November 9, 2016 | Post-Election Reflections from BTtoP's Project Manager Jennifer O'Brien

Dear colleagues, friends—

We post for you below some simple reflections from Jennifer O’Brien, our Project Manager, who has been with BTtoP for over a decade. We think now is an important moment to reaffirm our commitment to our students, to the greater purposes of higher education, and to our democracy. We hope that you will send us your own reflections and we can resound our shared commitments and care for one another.

Warmly, and in solidarity,
The BTtoP Team

Wednesday Reflections

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

Wednesday, November 9th, 2016

I had to re-write this note, which will serve as part of the introduction to the winter 2017 issue of our tri-annual newsletter. I had written the first draft on Election Day. Then the presumed fate of our country shifted in front of my sheltered eyes in a matter of hours and what I had written no longer seemed adequate.

On Election Day, I understood civic engagement, well-being, and learning to be phenomenally important. I understood these concepts to be central to not only my work of the past decade, but in my opinion, central to the heart of all of higher education.

Election night and the day after illustrated how sheltered I was. How I had taken our democracy and these concepts for granted. Intellectually, I understood that the confidence I felt about what I thought would be the outcome was risky. But I was still overcome with an overwhelming sense that, clearly, there was one logical and ethical path for our country to take. And my media bubble confirmed it.

What is clear to me, now, though, is that my confidence (arrogance?) did not make space for me to truly examine the ‘other.’ There are many factors that contributed to the outcome of our elections, and I’m not going to discuss them here. But I do believe that there was a gap between what I thought I knew or understood about the ‘other,’ and what I actually did know.

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

Learning to be an engaged learner 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 that have different identities and lived experiences and how our differences make richer the tapestry of our society. And the need for attention to wholeness and well-being cannot be more apparent than right now, as online polls tracked the feelings of users shifting from “anxiety” to “fear” in the span of an evening, and general feelings of depression and helplessness loomed the morning after. Not to mention questioning a sense of belonging… Canada’s immigration site crashed as the Election results came in.

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 astronomical bills). Maybe your parents paid your way and you were unaware of your privilege.

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.” Each student has somehow ended up in pursuit of a higher education that promises to broaden their horizons, stretch their potential, and provide opportunities to succeed and to fail, and to learn from both. Each student is a complex individual with intersecting identities and lived experiences that will affect these experiences, as well as their interactions with peers, faculty, staff, and their broader community.

As facilitators of this educational enterprise, we owe it to these students to attend to the diversity of their identities and the intersections of those identities with themselves, with others, and with curricula, campus design and programs, and institutional priorities. Even if it weren’t enough to attend to them simply because the integrity of the enterprise demands it—the consequences of not doing so have never been plainer than the recent rash of clashes we have seen on campuses due to issues like identity politics and academic and free speech, as just two examples.

The shock that was delivered to my system on Tuesday night needs to do more than wake me up momentarily. The last eight years made me greedy and complacent. But democracy means I don’t always get to have my way. I cannot presume to know another or another group, and I must try to come to understand their space, their voice, and their lived experience as if it was as relevant to me as my 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 understanding that we are a rich democracy, and a young one. And we need to nurture it 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.

I’ll wrap by mentioning that BTtoP is currently offering two programs that focus heavily on these issues. Our current Request for Proposals for Campus Dialogue Grants ($5,000 for single institution; $15,000 for consortia; deadline December 9, 2016) will provide support for one-year projects (calendar year 2017–2018) based around thematically integrated gatherings or dialogues involving a core group of diverse campus constituents to focus on the greater purposes of higher education: learning and discovery, well-being, civic engagement, and preparation for living meaningfully in the world.

BTtoP is also hosting a national conference The Whole Student: Intersectionality and Well-Being, May 24-26, 2017, in Chicago that will bring together educators of all types to focus on the importance of well-being in higher education. Through the lens of intersectionality, conference participants will examine and explore how institutional values and campus cultures acknowledge or contextualize the intersections of student identity and lived experiences, support them, and challenge them. View the Call for Proposals (deadline November 30, 2016) for an opportunity to present at the conference. Registration opens on December 6, 2016. We hope to see you there.