Bridging the Divide: A Call to Action

In a post on Inside Higher Ed earlier this week, author Russell Olwell discussed the importance of faculty mentoring for undergraduates. This rang close to home as I think back on my career as an undergraduate; the faculty that I had in my first year helped me hone my skills as a writer and taught me how to think critically; skills incredibly necessary for an undergraduate student in the program in which I was entering.

Yet, the post also had me reflect on the work I do now as a student affairs educator. I work in Housing & Residence Life at Virginia Tech and our department is constantly thinking of ways to bridge the divide between student affairs and academic affairs (literally divided by the Drill Field) by bringing faculty to the residence halls. Virginia Tech is home to two residential colleges (Residential College at West Ambler Johnston and the Honors Residential Commons at East Ambler Johnston) where tenure track faculty live in the residence halls and interact with students in numerous ways outside the classroom. Programs like these (living learning programs) are essential to bridging that divide and strengthening undergraduate education.

In addition to my work in Housing & Residence Life, I also work with our Fraternity & Sorority Life office due to my position overseeing our on campus fraternities and sororities. In this capacity, I often think of how to bring faculty mentors into the fraternity and sorority life community. While residential programs across the country move towards greater and greater faculty-student interaction, it is essential for other functional areas within student affairs (e.g. fraternity and sorority life, leadership programs, identity centers, etc) to bring in faculty to provide more and more opportunities for faculty and undergraduate students to connect and build relationships.

The work of bridging the divide cannot be left to residence life programs. While the majority of students on a traditional residential campus pass through the residence halls, many students do not find community within those halls. Thus, other student affairs functional areas need to rethink their work (as residential programs still need to do too) to bring in more faculty, helping to bridge that divide.

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Liberal Arts Education and Hope

In the midst of the vitriolic political discourse the United States is currently facing, there rages a debate as to the purpose of education generally and higher education specifically. Many seem to think that higher education should be an avenue to teach skills for jobs and careers while others see higher education as a means to teach mores, critical thinking, and the assist in students’ meaning making capacity. While the debate has not centered on a ‘winner’ the skill based education side seems to have the edge.

A recent study seems to indicate that a liberal arts education – the idea that higher education can teach mores, critical thinking, and assist with meaning making capacity – may yield positive results for liberal arts graduates (outside of just salary). This could be a huge victory for the liberal arts side of the debate, yet the article (and study) seem to miss the major point of one side of the debate. While the study focuses on graduates leadership capacity, orientation towards lifelong learning, and the like, proponents of skill based education do not even value those things that a liberal arts education hopes to instill in students.

The idea that an education should lead to better people is opposed to the idea that education should lead to high paying jobs (though they don’t have to be opposed). The debate will rage on and this study will embolden supporters of a liberal education but fail to impact those that believe a liberal education is not necessary in today’s global society.

Education, though, has to be about making individuals better versions of themselves. Education needs to teach individuals to think critically, the ability to sift through facts and figures, and the idea that two opposed views could be correct is incredibly valuable in today’s hyper-polarized society. The United States election of 2016 saw this debate play out on a national scale as Democrats and Republicans were yelling at one another, assuming the worst of the other. While this is not all explained by the philosophy of education, it certainly is embedded in it. A liberal education is ever more important in this complex 21st century. We cannot simply hope that graduates learn skills to do a job (though that is important – I want my doctor and electrician to know exactly what they are doing) we need to also hope that our graduates can think critically and hold opposing viewpoints. Education – a liberal arts education at that – is the only hope we have to begin to break down the divisiveness that our country currently is faced with.

Changing Mindset

When I tell folks that I work with or interact with that I work with fraternities and sororities, their first question is almost always “are you affiliated?” to which my response is “no.” This short exchange is always comical to me as the reactions to my answer range from surprised to shocked. And to be honest, I am surprised that I keep being assigned to this type of work when I do not have any affiliation.

Yet, this past weekend I was afforded the opportunity to facilitate at a weekend retreat for the interfraternal community that I work with in my first professional position. I was anxious heading into the weekend, as my knowledge of fraternities and sororities is limited even though I have worked with the community on two campuses.

The weekend was draining. As an introvert, it is hard to have to be on in facilitator mode for 12 hours each day. Yet, it was a weekend that I felt started to change my mindset. Most of my concerns and hesitations in working with the interfraternal community centers on my lack of affiliation and lack of knowledge of the community. Yet this weekend illuminated how I can do good work with this community and help those students develop into more impactful leaders.

