The Risk of Being Seen

“In a recent study funded by Lumina Foundation, we identified multiple indicators for increasing the odds of completion, and found that there are four social indicators that are related to the odds of post-secondary completion across students attending both two-year and four-year colleges: part-time status; having a child; number of transfers; and speaking with faculty about academic matters outside of class.” *

The bold italics are mine. Of the four social indicators, only one has to do with actual activity in college: speaking to faculty about academic matters outside of class. Going to office hours, asking a question, letting professors get to know you. STOP. All this is way too risky. As a working class student in college, I avoided meeting with professors at all costs. I didn’t know what I would say. And I didn’t want them to see my at close range. They would see that I didn’t belong there, wasn’t as smart as I was trying to appear.

Taking the risk of being seen felt like jumping off a cliff.

Now, decades later, lots of success later, having brought a couple of sons through most of their schooling in addition to hundreds of students, I can say with some confidence that the risk is not just for working-class or first-gen students, but the stakes feel higher for them. First, because we may bring an inherited rule of avoiding authority figures, just staying under the radar and out of trouble. Second, because the professors often do not welcome the differences these students may bring. And often the professors are unconscious of all the assumptions they bring to the encounter.

How to help?

  1. Structurally, try requirements for all students: at Dickinson College, my son could not hand in his first paper in English class unless it had a receipt from the Writing Center stapled to it. All students were required to make use of the support system, so that they knew how to use it and what it entailed, possibly making a connection and feeling supported. How different would it have been if instead, all students handed in the first paper and then some of them were told “From now on, you have to go to the Writing Center?” Spoken or unspoken, the message is only the defective go there.
  2. Psychologically, we all want to be seen and mirrored as acceptable, not defective, not weird outliers. Education is a transformative, exciting adventure. There will be times we are scared and retreat into ourselves, but the adults on campus — I mean the faculty and staff — need to know how to make connections and invite in those who fear they don’t belong.
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