By Sunny Kase, January guest blogger
Getting into college can be hard. Students spend hours in the buildup — researching campuses, studying, taking the ACT, filling out application forms, choosing the right school and finally actually graduating from high school. Then when they actually get to college there can be a real panic when students wonder, “What am I doing here? How did I get here? Am I supposed to even be here?”
For a low-income student, or a student of color or a student who is first in the family to go away to college — all of those above challenges and anxieties are heightened. With all of that going on their internal and external self, then someone, maybe another student or someone who works at the college asks the question, “What are you?” Hmmm…that is a really loaded question because it asks someone to choose one or two or more pieces of their self so others can put them in a box.
I’ve been working on college campuses for the past couple of decades in a variety of capacities and lately what I am struck by is a wonderful boldness in students. They don’t allow themselves to be put into neat little boxes that allow others to define their identity. They are now creating language and words and communities where they are defining themselves. I’ve been to lots more student-led activities that are about valuing the whole student life experience. Here is an example:
Years ago I went to an event at a campus that was billed, “Cinco de Mayo. Come learn about this special day. Free Taco Bar!” When we got there it was clear that there would be a panel of Chicano-Latino heritage students whose role was to educate their white counterparts on what Cinco de Mayo is. And yes, there were free tacos afterward. The question that opened the panel was “What are you?” When a panelist replied, “What do you mean?” he was told, “Well tell us where you are from.”
Recently I was invited to an event on a campus that was all about empowering younger Latino students and their families in how to go to college. It was hosted by a student group on the campus and a staff person. A lot went on at this meeting that was welcoming and empowering. For one, the people organizing the event reflected the population they were trying to reach. Another aspect of success was that there were lots of opportunities for non-English speakers to engage. Parents could ask questions in Spanish and staff people were on hand to respond. Most importantly, no one asked “What are you?”
This is bold and not in a condescending way. Students are simply taking charge to leave a legacy at their campuses not only for other students who are like them who have had similar experience. It is also bold because these students are leading their larger student body to understand who they are on their terms. Not only can this impact future admission of low-income, first-generation and/or students of color, it also directly impacts the retention of those students themselves. We know that if college students are able to find opportunities to advocate and interact with a community that reflects their own experience, they are more likely to graduate.
If our college campuses are smart they will listen to this boldness. They will hear the voices of these students as their future.