The weekend retreat utilizes Peter Block’s book, Community: The Structure of Belonging, as a way to engage the students in conversations on creating change within their community. It is a text that is not about fraternities and sororities, nor higher education. But it contains valuable lessons for leaders in organizations, whether undergraduate students or elected officials. Facilitating those discussions was a positive experience and saw me engaging with students who are thinking critically about their experience in their fraternity/sorority. They were receptive to my probing and reflective questions. They left those discussions thinking differently about their experience and the role they play in creating a more positive interfraternal experience.

Having engaged in this experience, I am now seeing my ability to educate these students, in spite of my lack of affiliation. My skills in facilitating and educating are transferable to this setting. While I cannot relate to their experience in a fraternity/sorority, I can make them think critically and evaluate what role they have in creating positive change. I had to rely more on the students I was learning with to share their stories in a different way than if I had an affiliation. Facilitating this leadership retreat was mindset changing, as I started to see the impact I can make.

I will never be fully comfortable in a fraternity/sorority setting, but this weekend was what I needed to begin to make me feel more comfortable in the role I play in educating these students.

I’m Home

It’s been a few months since my last post… since graduating in May 2016 with my Masters of Science in Student Affairs in Higher Education I enjoyed a few months off and then began my job as a Residential Learning Coordinator at Virginia Tech. It has been a whirlwind summer and I cannot believe October is in just over 24 hours.

The adjustment to being a new professional has been as expected; challenging, rewarding, stressful, and full of surprises. Having been in school for 18 consecutive years, my first fall without having to go to class, prepare for homework, and worry about the next test has been surprisingly stressful.

I was born and raised in the Midwest; the longest I lived somewhere outside of the rust belt was in Seattle for two and a half months in the summer of 2015. Now, living in the Southeast I am out of my comfort zone adjusting to life as a professional. Overall, it has been positive but there were numerous times when I would ask myself “Can I do this?” or “Why was I hired?” There were even nights when I would think that I was not worthy to be working full time; that I had missed some important lesson in graduate school. Luckily I kept going, mostly hiding my stress and self-doubt from my colleagues, because now I am starting to get it. The sense of self-doubt and fraudulent being is not anything new; anyone adjusting to a new role or new area is bound to experience this ‘impostor syndrome’ that is so often discussed in higher education. I too felt it as I transition(ed) here to VT and Blacksburg.

However, this week was the first week since moving down here that I haven’t felt the self-doubt or worried about the mountains of work. Part of that is we are finishing week six of the semester, but another part is that I have started to connect with friends back home and colleagues here and begun to develop a support system. As cliche as it is, that sense of support and camaraderie has been a world of difference as far as my conception of my role as a professional. Now that I feel this sense of support and camaraderie I can worry less about navigating two offices (I am a dual report to Housing & Residence Life and Fraternity & Sorority Life) or the mountains of emails I wake up to everyday. Instead, I can put my head down and get to work knowing that when I do mess up I have folks who can support me and laugh off the mistake.

I’m finally home.

Teaching Discourse

Part of my morning ritual is to turn on the news and watch a half hour of CNN, just to get caught up on the days events. For the most part, this is a helpful aspect of my morning ritual, yet all too often there is a segment or two that devolves into two guests shouting at each other. The shouting is mind numbing, not because it is early in the morning but because the shouting commenced because the two individuals have no respect for one another and a hatred of facts. The shouting matches are ever more disturbing each time I watch them, because they all follow the same script. The loss of a respect for ideas and varying viewpoints is troubling, particularly as our nation grapples with issues that require thoughtful and solution focused policy.

The educator in me finds this rather troubling. In my own experience working with collegiate students, I find the same troubling lack of respect for different ideas. My own hope as an educator is to expose my students to multiple perspectives on a given topic and to allow them to interrogate those perspectives in a civil and critical manner. Yet, the students I have worked with go to their basic instinct which is to simply criticize and wright off a perspective from which they disagree. It took most of the fall semester to get 20 first year students in a leadership course to be comfortable with critically investigating an idea that they disagreed with.

This critical interrogation of ideas is missing from our society. Looking at our political climate, there is a dualistic, ‘with-us-or-against-us’ mindset that permeates through todays political climate. There are some bipartisan efforts being worked on, but those are few and far between. As a society, we seem to have lost the basic respect for our peers and a desire to move forward together by finding consensus.

