Editor's Note: Two Weeks’ Worth of Reflections

By Jennifer O’Brien, Project Manager and Coordinator of Strategic Planning and Development, Bringing Theory to Practice

These words are personal reflections from two days, and then two weeks, after the presidential election. As such, they are raw and emotional. They indicate my personal beliefs and ideals, and not those of the BTtoP project or our partner, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U).

Our sincerest hope as a project team is that the emotions and ideals of your own reflections continue to translate into action and meaningful engagement on your campus and in your community. Higher education’s promise as an enduring institution of democracy continues to be ours to fulfill.

On and before Election Day, I understood engaged learning, civic engagement, and well-being to be important. I understood these concepts to be central not only to BTtoP’s work of the past decade, but also to the heart of all of higher education.

The way I felt on election night and in the days after illustrated how sheltered I was, how I had taken our democracy, and perhaps these concepts, for granted. I spent the better part of my twenties with Barack Obama as the president of the United States. My time growing with him in office and watching his family as the first family made me greedy and complacent. Given that I am inclined toward cynicism, I was pleasantly surprised by how the Obamas’ integrity, their intellect, and their poise in the realm of American politics made me more patriotic.

My complacency carried into the 2016 presidential election. Intellectually, I understood that the confidence I felt about the presumed outcome was risky. Yet, given the words and actions I witnessed by Donald Trump, I was overcome with a sense that there was one logical and ethical path for our country to take. And my media bubble (partisan and nonpartisan podcasts, Twitter feeds of major national news outlets, etc.) confirmed it.

It became immediately clear to me as election night wore on that my confidence (or rather, arrogance) did not make space for me to truly examine anything beyond my own values and needs. There are so many factors that contributed to the outcome of our elections, and I will not discuss them here. But I do believe that there was a gap between what I thought I knew or understood about the electorate and what I actually did know or was willing to admit—probably because it so threatened my own core beliefs and values.

In over ten years at BTtoP, I have never been more convinced that engaged learning, civic development and engagement, and attention to student wholeness and well-being are more than just important to higher education—our dedication to them is our moral imperative as a society, and they are capable of securing the future of our fragile democracy.

Engaged learning has the potential to liberate us from (increasingly) sheltered and bubble-wrapped realities. Civic development and engagement pushes us to explore what we learn with those who have different identities and lived experiences than our own, and it reveals how our differences make the tapestry of our society richer. And the need for attention to wholeness and well-being cannot be more apparent than now, when we as a nation (regardless of our personal political leanings) are trying to recover from the barrage of divisiveness and even vitriol that we have experienced for nearly a year and a half. We are calling upon our resilience and our grit to meet the fear, the anxiety, and the anger with positive energy and action.

What Does This Mean for Students?

Do you remember what it felt like to be a new student on campus? Maybe you didn’t live on campus. Maybe you were the first in your family to go to college and you felt enormous pressure to succeed (and to pay those bills). Maybe your parents paid your way and you were unaware of the extent of your privilege. Maybe you were a conservative student on a small liberal campus and afraid to admit it.

Each of these simplistic profiles represents a piece of a student on a campus somewhere. What bridges the diversity of these profiles is the reality that each has the identity of “student.” All students have somehow ended up pursuing a higher education that promises to broaden their horizons; stretch their potential; and provide opportunities for them to succeed and fail, and to learn from both experiences. But each student is a complex individual with intersecting identities and lived experiences that will affect these successes and failures as well as the student’s interactions with peers, faculty, staff, and the broader community.

As facilitators of this educational enterprise, we owe it to these students to attend to the diversity of their own intersecting identities and to the ways in which those identities intersect with those of community members; with curricula, campus designs, and programs; and with institutional priorities. Even if it weren’t enough to attend to these factors simply because the integrity of the enterprise demands it, the consequences of not doing so have never been plainer than in the rash of recent clashes seen on campuses due to issues of identity politics and free speech, to name just two examples.

Democracy is rich only because of the diversity of its voices, and we need to work with students (both in the classroom and by leading by example) to help them understand and work through what that means. We cannot presume to know another person, or another group, and we must learn to understand other spaces, other voices, and other lived experiences as if they are as relevant to our existence as our own.

I am not talking about making room for intolerance, hatred, racism, sexism, or any other pernicious social construction. I am talking about making space for the fact that we are a rich democracy, and a young one. We need to nurture our democracy by respecting it, and respecting it means respecting all of its constituents—particularly students, who hopefully will become engaged participants.

And we must make this a most basic part of what a higher education means and offers—coming to know oneself and respecting ourselves, the diversity of our shared community, and the fragility of our democracy enough to know and value each other.

In This Issue

We hope to provide a few examples of how institutions can attend to student intersectionality and well-being. In the issue’s feature piece, Chad Berry shares the incredible story of Berea College, an institution of higher education that charges no tuition. Like all institutions, Berea College has a unique context—but as an institution of higher education, with a mission not dissimilar to those of many others in very different contexts, what it achieves is nothing short of incredible. And part of its strength and success is connected to viewing students as whole, intersectional beings.

Ann Strahm and Erin Littlepage at California State University-Stanislaus share their experience organizing a seminar through a regional educational partnership bringing together participants from K-12 schools, California community colleges, and California State University systems to discuss the imposter syndrome— “a fear of being found out or discovered as stupid or unworthy”—which affects the success, retention, and well-being of students, particularly students who are female, of color, working class, and/or come from disadvantaged families. Providing the time and space for these various constituencies to come together to discuss how such a syndrome is systemically maintained is a powerful way to interrupt the cycle by sharing information and best practices.

And finally, BTtoP Director Don Harward writes about the potential of inclusive campus dialogue to bridge differences in higher education. Harward explores what it is like—or could be like—to empathetically understand, and know, another. Harward writes, “A dialogue is not a guarantee of achieving harmony”; it is an opportunity to expand our collective understanding, make room for respecting the value of another, and share in the goal of higher education as an institution of public good that sustains a civic society.