If we aren’t counselors, what are we?

Every time I go into work, I meet with students. They come into my office, sit down in a colorful paisley chair and sink into a state of sometimes anxiousness, sometimes defensiveness, and sometimes comfort. Students know why they are in the session, the conduct office writes the explanation out within their sanction letter:

“You are required to complete UVM’s BASICS Program (Behavior Around Substance use In College Students). You will soon receive detailed instructions in an email from BASICS in your UVM email account.BASICS is confidential. In brief:

  • You will be asked to arrange an appointment to speak with a BASICS facilitator.
  • You will be asked to complete an online survey in advance of this appointment.

In order to complete this sanction on time, we encourage you to schedule the meeting with a BASICS facilitator as soon as possible. The totality of the sanction needs to be completed ‘fill in the date here’.”

When students also receive a notification from the BASICS team informing them that will be sitting in a confidential hour long session with a BASICS coordinator or facilitator counselor, they are told that they will be discussing alcohol use, drugs use, and themselves. For the entire hour they will have the spotlight.

As a BASICS coordinator, I am on the other end of the student in the spotlight; I am the helper. My job is to listen, ask reflective questions, and both validate and question the student’s perceptions on drug and alcohol use. Students often know nothing about me beyond my role, but there is an implied understanding that I am there to help. Thus, when I ask the question “How is your semester going?” their responses vary from “fine” to “I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression this year.” In fact mental health issues come up almost every single meeting I have with students. And as I have been sitting in these meetings and hashing out the ins and outs of how this student should receive support, a sense of mental and emotional exhaustion has been burning in the back of my mind.

Compassion fatigue is a term discussed in circles of counseling, nursing, and teaching but is something I only recently heard discussed in regards to profession of student affairs. It is the secondary traumatic stress one experiences from constant exposure to trauma within your profession. Environments student affairs professional may experience compassion fatigue are in professions that have high student contact within a helping role. The funny thing is, that would encompass many graduate students and most new student affairs professionals.

As conversations around mental health fill the ears of new student affairs professionals as we wrap our heads around how to properly support students and lend them help, who is helping these professionals with their own mental health? If more students are coming into college experiencing mental health issues, what impact is it leaving upon the new student affairs professionals who are interacting with those students? What we know is that the retention of the student affairs professionals in the field is very low, but it is unclear how much of that has to do with compassion fatigue. However, in my personal experiences as a BASICS coordinator I am not a counselor, yet students are coming to me to hold all of their problems and counsel them. Yet didn’t we ditch the counseling profession years ago?

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Buzzwords in Higher Education

Every working field has norms and ways that things get done. Whether we want to adhere and follow these “rules” is a different story. I have found this intriguing as someone who aspires to be in the profession of working/supporting students. Beginning with my graduate program, there is universal language that is used. It has also been my experience that outside my program, folks in the field use these “buzzwords” in everyday conversations which lead me to question how much of what is said to be true. I will explain what I mean with three words that have been lost in translation and practice within higher education.

Diversity        

Institutions across the world are focusing on diversifying their campuses. This has come to no surprise as the effects of having diverse campuses are beneficial for the whole student body experience. The word “diversity” has been added on many institutional mission statements. I question, what does diversity mean? Diversity encompasses multiple facets and racial diversity is the main component of what institutions focus on. It is one thing to recruit students of color, but how do we support these students as an institution? This has become a buzzword and seen as a virtuous initiative to become more diverse. Yet, the climate of college campuses remains hostile and unsupportive for these students. Having more racial diversity on campuses fall short when it’s done on the expense of the students of color that are promised a supportive college experience.

As I navigated my undergraduate institution, I found no support for students of color. I was sold the dream attending a small, private, liberal arts, Hispanic-serving institution and it was nothing from what I imagined. Institution praising the twenty-five percent plus of Latinx identified students, yet no representation from faculty to support the population. Diversity cannot be praised by getting students on college campuses, instead retaining students from diverse backgrounds should be the focus.

