I was going to make this blog post about my observations on the politics of working at multiple universities and their commonalities and differences, but I am going to call a line of scrimmage audible for this post. I have had the pleasure to work for or with literally a dozen higher education institutions. Some have paid me for my services, and some have been opportunities for professional or educational growth. In any event I have been lucky to work with hundreds of higher education professionals from every job description and paygrade. I have worked with thousands of students from every walk of life. Students who came form privilege to students who could barely afford to eat, students who went onto Harvard Law to students who struggled to maintain a 2.0. I have had students who came to class in a full Burka and one who literally came to class in just a pair of jeans. No shirt, no shoes, just jeans. I think the oldest student I have had in class was a 70-year-old man who was going back to get his degree after working over 50 years in a factory and the youngest was a 14-year-old student who was taking classes to challenge herself.
And despite all these differences, despite all these gaps in ability or financial resources I have concluded that students are students are students and while I need to understand their individual needs, talents, and perspectives what I do know is that they all just have a desire to succeed and to be good at something.
This week I received an email from a student and it really broke my heart. The student reached out and felt the need to apologize for not being to attend class more (this student had been to about half of her class meetings) because she had to work. Her mother was struggling to find work amidst the ongoing pandemic and her earnings are essential to paying the bills. She seemed so earnest in her message and it was obvious she was stressed out and scared to reach out to me. Of course, my response was, come to class when you can, the assignments are online, complete them and handle your business. Working so you can maintain your Maslovian needs are far more important than some class meeting. It was an easy call.
But too often students will meet resistance. The professor would advise dropping the class or would admonish her for not being committed to her studies. And I know this is the case because I have heard story after story to support this perspective. If you can’t, follow the syllabus then you need to find your way out. I see this with many university services, the rigor or the rules are more important than the needs of the student and that should never happen. Students do not come to us fully formed and it takes time and energy to build and help our students grow.
Many of the famous theorists we all follow in education and student development identify intellectual energy and effort as a core need for student success. That the more focused energy a student uses in pursuit of an education the better the outcome. And while that is true, we should follow our own advice. We need to match that rigor with rigor ourselves and that includes using our creative thinking skills to design solutions for each student’s success. Afterall, we are there for them and they need us to get to their goals. If that is not worth showing up to work for then I am not sure what is.
And that is what I have learned at multiple universities. Every place I go the stories change, the geography is different, and the traditions vary but the students are consistent. They look to us for support, for guidance, and they are vulnerable. And we need to be there for them when they are vulnerable. Because that is where the magic happens. I know that because I responded with kindness and flexibility for that student, I just increased the odds she will graduate, that she will be more motivated, and that is worth it all. Different mascot, same students.