2016 brings a new semester, which is exciting, and has my mind thinking about quite a few topics. One of them involves how we need to speak to all students in order to meet students where they are at in terms of partnering with them to learn. Perhaps it is because I work at a public institution within the state of Illinois that this topic is on my mind…where it truly seems as though people are talking past each other when we are almost 8 months into a fiscal year with no budget passed. Perhaps it is because I am passionate about learning and how it occurs…which requires the learner to create some form of association to the topic being learned in order for understanding to take place.
Whatever the reason, I can’t help but think that we, as student affairs professionals, need to be more diligent in translating what we mean by the words we use to others inside the institution, as well as those outside of the institution.
Paul Brown recently blogged about the income disparity between those we teach to use LinkedIn and those who use Facebook. Similarly, I find that we tend to use phrases/words that are intended to be inclusive, but are exclusive to a large portion of people. (Some of whom we might be trying to recruit to our institutions…cough, cough…first generation college students, who incidentally make up around one-third to one-half of today’s college students depending on how you define the word first generation.)
Phrases/words such as:
- Time Management
Now, I realize that you might be thinking that the words I listed above are words that should be known by anyone seeking a degree in higher education. Yet, what I watch happen in the Western 1st Generation society student organization that I advise when presenters use these words indicates to me that we are not getting the message across. They instantly stop paying attention, and no longer make eye contact.
I propose that the burden is on us, student affairs professionals, to learn to speak the language of those unfamiliar with college without using deficit language. So, instead of saying, “We are looking for those who are student leaders”, which can send the message “this isn’t for you”. Rephrase it to say, “We all have leadership qualities in some way, and this position will help you to grow them. After all, you wouldn’t be here if you didn’t have them.” This doesn’t mislead the student into thinking that they know everything, and it acknowledges that you will help them to continue growing if they are selected for the position. It also doesn’t require them to already see themselves as a leader, which they might not yet associate with themselves nor fully understand. Plus, it is very true…consider the enormous amount of skills and abilities it might have taken for them to get into college.
Time management and balance are a bit more hidden. I think it is easy to assume that first generation students have no ability to manage their time or find balance. Instead, it could be that they are in search of more time or tips for how to manage it. It isn’t that they aren’t trying. Perhaps instead of saying that they need to work on their time management skills, we could ask them how they are approaching their time management.
As for balance, I’ve found that balance can be a luxury if you are just trying to figure out and succeed in your surroundings, as well as work a job or two. Balance can be easily misunderstood as only working 8 hours during the day and not doing any work in the evenings. Furthermore, it can lead to additional anxiety if everyone is telling you to do it and it simply can’t be achieved. For example, some of the students I work with in the student group are taking a full load of classes, working, and trying to understand the system of how higher education works. Bringing up the term balance does not seem helpful.
I raise the issue of the language we use because it seems self-defeating and arguably hypocritical if we are trying to work toward greater access, and yet aren’t speaking to what is increasingly becoming one of the largest student populations on college campus—first generation students. Please don’t hear this to mean that I think we must lower our expectations for what can be learned. However, we cannot claim to “meet students where they are at” if we aren’t considering how to be accessible in our communication to student populations such as first generation students, amongst others.