By Sunny Kase, January guest blogger
One of the points I made in my last post was that students who come from low-income or first-generation families or who are students of color, are taking charge of their own educational experience on their own terms. Two decades ago, when I was starting my career, I was struck by how much importance was put on “recruiting” students from diverse backgrounds, compared to how much effort was spent retaining and graduating them. Students would come in and basically either sink or swim. It was still a situation where the student was expected to assimilate and conform to their new environment.
At the time I remember hearing a faculty person tell me that “these” students needed to learn how the real world worked and they shouldn’t be coddled or judged by any different standards than the traditional college student. I had helped create an afterschool program on campus where college students received academic credit for tutoring school-aged students. The tutors we hired were the absolute best. Their life experiences mirrored those of the students we were asking them to tutor. The college students could see mini versions of themselves in their students — who could see role models in their tutors.
As a sassy young 20-something just out of college, I remember backtracking to the same faculty person’s office who had given me the original lecture. While I was waiting patiently for him to sign off on the academic credits that our students had earned, I asked him if he thought our afterschool program tutors could be held up as an example of “those” students he was referring to — those needing real life experiences to help them succeed in college. He gave me another very long lecture on measurable results and not having a large enough of a pool to base this on. He also said he would be interested in knowing if any or all of our eight tutors even graduated. “You see we can get these students in our doors, but what they do here isn’t something we can control.” Hmm…I clearly remember walking out of his office wondering how long it would be before he retired.
Fast forward 20 years and I can see that the climate on many campuses has changed. Overall, the focus is less on recruiting students and more on actually retaining them and supporting them to graduation. There are many great programs like TRiO, College Possible, AVID and Achieve that help bring college-ready students to our campuses. The challenge still lies in how to get them from admission to graduation. My afterschool tutoring program is just one example of students finding places to volunteer where they can work with kids whose backgrounds mirror their own. There are many other amazing efforts — study abroad experiences that are culturally relevant, internship programs that allow students to work with and for other first-generation and people of color, and post undergrad prep programs that identify students early on to go to grad school and beyond.
Where I have witnessed the most innovation and change on campuses is when students, staff, faculty, alumni and community members have worked to cross-germinate and find interesting solutions on how to recruit, retain and graduate ALL students. Oh and for the record — ALL eight of my original afterschool tutors did graduate from their four-year institutions. Four of them went on to become licensed educators, one is a journalist, one is a physician, one has his MBA and works for a large Minnesota company and one works as an admission officer at his alma mater.