Social Justice

This word has become the most overused and undervalued word in student affairs. Social justice is seen like a verb, like going outside and breathing air. Many students coming into graduate programs use this buzzword in their applications and when they answer why they want to join this field. Asking students to further explain the meaning, allows us to see that there is no one answer to define what social justice is and what it looks like. Social justice in various ways is talked about through the subordinate identities of others versus reflecting on one’s own dominant identities. A common narrative is that because we helped someone get through a hardship, we are socially just. As Australian Aboriginal Elder Lilla Watson said “if you’ve come here to help me, you’re wasting your time. But if you’ve come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” Social justice is not about helping others for one’s own gain, it’s about unpacking one’s own trauma to be able to better serve others.

Inclusion

Coming into my graduate program, I knew that pronouns were used to respect how individuals want to be addressed. However, I did not have a deeper understanding as to why.  As I started to critically reflect on what it means for me as a cisgender man, I started to notice the critique I have with this buzzword. Until we understand the level of harm misgendering causes, our actual commitment to inclusive practices will fall short. There is a difference between having a surface level understanding of only using one’s pronouns because it upsets the person when we don’t; versus having a critical level of understanding that it is imperative for me to do so. The way I have reflected on this is with body dysphoria. The anxiety, the hurt, and the shame that comes when someone jokes about my body is not entirely the same as gender dysphoria, but it is the connection that helps me understand the importance of inclusive practices.

Using these buzzwords without understanding what they mean is harmful. We must be more conscious if what we say is really what we practice. The key to overcoming the use of these buzzwords is to dive deeper into what these words actually mean. Going deeper than the definition of what diversity, social justice, and inclusion mean has allowed me to critically understand my experiences and join the conversation. Even so, there is much work to be done.

 

David Jasso (He/Him/His)

Whittier College ’15

University of Vermont ’18

Transitions into College: Parents Need Help Too

As a first-generation college student and first-generation US citizen born Latina, my parents have always made it known that going to college was expected. Conversations with my parents around education always seemed to focus on one theme: “we came to this country for you and your sisters to do better, to be better, to have an education”. With this constantly on my mind, I accepted their expectation and made sure I had post-secondary education plans. However, I don’t think they were as prepared for that transition as I was.

Throughout my journey as a graduate student and soon-to-be Student Affairs professional, I have often wondered what the relationship between parents/family and a higher education institution should be. See, every student that chooses to obtain a post-secondary education is more or less prepared for the transition into higher education; students talk to counselors and go to orientations, they develop Facebook pages and find roommates. Yet the same preparation is not always available for parents. Do parents need this preparation? Yes. Do some parents need it more than others? Yes. Who should be tasked to help parents through this transition, high schools or higher education institutions? Great question.

While students wrap up their senior year of high school and begin to prepare for the next step in their education, parents should be doing the same. However, while students have teachers, counselors, and even college admission officers guiding their path, parents tend to not have many professionals to ask for guidance in this new transition. Although high school counselors can take on this task, they wouldn’t be able to provide the continued support for every parent once their student graduates. As such, I believe it is integral for higher education institutions to provide greater support for parents through the different stages of transitioning that occurs during the collegiate experience.

There are several institutions that have Family Relations offices. Yet, most of the time, these offices are reactive and have a staff of one or two professionals. Although this is a step in the right direction, it is not enough! Specifically, there is an abundance of proactive work that needs to take place. What would it look like for families to receive information about the college transition in accessible language? What would it look like for parents to know when high-stress parts of the semester are approaching and how that may affect their student?  Family relations offices must become more proactive and easily accessible to parents of all backgrounds. When engaging parents in conversation about the transition into college, there is an opportunity to strengthen a student’s support network.

For many parents, trying to understand the college process alone is a challenge and in order to solve the confusion, parents seek professionals for answers. However, for many parents, it’s a struggle to even identify the questions they have. My parents always asked me questions about the next steps we needed to take in order to ensure I got into a school. Yet, they never asked what college would be like or the challenges I might face as a first-generation student. I truly don’t blame them for not knowing, because who was there to inform them of these possibilities? It is on us as student affairs professionals to engage in conversations about transitions, not only with students, but with parents and families as well. When doing so, we not only help answer questions and assure parents, we also strengthen the odds of a student being successful in their collegiate journey.

