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Access to Education Means More Than Building Programs

IMG_3577When talking about access to post-secondary education there are a few situations that come to mind as priorities for us to mitigate for students. Access for students with disabilities is a big one. Financial access. Access for students who are the first in their families to attend, and don’t know the elaborate systems that exist in higher education. Access to those from diverse backgrounds. There are so many more. We talk about these things because we know that for each example, there are a host of barriers that exist which prevent people from getting their feet in the institutional door. Even if they do manage to make their way here, these can prevent them from staying long enough to walk away with a degree.

We have been working hard to improve this situation for several decades. Now there are entire office units dedicated to supporting students who face extra challenges during their time here. We’ve created programs of support, learned how we can try to accommodate needs, and worked to break down some of the stereotypes that invalidate challenges faced by our most vulnerable students.

We still have a lot of work to do. There are many challenges that must be overcome before students even get near the door to higher education that our work does not address. Outreach programs have started to make a difference, but the systems in our society are built on out-dated norms and morals. Many haven’t evolved with our changing sensibilities about people. Including systems that still operate on our own campuses.

The reason I started thinking about this was a conversation that started on social media about the marginalization that can happen when we tell students that they should finish their university degree in 4 years. The reality is that many do not, including myself. There is a lot of guilt that goes along with failing to meet this standard and graduate with your perceived cohort. Not the least of which is the family members standing alongside their student. I still remember gatherings with jokes about the “eternal student” that made my toes curl with guilt. Why was I so special? Why did I get to avoid the “real world?” The fact of the matter was, at that time, I had the luxury of taking more time. I was able to get support from my family, financial and otherwise, that allowed me to take on a bit more debt and make it work. It meant I had more time to process and figure out what to do with my life. Eventually I did. And I’m pretty pleased with it now.

But, one big reason that it took me an extra year (my affectionately termed victory lap) is because I engaged so fully outside the classroom. We advise students to invest in activities and pursuits beyond their academics since that is what will set you apart from the pack once you enter the employment market. “You’re so much more likely to get a job if you have a good track record of involvement,” we tell them. And it’s true.

But what about all our knowledge about access? What about the barriers that exist to our students that are working against their success? It takes time to overcome those–time that they then can’t spend getting involved or focusing on academics. For some, the 4 year rule isn’t something that we impose on them, it’s a reality of how long they have until they have to be able to support themselves and/or their family. Extra time is a luxury some of our students can’t afford.

We need to continue working to break down barriers and that means acknowledging that we create some of them, despite our good intentions. Getting involved at school is great. But it isn’t a magic solution that can work for everyone. In the same way, finishing a degree in 4 years is possible, but again, not the norm for everyone (especially for many of our highly engaged students). How can we cater to both needs? It starts with helping students recognize and value their own narrative. The things they do all day inside and outside of campus all contribute to their learning. If we can help them value and synthesize their entire identity during their time with us, they won’t have a blank stare when people (ie: future employers) ask them about what they know and what they can do. It means rewarding students for leadership off-campus, inviting stories about their lives to be shared on-campus, and always working hard to validate them.

Student Affairs is ideally positioned to be holistic in our support, and how we choose to act will define the next big steps we and our students can take together. We have to actively break down the barriers we find, and always have an eye out for the ones we don’t see yet, and admit that sometimes, we might be a barrier for some. Over time, we can teach our students that success looks different for everyone, so that they won’t assume that because their narrative is different it isn’t a success story.

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© Copyright 2016 - Lesley D'Souza * Photos by Katherine Holland Photography