For educators, reteaching this respect for different view points and critical interrogation (which I view as the act of analyzing and discussing an idea) is critical to the work being done in and outside the classrooms. Students need to be okay with engaging in ideas that they may seem detestable because when they are in the ‘real world’ and outside the comforting walls of the classroom, they will be forced to work with ideas and perspectives that they may disagree.

How do educators reteach respect for different view points and critical interrogation is beyond me. There is no ‘perfect’ solution, but the themes and values embedded in those two ‘soft skills’ are essential to the survival of the Republic in which we live and the health of public discourse.

Waiting

There is something positive to be said about having almost two months off between jobs. I finished my contract at Miami University on May 20th and will start at my new position at Virginia Tech on July 13th. I looked forward to this time off to get my life in order, see friends and family, and recharge after working through my graduate program for two years.

Yet, as I sit in this liminal state, I cannot help but feel restless. Just a few short weeks ago, I was feeling restlessness as I went through the ritual of commencement. In some respects, this restlessness is to be expected for a newly anointed master of student affairs. Yet, that restlessness is tiring.

I spend my mornings going through a ritual of turning on the news, drinking a cup of tea, and making breakfast. This ritual is important, as it adds structure to a time filled with anything but structure. Lately, that ritual has been filled with responding to emails from my future employer about my placement or notes of welcome. The restlessness to move to Blacksburg and start my new position is starting to get to me, and I am in only my second week of my break.

It helps to know that the restlessness I am feeling is natural and one that my peers across the country and undoubtedly feeling. Yet, the desire to get up and get started with my next position hangs over me like a heavy cloud. The possibilities that wait for me at Virginia Tech are numerous and have the rose colored glasses to make the impending transition seem incredibly exciting and without trouble. The next five and a half weeks are going to be filled with restlessness and the desire to get started. How I stay grounded in this liminal state is important to the enjoyment that I can get.

Best of luck to all who are feeling similarly as they wait for their new beginning.

Restlessness at Commencement

J4816 2016 Spring Commencement Yager Stadium
2016 Spring Commencement Yager Stadium- Photo Credit: Ricardo Trevino Jr. Photography

Saturday May 14th 2016 I, along with my cohort, graduated from Miami University. It was a cold and blustery day on that Saturday afternoon. The chill was more akin to early November, not mid-May. Yet, we sat through the ceremony eagerly awaiting our opportunity to walk across the stage, shake the President’s hand and know that we completed two years of hard work and are no longer Masters Candidates; we are Masters.

As I sat through the University Commencement, I saw myself reflecting on my time at Miami University. It was a strange feeling, knowing that I was done studying (for now) and would no longer be taking courses; I would be working a full time job in just a few short months. That excitement (and anxiousness) was palpable among my peers. Yet, I also felt drastically different than when I graduated from Michigan State University with my Bachelor of Arts.

Two years ago when I walked across the stage in the Wharton Center for Performing Arts, I was filled with immense pride, joy, and nostalgia. I had completed something that no one in my family before me had; I was the first to attend, graduate, and complete my studies at an institution of higher learning. I knew I was going to attend graduate school by my commencement ceremony at Michigan State, and I knew I would be leaving behind friends that became family. It was a bittersweet moment to be sure.

Two days ago, when I walked across the stage at Yager Stadium, I was filled with restlessness and pride. The feelings were strikingly different than when I walked a similar path two years prior. My time at Miami University was a good one; I developed friendships that are akin to a family unit, I learned a great deal, (both personally and professionally), and once again accomplished something that no one in my family prior to me had done: attended, graduate, and complete my studies in graduate school. Once again, I knew where my life would take me in my next chapter. But the feeling of nostalgia and joy was missing from this commencement ceremony.

Graduate school is vastly different than undergraduate studies. I made strong friendships and continued to grow, but that feeling of restlessness and eagerness to move on was something that I had not yet felt. Maybe this feeling of restlessness is a product of being in school for 18 years straight, but somehow I think that is too simple an explanation. Instead, I think the restlessness is a result of knowing that I am ready for the next chapter.

When I left Michigan State, I was unsure if I was ready to be a graduate student. I was not entirely confident in my ability to be successful. Now, after completing two years of a rigorous Masters program, I know I am able to be successful in a full time position. I know that it will be challenging, but I know that I can persevere through those challenges.

Restlessness is not a normal feeling at University Commencements, but it’s a feeling I’m glad I felt two days ago.