Magdalena Gracia (She/Her)

Loyola University Chicago, Class of 2016

University of Vermont, Class of 2018

On Institutions Taking Responsibility for Students’ Actions

Like most conversations, the best ones are around pizza. Easily one of the best benefits to being a live-in staff member is the access to peers to discuss campus climate while indulging at the late night option on campus. We are currently in the midst of student government elections and my colleague and I were thinking about our students’ political actions and their level of organizing. It was only when my colleague asked me, in the midst  of sharing the variety of things I contributed to at my undergraduate institution, “how did you learn how to do that?” that I began to think about in what ways it is our fault for not providing that kind of leadership and resources to our active students.

My education wasn’t perfect but I thoroughly appreciate the critical thinking skills my undergraduate institution instilled in me. I learned how to do activism that demonstrated coalition by being challenged to construct multiple ways of participation for the cause through an upper-division higher education course. I was led by Residence Life Coordinators that would not wait to address oppression but practice empathy and work through the shame as a community—this demonstrated that our campus was intolerant of violence and gave us the opportunity to grow together. Lastly, my employers did a really good job of reminding me of my own journey when others “weren’t down” with dismantling oppression.

Every step of my journey in realizing my minoritized experience and advocating against oppression was with my undergraduate institution being my place of support and guidance.

Back then, when my peers and I wanted to push for a fee increase to support the expansion of the campus psychological services, my adviser showed us how to write a resolution to distribute to our student governments and various department directors on campus. When a classmate and I wanted to celebrate Asian-Pacific Islander Heritage Month on campus, our professor showed us how to bring in constituents from outside campus to participate as a part of a required degree course (which also happened to be an upper-division general education course). When I dreamed of bringing a young adult fiction writer to come to campus to break the silence around shame in suicidiation, I was charged to write my first grant. I had lots of opportunities to tackle the issues I was most concerned on this campus. At the end of my list, my colleague simply replied, “but where is that here?”

In late March of 2016, a video surfaced online. The video starts with a black female student and man confronting a white male student for wearing “dreadlocks”. The woman continues to articulate how the man’s hair style is appropriation while the man questions if the woman is “a part of Egyptian culture”. The black man asks if the white man is Egyptian and the woman continues to ask if the white man knows where Egypt is—which I can only presume is to make the point that Egypt is in Africa. The white male student then grabs the black female student’s arm to get away. She then steps between the white male student and the stairs while continuing to ask him where Egypt is. He is arguing that she has no right to tell him how to wear his hair and responds, “Yo girl, stop touching me right now”. As he makes his exit, she has him by the sleeve and asks him to come back and makes a comment about how he put her hands on her. He argues that it’s not ok for her to make a scene because of his hair and says, “There’s no reason, yo”. He walks away and the female student asks why the confrontation was being filmed. The individual behind the camera says, “for everyone’s safety”.

The video was only 46 seconds long, and a lot of folks have lots to say about the behavior of all the students in this video. Oof. If you read the comments, it’s clear we’re busy critiquing the actions of all of the students. The discourse about this incident was only focused on the individual actions of the people involved. What would it mean to shift our thinking away from “individual conflict” to “institutional failure” or, more kindly, “a disservice” to our students? Should institutions, and those who work for them, see themselves as responsible for students’ shortcomings when experiencing shame in the wake of being made aware of their oppressive action?

It is time to move away from blaming the very people we are responsible for educating. There is a deep need to examine the institutional structures that failed to provide the tools for the white male student to handle the shame that came with being addressed on his impact on others. I wonder, what general education requirements and courses would help the student acknowledge the harm that has been done—systematically and interpersonally—to the black students. Additionally, where are the spaces for black students to build affinity and talk about the harm they experienced? Where can the two students go to feel heard about their culture being misrepresented by people occupying the same space? There is a need for resources where racial identity development is fostered and nurtured and this resource needs the staff that will work with students of color through that growth. And in order to forge these spaces or changes, we need to admit responsibility for these kinds of interactions between students.

