Chad Dull, Vice President of Academic Affairs, Minnesota State College Southeast

Do you remember the film Avatar? There is a great scene with an emotional payoff when the main characters say, “I see you” to one another. “I see you” is a substitute for “I love you,” but it is also more. It is acknowledgment of another’s existence and their importance. A little internet research indicates Avatar borrowed this expression from tribes in South Africa. It is loosely related to the idea of Ubuntu, which I only became aware of a dozen years ago when it was made popular by the Boston Celtics as an emblem of team culture. I do not claim to be an expert, but the loose translation I learned was “I am because we are…” It resonated with me as a #RealCollege leader and an advocate for people in the crisis of poverty because I’ve often found those people to be more interconnected and interdependent than the middle class norms we have been taught are the ones to aspire to. I have told anyone who will listen I fear this pandemic will cause those of us who can, to retreat to safety and isolation, when I believe the better choice is to recognize and celebrate our interconnectedness. We have to SEE one another. Let me tell you how Minnesota State College Southeast tried to make sure our students knew we could see them.

As a vice president of academic affairs, I am not the most “academic” person you will meet. I dropped out of college multiple times before finishing, and my original career ambition was to be a big-time college basketball coach. So, I understand things like accreditation, curriculum design, program learning outcomes, and the like, but they have never been what feeds my soul in this work. What feeds my soul is the idea that colleges can help end poverty, particularly two-year colleges. It is my version of this movement called #RealCollege. I believe in proximity to students, and their stories, and their humanity. Proximity is the reminder we need when things get hard, and we need to persevere. So, what should we do when our students are harder to hear from? Our solution was pretty basic, we asked.

I am fortunate to have an excellent partner in Student Affairs at MSC Southeast to help consider these answers. His name is Josiah Litant and he shares my affection for our students and a soft spot for those left out. We were both concerned about how students were handling the incredible amount of change thrust upon them, so we sent a one statement check-in. It read: “We know this is a challenging time to be a college student. Please let us know both what is working for you and what you are struggling with.” It was accompanied by an offer to have one of us contact them if they wanted to talk more. The answers we received were illuminating, and a number of students asked for follow up contact. Let me share what we learned:

Takeaway Number 1: The resilience of #RealCollege students is remarkable. They came to us with answers like, “I am doing good. Staying indoors is important for myself and my (child) as (they) has a weakened immune system. We don’t even go for walks due to the fact that this virus is so contagious. I have been keeping busy by doing schoolwork and doing crafts… Other than that, things are going pretty good for the most part.” and “I am just struggling with (class) but the instructor has been more then(sic) helpful. The real struggle is staying sane at home quarantined.” Even with a change they had never asked for, these students were making the best of a difficult situation. Even the students who were frustrated and angry were surprisingly kind with answers like “Well we’ve all been thrown a bit of a curve ball…I have no blame to throw here. But I can’t help but feel I’m being completely ripped off when it comes to my education/experience… I’m not as much worried that my GPA that I’ve worked so hard for up to this point may suffer, as much as how much hands on experience I’m skipping right over… we have GREAT GREAT GREAT teachers but not being able to have them face to face time and missing all the hands on stuff is hard… I’m just venting a little here… I will continue to do my best and hope it’s good enough. I have hope that everything will work out in the end. thank you for listening.” I appreciated the second student thanking us for listening. It is hard to not be able to fix all this, but we wanted them to feel heard and seen. One of our basic principles of what we call poverty-informed practice is to stand in awe of our students, and I am in awe.

Takeaway Number 2: Students were struggling, no matter how much we wanted that to not be true. Phrases like these told us the story of struggle: “My main problem is WiFi issues…” “I hate online classes they suck so much…” “I have fallen behind due to the campus not being open or accessible, as my computer has taken a shit, and my phone isn’t the most reliable thing to work on, especially when doing papers….” “I am scared that I am going to fail this quarter. I still have kids at home and trying my best to do everything. At the end of the day, I did not chose online classes it is extremely difficult. I even felt like dropping out and that is not my goal at all because I do want to finish…” There were many more, but the theme was clear. This was hard, and the pandemic made it harder. And these were the students who answered. I cannot help but wonder how many were just knocked off track and did not stay with us. As a higher education professional, these are not comfortable moments, but they are important. If we cannot hear and see what is really happening, how do we change the world for these people who trust us to help them chase their dreams? These are #RealCollege experiences and they deserve the light of day.

I wish I was concluding by telling you that Josiah and I, along with the rest of MSC Southeast, solved every one of these issues for students, and everything was on track. It is simply not true.

I have been arguing since this crisis started that the other side of this pandemic has to look different in many ways. I am not entirely clear what those changes all are, but I know it has to start with understanding the real journey of our students. It has to start with acknowledging the #RealCollege experience is the rule, not the exception. Last summer, I kept reading about colleges coming back in the summer and fall, and it did not sound like the students I know. Talk of dormitories, study abroad, sports and dining halls are important, but they do not represent the #RealCollege stories of the students I know. The stories collected in our one question check-in tell me about the students I know. These students are amazing. They are operating on thin margins, and they are counting on post-secondary education to make a difference in the arc of their lives. It is an awesome responsibility, and we work day and night to figure out the best way to continue the work of providing social mobility through education to the widest possible audience. But if we do not SEE the students we serve, really see them, it will be too easy to give in to our own fatigue and just do the best we can.

If I could talk to them right now, I would want them to know, I see you… I am because we are. Because I know these things, I know that as much as we are doing, it is not enough, and we have to do more. Once you really see something, it cannot be unseen. What will you do to say “I see you” to students?

Chad Dull has served as Vice President of Academic Affairs at MSC Southeast since August of 2019. Besides managing all aspects of academics at the college, including over 60 full and part-time faculty who teach in more than 30 programs, Chad oversees Customized Training and Continuing Education, HLC accreditation, and partnership with secondary schools across the region.

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