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?


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.

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.

On “Constructive” Criticism

Part of my role as an advisor is to work with students interested in applying to graduate school. Graduate school is a very expensive, and time consuming proposition, and in meetings with students I am very honest about with them about the experience.

Recently, a student was not happy with my advice as evidenced by the nastygram, disguised as a thank you note, sent to my office. This student objected to me noting that her grades and grade point average were not up to the standards of the schools in which she is interested.

Sometimes the truth hurts and there is no way around the facts. For competitive doctoral programs, that often only admit 6-8 students, obtaining admission directly out of an undergraduate program with a gpa under a 3.5 and low GRE scores would take a bit of luck. There is no way to artfully explain that, nor do I think it would have been a service to the student to not be straight with her. The graduate school application process alone can cost a minimum of $500 once one considers GRE fees, application fees, and transcript request fees. Furthermore, more and more people are heading to graduate school to hide from the recession. The competition is fierce for anyone.

I’m not sure what the student expected regarding her appointment. Her complaint was that telling her the numbers for graduate school admission was not “constructive.” However, what I do know that providing sound advice, even if it isn’t what the student wants to hear is my job.I do hope that she is accepted at her schools of choice.


Fisher v. Texas – Affirmative Action Rehash

Tomorrow another case goes before the Supreme Court of the United States about affirmative action in higher education. It’s been less than a decade since this issue was last taken up by the court in Grutter v. Bollinger where the SCOTUS held up affirmative action in the case of the University of Michigan Law School. It’s unusual that a court takes another case of the same sort so close to its last decision, so everyone in higher education is watching with baited breath.

The University of Texas at Austin already has what is colloquially called a “ten percent plan” in place, which admits students in the top of their class to the university. Ms. Fisher was not admitted to the institution under those circumstances, nor was she admitted as a legacy student. Both her father and sibling both attended UT. The institution has also noted that Ms. Fisher would not have been admitted had affirmative action not been in place. Several institutions and researchers have submitted friends of the court briefs in support of the University of Texas using affirmative action in their admissions process. Their reasoning is that until inequity in educational opportunities are addressed, it is unfair to strike down initiatives meant to redress those inequities.

With so many preferential admissions statuses in higher education it is a wonder that affirmative action continues to be the gripe of choice. Students are admitted to universities for a variety of reasons and “merit” is only one of them. Universities are looking for more than just a class of students who can pass exams. They are looking for well rounded people who can come together to create a campus community that reflects a variety of values. Thus, an excellent cellist, or athlete, or student who made their mark by creating an amazing business venture may be admitted preferentially. Furthermore, many institutions still utilize legacy admissions and have special lists for the children or large donors. Keep in mind that the donor lists are also kept for competitive graduate school admissions. People who can afford it are able to ensure that their child has the best education money can buy regardless of “merit.” And, yet, none of these have recently been challenged all the way to the SCOTUS.

It is easy to pinpoint the student of color you think has taken “your” space on campus, but no student is guaranteed admission to a university, and it is quite presumptuous to think that you as an applicant are owed something. I’m sure Ms. Fisher, who has gone on to Louisiana State University, has received an excellent education. The University of Texas was not meant to be.

This case reminds us what is at stake in our state and federal elections. The next president of the United States may have the opportunity to appoint 3 supreme court justices. Many state legislatures are enacting legislation that would limit the time a student has to earn their degree if they are receiving financial aid even though research shows that often students who are low-income struggle because of finances or life events such as having children.

What happens in the Fisher vs. UTexas will shape higher education, and who has access to it for generations to come. Today is the last day to register to vote in several states and the District of Columbia. Are you vote ready?

No Such Thing as “Backup” Education

I met with a nervous and scared student recently. This student thrives in artistic arenas. However, instead of following her gut and just majoring in theater she was double majoring in a subject in which she had no interest. You could tell that the student had zero interest in the subject through both her body language and her grades! While in my office she was crunched into a ball while talking about the second major, and her grades in the classes were quite different from her stellar marks in theater.

So why was the student torturing herself? She believed the hype. She believed that there are no jobs out there for people in the arts, and she added the second major to boost her chances of getting a job. However, what she didn’t know has tanked her grade point average. First, the second major she undertook requires a graduate degree to even begin to make more money than she could as an artist. Second, the job market for that sector isn’t strong either. Third, there are plenty of theater venues in Washington, D.C. and her time would have been better spent gaining experience than taking on coursework for which she had no zeal.

Fortunately, this student has one-year remaining of her formal undergraduate education, and she came to check-in with her advisor instead of waiting until the last minute to do a graduation review. The lessons I hope students learn from this young lady is that there really is no such thing as backup education. If you aren’t invested in what you’re learning then you simply won’t do well, and low GPAs can make life more challenging than being in the “wrong” major.

Follow your talents.

What Happens to a Dream Deferred?

An article in today’s Chronicle of Higher Ed pointed an every increasing problem in higher education.  Community colleges are asked to serve the needs of the many, but the funds are few.  Students are being steered away from four-year institutions, but are finding that at the community college level they cannot get into the courses they need to graduate on time.

I’ve never been a believer in the American Dream since it oft calls for pulling oneself up from non-existent bootstraps, and it seems that working class students are being sold a bill of goods once again. We as a nation cannot talk out of both sides of our mouths when it comes to education. Either we are going to fund our public colleges and universities so that students have a chance to improve themselves or we aren’t. It is egregious for a student to need four math courses to graduate and cannot even get into the first one because all of the sections are full .

I believe in community colleges. I’ve taught off and on at two over the past few years. The community college classroom is an interesting mix of people from a variety of backgrounds. Sometimes you may have a room full of military veterans, high school students trying to get a jump on their four-year degrees, recent high school graduates, moms, dads, and anything in between. Each person attends for his or her own reasons, but usually the reasons boil down to them trying to better themselves and their families.

I truly hope that my home state of California finds a way to make right what is happening to their once great higher education system. My father is a self-proclaimed country boy, and when he notes that something isn’t quite right he often says “that dog don’t hunt.” In the case of what our nation is telling our working-class and poor students about their educational opportunities, no dad that dog doesn’t seem to be useful at all.

3500 for 35! is Going Strong

Greetings friends,

My birthday is in just about a month, and I hope you’ll help me in supporting low income students! Since the 10th anniversary of my college graduation I have donated my birthday toward raising funds for low-income students at UNC at Chapel Hill, my alma mater. This year I’m reaching a milestone birthday, and my aim is to raise $3500 to celebrate! I’m super excited because the campaign only launched two days ago, and we’re nearly at $600.

You can read more about how I started this journey and how to contribute here. No contribution is too great or too small, so I hope you’ll consider giving!

Thanks in advance,


If You Have to Pay It’s Probably Not Legit

One of students recently emailed me about an offer he received to join an honor society.  The invitation required a $75 to access all of the wonderful networking opportunities the offer touted.  The student emailed me to find out whether or not the offer was legitimate, and I’m glad he did.

If you have to pay for the privilege of being honored then it’s not an honor.  You are paying for access to an organization.  In some cases it’s worth it to join something that has a cost.  Many people are members of sororities and fraternities, or join other social clubs that have dues.  However, these aforementioned organizations are groups where you are joining a community.  They aren’t purporting to give you something if only you’ll fund them.

The pay for membership tactic is similar to the “we’ll honor you, and because of it you should buy our book to see your name in print” tactic.  A particular group has been getting people to buy books no one cares about at least since I was a high school student.

Just ask yourself.  How prestigious can it be if in order to accept I have to pay?