–Janine Silvis

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The True Cost of Student Affairs Career Placement

In our field of student affairs, we value accessibility and equity as core values that guide our line of work. I hear this from many of the professionals and faculty members that I have had the privilege of working with. I know that as a first-year graduate student, I like to think that these are some of the core values that guide the work that I do and want to do in the future.

During this time in the semester, many graduating students are scrambling to find jobs that will mark a new journey in their life when they finally get to start being full-time professionals. To do so, many of these graduate students are purchasing memberships to professional associations to participate in the numerous job interviewing venues created by their chosen institution. After they purchased their membership, they are required to register for the event that takes place in a specific city. Once the emerging professionals are registered, they have to start making and paying for travel arrangements. On top of this, these graduate students are encouraged to attend national conferences to network with potential employers with the hopes of increasing their chance of securing employment after graduation. When all of this is totaled up, the amounts can easily reach hundreds of dollars, if not thousands.

I will add that there are other ways to secure employment for after graduation, but we cannot forget that it is so ingrained in student affairs culture to participate in these events that some people might even feel bad for not participating and taking a different route. These associations do take into account that people do not have the financial means so they offer the opportunity for registered people to participate through phone interviews and offering scholarships to a select few people.

Problems with this “fix” still arise. A candidate will have a better opportunity to show who they are if they interview in-person. The candidates who interview over the phone for the same position do not have the advantage of using body language or non-verbal communication to show who they are and that they are a good fit for the position. Additionally, there are struggles that are not taken into consideration with some of the in-person interview style that these professional associations create. It is well-known that there will be hundreds of candidates applying for positions at the same time in the same venue, at the table next to you, separated only by a thin curtain. For people who are differently abled or need accommodations, this style of interviewing is hurtful and harmful to the candidate.

It is confusing that for a profession that encompasses the values of access and equity, there are still events that secondhandedly create barriers for its participants. I think that the creators of these events need to take this more into consideration when planning their events. There are benefits of having hundreds of employers and candidates looking to fill positions in the same place, but is this worth excluding people who cannot afford, both financially and health wise, to attend? This is a complex issue that is starting to arise that needs to be carefully thought out and addressed sooner rather than later.

Serafin Aguilar Jr (He/Him/His)

University of California, Santa Barbara ’16

University of Vermont ’18

What are You Really Saying? Unpacking Subconscious Masculinity in Fraternity Culture.

I recently received a call from my little brother in my fraternity in distress about dating a woman he has been talking too. As a good budding student affair’s professional, I tried to support my brother using helping skills in higher education. When I asked him to explain to me what the problem was, he began to lay out this elaborate story about how he has feelings for someone that another fraternity brother had dated. This conversation reminded me of the theme “Bro’s Before Hoes” and the idea that a fraternity man cannot date and or talk romantically to a woman who has been involved with another fraternity brother. This theme is never addressed despite talking frequently with fraternity men about their masculinity.

As an undergraduate in my first or second year of college I would have probably prescribed to the same mentality of “Bros before hoes,” however as his big brother who is supposed to provide guidance, I sat and reflected about what it really meant for him to feel that he cannot talk with this woman about how he feels potentially go on dates with her.

As fraternity man, I saw that my little brother was trying to respect his other brother and his former partner by asking if it was acceptable to ask this woman on a date.  Then I began to think from a lens other than just my fraternal lens and started to see the problem with this viewpoint. These fraternity men are engaging in a conversation that took away all decision making from this woman, who can decide for herself who she does and does not want to be with. It reminded me that even though student affairs professionals engage fraternity men in constant conversation around masculinity through sexual assault prevention; student affairs professionals rarely engage fraternity men in conversations that happen amongst one another on a micro level.

My fraternity at my undergraduate university was engaged in work to dismantle rape culture and often had in depth conversations about masculinity and male privilege, but I do not remember one conversation about how we engaged our masculinity in ways that did not center interactions with women. We never had the conversation about how the little things that we have subconsciously come to believe as normal were rooted in ways that were based in ownership over someone else’s decision-making process. When I had this realization, I was astonished that such a little thing was so ingrained in our membership that even though we actively programmed to engage masculinity and unpack it, we still were perpetuating the same system subconsciously amongst one another.

