Holiday Blues for Students

Your students may be suffering more than you know.

Thanksgiving is upon us, and Channukah and Christmas are around the corner. This time is usually a time of rest for students. However, some are facing going home with dread.

Today one of those students told me how they thought about jumping off of the top of a parking garage. As the fall semester comes to a close many students, like this one, are anxious about going home and telling their families that they are failing classes. Rather than face the disappointment, ridicule, or wrath of family and friends, some students would rather end their lives.

This is the time when families start asking students about their classes and school life. What many families don’t realize is that the how, when, and why these questions are asked impact their student psychologically.

Consider asking your student how they are doing in private rather than at the family dinner table. When these questions are asked in front of others it can feel as though the student is on display rather than truly being cared for. What’s worse is if the student isn’t performing well then they don’t have any room to tell the whole truth without facing the embarrassment of failing in front of family and friends.

Pull your student aside well before the hullabaloo of the holidays so that you can have an honest one-on-one with them. If the student is in their first year then do not necessarily panic if their grades are not where you think they should be. Nearly everyone has an adjustment period. Listening to your student talk through what they are going through, both negative and positive, can help them cope with their challenges, and follow through with the last few weeks of the semester to be as successful as they can be.

Students’ mental health can be especially fragile around the holidays as they are met with the hopes and expectations of loved ones. How loved ones respond can determine if students are able to cope well or feel as though they have no way out.

Finally, if a student is suicidal there are people that can help. Most schools have a helpline students can call 24 hours a day. Counseling staffpersons are not off during break, and at least one person will be in the office to answer questions about how to get help for your student even at home. In addition, if you, or anyone else needs help immediately, then please call the National Suicide Hotline at 800.273.8255.

 

Being Where We Are Wanted

Saturday, September 23rd, 2017 I had the pleasure of being a panelist on Tunes & Talk, hosted by Risikat Okedeyi, on WPFW DC. The topic was the seeming backlash from black men to Damon Young’s article on Very Smart Brothas articulating what he had heard before from black women in his social media network – black men are the white people of black people.

The panel was a raucous one, and there have been plenty of hot takes about the piece, so I feel no need to rehash them here. What I wanted to note is that the fact that a man wrote about this idea should serve as a final warning.

Anna Julia Cooper had to remind the readers of W.E. B. DuBois’ work that the problem of the color line was but just one of the problems of the 20th century. That the woman problem, the limitations of gender, were harming black women.

The Combahee River Collective reminded us that black women, and black queer women in particular, will wait on no one to recognize their power.

Deborah King, Elizabeth Fiorenza, Gloria Hull and Kimberle Crenshaw have been telling us since the 1980s and 1990s that one can experience both privilege and oppression, and perhaps the way to freedom is by listening to the folks that have the least of the former.

Moya Bailey made her plea more specific when she addressed the particulars of the degradation experienced by black women in 2010.

I say this not to provide a syllabus of the basics of black feminist thought, although I do encourage reading the work of these women before dismissing Young’s article. Instead I’m merely illustrating that black women have been articulating this thought for at least two hundred years.

The waiting is over.

Black women will no longer cook in the back, and hope that our concerns are addressed from the pulpit. Even if we make a mean macaroni and cheese and potato salad.

There is no more ceding leadership roles, while doing everything else to keep the structures of the organizations black women start afloat.

Candice Benbow articulates another aspect of the black and female experience that also plays a role here:

Many of us born in the late ’70s and ’80s can attest to growing up in single parent homes, which isn’t to say that there were no men who supported us in our communities, at all. However, your uncles and community members are not your parent. Furthermore, if the men in your life do not cede space for black women, then there is only one outcome – a large portion of black women will move on. At this point should black women decide to pack our duffle bags and go, and by go I mean stop organizing, stop feeding, stop advocating, just stop, then this does more harm to black men than black women. We’ve had at least three decades of practice advocating for ourselves since the marriage rate for black women has been in decline. We have learned to go only where we are wanted. But you dear brother, good luck if you decide to go it alone.

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.

 

Emergency Preparedness

This summer I am working with 300 young people who are taking classes at my university. In preparation I am combing through the emergency and disaster plan prepared by the institution, so that my staff and faculty can know what to do if something happens. For example, today three Metro lines had to be put out of service because of smoke in the tunnel. Our students are often off site for learning opportunities, and I want to be sure that we do our best to keep them safe.

