of growth simultaneously. It is not unusual for my day to begin with an undeclared freshman and end with seniors ready to tear into the world. One thing I’m noticing across the spectrum is a disconnect between desired occupation and the requisite skills needed to join the occupation.

Most recently I’ve seen students interested in prestigious companies, agencies, or titles, but with little desire to learn the skills necessary to reach those positions. For example, one may want to work for the United Nations or the International Monetary Fund, and yet, not want to travel abroad, not want to experience a culture that does not speak English, and yet wants to train workers who may go abroad. Another example, is a student who wishes to go to law school but hates writing. In fact these students typically emphatically dislike any course that includes writing. In discussing options with these students it can be challenging to steer them toward their interests and aptitudes while not appearing to crush the dream they’ve had since they were seven. However, we must challenge these ideas if we are to be of service to our students.

The disconnect between skill and desire is coming from multiple aspects of a student’s life. Some students are pressured by parents to get a “good job.” Other students are listening to the reports that say if they do not major in science, engineering or mathematics (STEM) then they are doomed. Other students are looking at their student loan balance reports and are trying to head for the sure bet come hell or lack of interest in a field. Inevitably these students fail miserably in their courses or eventually in their ability to get a job because they cannot articulate a true purpose for why they are interested in their subject of study. These students are outperformed by those who actually want they thing, whatever it is, that they are going for.

It is debatable whether the United States really needs more STEM graduates. It is certainly debatable that humanities and social science degrees do not pay off. The United States Department of Labor’s Occupational Handbook shows art students doing fairly well: http://www.bls.gov/ooh/arts-and-design/home.htm. These students are not wealthy, but they aren’t impoverished either. What I see in my work is that regardless of the degree, if the holder is not enthused about the work then the job hunt is merciless as they are beat out by passionate and skilled individuals. Toning down the rhetoric that one must be in one field to do well would go a long way to ensuring that students choose majors and careers that are a good fit.

Year in Review

Our First Scholars

It’s been a super busy year for First Generation University. After so many of you generously gave to our scholarship efforts this year we raised the most money in the four year history of fundraising. Those funds went to a wonderful student from Connecticut, and really made a difference in her being able to stay in school! Thank you again.

This year also marked the beginning of our first program. It’s been a dream to bring the academy to the community, and a partnership with the anti-poverty organization Martha’s Table made that dream come true. I met the director of the teen program, Timothy Jones at the Words, Beats, and Life annual Teach-In where he gave a presentation on hip-hop education. Timothy is a brilliant educator I’d been conversing with online, and when we realized our missions aligned a partnership was born.

In the fall I started the College Pro program on Thursdays. The first half of the academic year we worked with two seniors applying to college. Choosing which colleges to apply to, and working out fee waivers, letters of recommendation and the FAFSA were some of our biggest challenges. In the spring we focused on preparing for the first year in college and dealt with everything from study habits to dating and values.

We’re extremely proud of our two students Jamika Acevedo and Tariq Broadnax. Jamika is headed to Temple University to study biochemistry. Even more impressive is the fact that she earned over 30 thousand dollars in scholarships! Jamika’s advice is to apply for every and any scholarship you qualify for because you never know what may happen. Tariq is headed to the University of Oklahoma to study engineering. Tariq attends Benjamin Banneker Academic High School and decided to apply to the special program Banneker has with OU. Not only does OU provide an opportunity to study engineering, but is a chance for Tariq to get out and experience living in a different part of the country, which he’s very excited about.

We look forward to continuing our work this year, and hope you’ll continue to support what we do.