I believe that as a fraternity man in student affairs and higher education, I have the opportunity and responsibility to reflect on my own experiences in my organization and to engage as an insider with these fraternal organizations to tackle some larger conversations about what it means to be a fraternity man who respects women on all levels. To accomplish this, not only myself, but the men I work with must dive deeper into how we understand and engage masculinity in our organizations and our everyday conversations with each other.

As a fraternity man, I would like to call to action other fraternity men in the field of student affairs and higher education to start to unpack their own masculinity and the ways it showed up in your chapters. Start to use the knowledge you have now that you are out of your organization to help another organization on your campus, or volunteer with a leadership retreat for you national or local headquarters to unpack these subconscious masculine themes. Through this charge, I hope that we as fraternity men can help our brothers get back to our values of respecting those around us not only consciously but also on a more subconscious level as well.

Brandon Majmudar (He/Him/His)

Colorado State University, Class of 2016

University of Vermont, Class of 2018

Who Do You Know? The Problem with the HESA Program Pipeline

As mid-March approaches, hopeful future student affairs professionals are waiting anxiously by their phones and emails for those coveted graduate school assistantship spots. It was at this time last year that I was sitting in a statistics class when my phone call came. I felt like Harry Potter receiving his letter to Hogwarts as I cried on the phone with The University of Vermont (UVM) when they offered me a position in Residential Life and tuition remission to their Higher Education and Student Affairs Administration (HESA) program. At the time I would never have predicted that just a year later, I would be on the other side of the UVM HESA admissions process as an intern for HESA academic admissions and interview weekends as a practicum student.

When I selected my practicum for the semester, I was eager to help my program construct a new cohort and help to welcome a diverse class of future student affairs professionals. As a top HESA program, the UVM admissions process is as competitive as it is thorough and lengthy. However, as our application process and interview weekends carried on, I could not help but feel as though our process at UVM was missing something; after meeting the 66 candidates invited on campus, I soon discovered that what we had truly been missing: recruitment.

The UVM HESA program prides itself on a strong commitment to social justice and equity. While this admissions cycle was full of applicants with diverse social identities including: race, social economic, religious, gender, sexualities, abilities, and other marginalized identities, many candidates shared a common narrative of how UVM became a school of interest in their process. Most candidates spoke about knowing or having a mentor who either attended UVM or knew of its prestige. It is no secret to any student affairs professionals that most HESA programs recruit students by networks and often privilege students who have been recommended by alumni. However, this system raises the question of how students with less cultural or social capital are losing within the game of elite HESA graduate admissions.

While UVM attends regional conferences and posts on social media, the system of recruitment truly relies on the alumni. During our annual phone-a-thon we even take the additional step to ask each alumni if they have recently recommended anyone to our program. While our interview days appear to be diverse and a diverse group of students are ultimately selected, each comes to the program with some amount of access and privilege brought by previous experiences. Additionally, applicants with recommendations from alumni often receive a second or closer look. And, while I can understand a program trusting its alumni to recruit students, I question how this process creates a cycle and pipeline of future professionals that is not reaching as broadly as possible.

Within this dominant narrative, students who attend undergraduate institutions with smaller or less renowned student affairs departments lose out on the opportunity to apply and programs like UVM HESA become filled with circular networks. By not recruiting outside of well-established student affairs networks (NASPA/ACPA), programs such as UVM HESA are missing out on an entire population of potential future student affairs professionals. It is even possible that many students do not even consider the profession because of this lack of outreach. While the dominant narrative within the profession is for professionals to promote the field to future students, this also creates a cycle in which only students engaged with student affairs in their undergraduate experiences are identified.

This problem does not however discredit the diverse identities and experiences of the students in programs such as UVM, but does highlight the importance of outreach and recruitment to creating even more diverse cohorts as well as future professionals. Additionally, there exists an interplay between access to type of cultural capital that is valued in these programs recruitment and admissions processes and the various marginalized identities listed above. By embracing recruitment and outreach methods that go beyond the pre-existing professional networks, programs such as UVM HESA are opening themselves up to an even more equitable process.