I have now worked in higher education for almost a decade, and this is the first time I’ve really read a campus emergency plan. One would think that after the active shooter at Virginia Tech, and the challenges of 9/11 that we all would be more vigilant about these policies. However, it isn’t something we attend to unless we are responsible directly for students. We forget that we are also responsible for ourselves.

I once had a student in class begin to get violent. Until that moment it never occurred to me that the University Police telephone number should be programmed into my phone. Now, I don’t even need to program the information. I have both the emergency and non-emergency numbers memorized. I also know where they are located in case phone service is down. I have introduced myself to several I see on campus just in case. In case of what I do not know.

I encourage every student, parent, faculty and staff person to review their campus policies. Do not leave it up to student affairs to know what to do with students. Even the mild earthquake my city experienced a few years ago impacted classes. Bring in health and safety professionals to your staff or faculty meetings once per year to get an update. Update your CPR and defibrillator training. There is no use in the university buying life saving equipment if no one knows 1) where it is kept, and 2) how to use it!

Be safe and well.

Community in Higher Education

Primary and secondary education make it a point to try to involve parents in the education process. Just today someone was telling a story about how her child receives checklists from school so that parents know what homework the student should be completing over the week. Schools regularly host parent-teacher conferences. Debates around the merits of a “neighborhood school” versus busing or other means of integration still rage.

Not so much in higher education. It’s as though higher education expects 17-18 year olds to be full formed adults even though part of what we do is shape young people into citizens; at least by the old education is a “public good” standards. We are supposed to know that they aren’t fully formed adults. Yet, why do we cut off their parents abruptly?

With regard to first generation and low-income students cutting off family can be especially traumatic. Research shows that community can be especially important for minoritized students, and first generation and low-income students are similar. When you have had to come together as a community to find ways to defeat racism, or survive fiscally then it can become unfathomable to break from the community when one goes to school. And why should someone do so? The way higher education speaks about access often seems like implicitly marginalized students should reject their home communities and join this “better” way of doing things. The conversation implies that socialization into the academy requires putting away  all that came before.

If we are going to meet the access and completion agendas we have to find better ways to incorporate communities into higher education. It is perfectly fine to expose students to new ideas. It is not okay to for educators to bury their heads in the sand and not try to find ways to incorporate students’ culture and home communities into the college going culture and process. There are many skills that marginalized students bring with them that do not fit neatly into existing frameworks, but those skills may be what leads to new ways of thinking, not only in the classroom, but in the workplace.

Building college going cultures requires incorporating whole families so that they understand what their young person is heading off to do, and thus, the family can support it. Building family into the culture also may save dollars because college going programming may not have to be repeated with younger siblings if parents/guardians also learn the process.

At its heart education is a community process and for it to be effective beyond one person then the community has to be involved from start to finish.

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.

MOOCs and Being First Gen

In our office we recently had our first dust up with MOOCs, or massively open online courseware. A student was attempting to transfer in an edX class and we had to figure out how to explain that this type of credit was not sufficient for our institution.  I have nothing against MOOCs for personal enrichment. edX seems to offer a wonderful array of courses for anyone who wishes to be a lifelong learner. The danger is when students do not know the difference.

Many MOOC sites do explain that their courses may or may not count for academic credit at a traditional college or university, but sometimes this information is hard to find. If you find yourself unsure about your classes and whether they transfer look for a few key things:

  • Are there any admissions requirements? A regionally accredited university requires some sort of documentation that you attended and completed high school or a GED equivalent. This is true of for-profit, online education and traditional non-profit schools. If a site allows you to take classes without any such documentation then it is likely that the site is meant for “fun” and not mean to be transferable.
  •  Are the classes free? With the budget cuts all American colleges are experiencing you can trust and believe that no credit-bearing class is going to be free.
  • Is the site separate from the main university site? Many of these courses are taught by faculty from prestigious institutions such as MIT, Harvard, and UC Berkeley, but unless you have gone through the admissions process at the main university site then you are not enrolling in an actual course from these institutions.

MOOCs are a wonderful way to enrich your life and help you really hone a knowledge base. I liken them to the Khan Academy, which helps refresh a student’s memory on concepts long forgotten, or even reinforces what one learned in traditional classes. However, if your desire is degree attainment then please reach out to the admissions counselor at your local community college, or four-year public or private university.

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.