Having lived through a HESA admissions process my recommendation for graduate programs is to engage in more active and affirmative recruitment outside the pipelines to careers in student affairs that already exist (e.g. attending general graduate school and job fairs, engaging with undergraduate education departments, building connection with gap year volunteer programs). Additionally, while the system I have laid out is a dominant narrative, the pipeline of networks is not the only way to student affairs and not the story of many current graduate students and UVM alumni. I suggest that programs such as UVM HESA investigate and center students who have found alternative paths to their programs as a mean of creating more affirmative and farther-reaching recruitment models.

The ultimate problem with this pipeline of student affairs is that an entire perspective is missing from my classroom and classrooms across programs each week. What would it look like to hear from students who where not super-star leaders in their undergraduate experiences and perhaps were super-star athletes? By excluding the super-star athlete, for example, we perpetuate an already existing inequitable system that privileges who you know.

Carly Bidner (she/her/hers)

Mount Holyoke College, Class of 2016

University of Vermont, Class of 2018

 

 

30 minutes is not enough: The need for increased transparency and greater financial literacy

It is widely accepted that the bootstraps narrative so often invoked in political grandstanding and on Facebook lacks the multicultural competency, historical or socioeconomic context to be as applicable as the Horatio Alger fairy tale stories from whence it came. Even though the bootstraps axiom is known to be flawed, it still somehow persists through a larger cultural narrative. Though imperfect, modern bootstraps lead to higher education for those able and privileged enough to have the opportunity.

This in itself is not surprising. There is little doubt that higher education is the most reliable way for an individual to elevate their personal socio-economic status, though equity of opportunity is demonstrably lacking due to significant systematic barriers and inequities. Regardless, the imperative is demonstrated in the research, with the Bureau of Labor Statistics, asserting the chances of an individual achieving positive occupational and socio-economic outcome are drastically diminished without higher education. Though illusive, and largely reserved for privileged elite, the modern American Dream is an economic one built on higher education.

The professional and economic imperatives for individuals to pursue higher education are clear. What is also clear is that the costs of higher education have risen faster than almost any other commodity since 1985, with, “college education inflation rate has risen nearly 500%.” Remarkably, though often maligned in the media and by consumers, every year in record numbers, students and families show up in droves. Accompanying the increase in costs has been an astronomical growth in student loan debt, with the average graduate in the class of 2016 holding $37,172.00. Nationally there are over 44 million individuals with student loans totaling over 1.3 trillion dollars in debt, and an awe inspiring 11% delinquency rate among active borrowers and nearly 5 million individuals en route to default.

How did we get to this point? A broader social and economic culture forcing students to pursue an endlessly expensive experience, and all they need to do is a brief online course that last 30 minutes? That is it. On the Student Loan Entrance Counseling web portal in a mere “20-30 minutes” students can watch a video, take a course, and in less time than an episode of Friends, they’re in, and quite often, for longer than they realize. There are myriad ways to unpack the monumental challenges presented within the student loan debt crisis currently facing higher education and they hold significant economic and ethical implications. What I find particularly challenging is the disproportionately high risk that low income and first generation college students, often from modest economic means and holding marginalized identities, take when they pursue higher education. To finance the dream, students who receive Pell Grants borrow at increased levels just for a chance to attend, thus financially overextending students lacking the familial financial capital to support them should they fall.  “Graduates who received Pell Grants were likely to borrow, and borrow more: 88 percent of graduates who received Pell Grants had student loans in 2012.” Complementing disproportionately high borrowing loads on more marginalized groups, there is a larger issue of financial illiteracy impacting students across the board in higher education. According to the Brookings Institute, in 2016 “Borrowers who are not aware they have any federal debt are surprisingly common. … Twenty-eight percent of first-year college students with federal debt reported that they did not have any federal debt, ” sentiments echoed by Bloomberg in another study found that talking to students at, “three Bay Area campuses, …just 6 percent of them knew how long they would be repaying the debt. Only 8 percent knew the interest rate,” ; an alarming lack of financial literacy.

As higher education professionals there is a moral and ethical challenge that needs to be addressed, and often with students, it’s the $37,000.00 elephant in the room. Financial literacy is lacking and as advisers we need to find ways to more adequately prepare the students we serve for the financial realities of the decisions they’re making, even if it could potentially hurt the bottom line with an inconvenient truth. Truly, more than ever, successful attainment of higher education is a necessity for any individual looking to punch their ticket to the middle class, but the risks are real and it is the duty of the academy to make sure there is transparency and justice in the process.

Liam Danaher

(He, Him, His )

UVM HESA, 2018

Saint Michael’s College, 2009

 

Racism in Higher Education: Knowing, Being, and Doing

Institutions of higher education, particularly predominantly white institutions, perpetuate white supremacy and institutional oppression. Individuals of color entering these institutions are often  expected to conform to white ways of knowing, being, and doing, to normalize and center white superiority, and adhere to policies that are disadvantaging individuals of color. Are these institutions failing? Not exactly, but some are certainly in a crisis.

Many students, along with some staff and faculty, have been demanding and advocating for change for a long time. The recent surge in student activism is not new. Senior administrators, board of trustees/regents, and so many others in these institutions know these issues are not new and yet some still choose to ignore the realities of individuals of color at those individuals’ expense. Dr. Shaun Harper, founder and executive director of the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education at the University of Pennsylvania, offers a powerful example of ignoring racism at colleges and universities.

The campus climate at many institutions has not been and continues not to be racially inclusive. Students of color may find themselves to be the only person of color in their classes, experiencing microaggressions within and outside of the classroom, noticing that their voices are not valued and sometimes ignored, and simply not seeing representation of themselves throughout the institution. Staff and faculty of color may face similar issues.

Is addressing the racial climate on college campuses an ill-structured problem? I think that some would like us to believe so. Racism has covertly transformed and is so deeply entrenched in systems that some folks are not even aware of the impacts of racism. Some students, staff, and faculty are navigating campuses under the impression that racism no longer exists or they navigate with the illusion that we live in a post-racial society. Additionally, the broader racial issues that operate outside of institutions of higher education will always reverberate throughout those institutions. Therefore, it might be possible that there is no solution to institutions’ racial problems because no solution is ever going to satisfy all stakeholders.

The folks that are running and working for institutions of higher education must be committed to racial justice, and by that I mean genuinely, diligently, and consistently working towards racial equity. Education is strongly valued in society and it is essentially an expectation that folks will attend college. Thus, college administrators and faculty have to be prepared to accept the wholeness of individuals coming into institutions and show their commitment to the mission and vision statements claiming social justice, diversity, and inclusion. It is not enough for individuals of color to have access to higher education. It is also not enough for those who hold power to advocate for these individuals of color. The real challenge or root of the racial issue for institutions is giving power to individuals of color. It is taking far too long and too much energy is being expended trying to convince campus leaders, and quite frankly white people, to make space for individuals of color. Will it ever change?

The very act of encouraging students, staff, and faculty of color to be resilient and provide resources to help them survive racism is oppressive. So many of the ways that individuals of color navigate institutions of higher education are oppressive. These individuals of color should not have to explain that they are suffering and merely trying to survive when they should be thriving. Many of them are fatigued and should be. The students, staff, and faculty of color you see, maybe interact with, will continue to rise because they have to. I am looking forward to the day that they will rise and not have to navigate in oppressive ways.

I want to rely on institutions of higher education as progressive spaces to break down and rebuild systems. They are building our future leaders, who will hopefully be courageous enough to unlearn and learn the necessary tools to dismantle racism. When will the ability of racism to impact our ways of knowing, being, and doing disappear? Let me tell you it is not a color-blind approach. It is an approach that calls for a deep awakening. We need to get in touch with our souls because our minds and bodies alone cannot handle the work that needs to be done.

“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
– Lilla Watson  

Veronica Fields (she/her/hers)
Graduate Assistant for Orientation & New Student Programs

University of Connecticut, Class of 2016
University of Vermont, Class of 2018

Taking Up Space in Student Affairs

What does it mean to “take up space” and why do we talk about it so much in student affairs? If you’re in the field of student affairs and you aren’t talking about the concept of taking up space, then the sad reality is that you’re probably letting a lot of oppression go on unchecked. To understand what it means to “take up space” in the field of student affairs, specifically, it’s important to first unpack what it means to take up space.

I first became familiar with the concept when I was in high school and found myself frustrated by my peers who raised their hands in class and then spoke at length without seeming to recognize that others had input to share with the group. I remember going home from school and scribbling down my frustrations through poetry. I scratched out draft after draft of the poem, which originally started with a line like, “The air you fill above our heads is stuffed, filled with your words, and I am suffocating trying to breathe around it.” I decided in the end for the poem to just be two words: “Shut up.” I was an angsty teen.

Since high school though, and especially in college, my understanding of taking up space has developed. Words like “manspreading” and “mansplaining” pop up in media often. Both are examples of taking up space – one physical and one verbal. Manspreading is when a male-identified person physically spreads their body in public spaces and takes up an unnecessary amount of room, inconveniencing others around him. Mansplaining is when a male-identified interrupts or corrects a person with a subordinated gender identity to insert his opinion, implying that he is correct and his knowledge is superior. Both take up space. Both happen often. We also see space taken up in less overt ways. Manspreading and mansplaining may be attributed to hegemonic hetero-patriarchial values in the United States, but there is another dominate hegemony that pervades and takes up a lot of space: White supremacy.

White supremacy takes up space in nasty, invasive, sometimes subtle, and sometimes overt ways. The fact that the majority of universities and colleges are predominately white institutions? White supremacy. Don’t try to tell me that it’s because the majority of Americans are white. Do you know why the majority of Americans are white? Because of colonization, genocide, and mass immigration AKA white supremacy. White people take up a lot of space on college campuses and it affects the way people with marginalized racial and ethnic identities navigate their own collegiate experiences. White supremacy spreads its way into residence halls, classrooms, student organizations, athletics, and everywhere else on a college campus. It takes up huge amounts of physical and emotional space.

In student affairs, especially in my graduate program, we talk about taking up space a great deal. My classmates are very aware of the identities they themselves hold and at least some of the identities their peers hold, and it influences our conversations. There is a unique environment created in a classroom and even in casual interactions when a person is viscerally aware of the space they take up and how it affects everyone else. People speak up when they feel like their silence creates a negative impact, and they share less when they feel they’ve dominated a space for too long. We encourage each other to speak and advocate for voices and identities that are usually minimized or excluded. This practice and awareness carries through into our work with students and hopefully those students then spread that awareness to their peers. We use this awareness with the goal of creating more socially just spaces for all.

There is a need for caution though: an individual should never use their awareness of the space they take up as a means for avoiding engaging with a particularly challenging topic. White professionals should not claim, “I won’t say anything because I don’t want to take up too much space,” when asked to discuss the role of race in the collegiate experience. Male-identified professionals should not say, “I’m not going to share as much because I don’t want to take up too much space,” when charged with discussing the impact of gender on professional and classroom spaces. That’s passing the responsibility of deconstructing harmful hegemonies onto those already oppressed. This awareness should be used to empower and enable others to be their best selves, not prevent ourselves from learning and growing. Sometimes, you need to take up space. Sometimes, you need to express yourself even if you run the risk of being wrong or offending someone. Taking up space and learning from its consequences is more beneficial for everyone than if you stay silent and keep your biases hidden. A balance is necessary.

If we want to chip away at the big issues in this country like white supremacy and the hetero-patriarchy, then we, as student affairs professionals, must become more aware of the space we take up as well as the space our students take up. This journey begins with identity acknowledgement and development, and is a journey that probably has no end. But the road we travel together will be a great deal less bumpy if we all let each other take up the space we deserve.

Maggie K. Hussar

(she/her/hers)

University of Delaware c/o 2016

University of Vermont c/0 2018

Higher Education and Student Affairs Administration