I thought I was an isolated case — I know now, I wasn’t

A Professor’s Perspective on #RealCollege

Dr. Rebecca Weaver, Georgia State University, Perimeter College

I would wait until the evening, when it was pleasantly cool and dark enough, to slip unnoticed into the other dorms and make my way to recycling stations on each floor. I’d gather the glass bottles in a big garbage bag pilfered from my own dorm’s kitchen, and when I got all I could carry, I would start toward the grocery store a block off campus, the bag bumping along behind me, clink-clink-clinkety-clink. The machine outside the grocery store took the bottles, one by one, and then spit out a receipt I’d redeem inside for cash, often around three to four dollars. I was on summer break, living and working on campus in western Oregon in the early ‘90s, and these bottles meant a couple days of groceries in the thin week before payday.

I paid for college at my dream school (a small liberal arts college) through student loans, financial aid grants, a tiny amount from family, work-study jobs, and a scholarship or two, desperately patched together to make everything add up so I could afford to keep going to school year after year.

Every April, I’d watch the balance sheet reconcile as my student loans were added on, and though I was anxious about student loans, I didn’t really understand the way my student loans would become debt (or that the six-digit number of their total would make me need to sit down when I look at it now). I had the desperation to keep going, even if there would be a few tight days a month: I had to graduate, I had to stay in school. I assumed these lean times and my habitus of scarcity were the price to pay for college, for all the rewards and benefits I hoped came with a college degree. The personal growth, income possibilities, and self development were worth it to me, and I thought there wasn’t a way around it. I didn’t know of one. I accepted it as a necessary cost.

Though I didn’t tell many people about this, some professors, staff, and administrators knew my situation and watched out for me. They did what they could when I was a student, often through quiet or anonymous methods, like dropping food at my dorm room. Some of their kindnesses were unknown to me until years later. In gratitude now, I have tried to do this where I can for students. I’m sure many of us do, outwardly by having food in our offices or more discreetly, with a soft word to an administrator or a referral to a support service.

I thought then I was an isolated case — I know now I wasn’t. I know now through my job as a writing prof at a community college and as a participant in the #RealCollege Movement that we are currently in a crisis of campus hunger. This crisis, overlapping with the effects of the current COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing pandemic of racism, is threatening to be a disaster for our students.

The deep promise of #RealCollege and The Hope Center for Community, College, and Justice is that a vision for disaster recovery is clear. It has resulted in my students feeling seen by professors, by academia in general, and by their schools. There is a role here for everyone across the institution, including professors. The problem is too big, too widespread, and it affects too many students to be solved through personal kindnesses alone. The interventions need to be systemic and institutional.

In my second-semester writing class, we learn about and discuss what higher ed in the U.S. looks like right now. We read about the struggles and successes of current students and writers who talk openly about their backgrounds as poor, minoritized, or first-generation students. The #RealCollege movement has meant that students going through this — “studenting-while-poor” — don’t see it as individual failure, or as something lacking in themselves. I believe that many of us, professors and students alike, now see campus hunger and its related issues as an institutional, systemic, and moral failure. At a time when so many more students are feeling urgent economic and cultural pressure to go, the institutional and moral failure of college in the U.S. is that the financial structures of college aid have not improved since I was lugging those bottles down to the Forest Grove DaBoys Supermarket.

What does that mean for professors who want to move from kindness to advocacy?

We can investigate the gap between mainstream culture’s ideas of what college should be (an idyllic community with time to explore) for our students and what it is for so many of them now (a time fraught with balancing the highs and lows of school, job, and family obligations, and all without sufficient institutional support). Assuming that we know who are our students are and what they need might be a quick answer, but it’s not effective. We need to ask what’s happening when students struggle in the classroom. And by investigating, we can intervene. Food pantries are a good start. We can donate to them, support them, and tell students about them. We should add syllabus “basic needs” statements. These acknowledge our students’ humanity and that life sometimes gets in the way of studenting, and they include information about services on campus to help address basic needs. We can bring food to class.

But on a larger scale, we can think of using our gifts and talents to advocate past the pantry, for moving from charity to justice, changing the systems that pummel our students, such as emergency grant / loan programs that force our students to prove their poverty to receive aid, or policies that drop students from class rolls for bill disputes (cutting them off from campus community connections and help at the time they might most need it). We can ask our governmental representatives to reduce barriers to aid and to support both debt reduction and better funding of students and schools. We can enthusiastically discuss and model compassionate pedagogy and create academic settings where care and high academic standards do not conflict, but instead are mutually supportive.

This year, I’m running a faculty book club where we’re reading Cia Verschelden’s Bandwidth Recovery: Helping Students Reclaim Cognitive Resources Lost to Poverty, Racism, and Social Marginalization. This statement in Verschelden’s introduction speaks deeply to me about what it means to be a #RealCollege professor: “Just like in the 1970s when I started at the university, the reality of higher education today is that it’s not a resource equally available to all. Students in certain groups arrive at college, if they get there at all, with a diminished capacity to learn due to the negative effects of racism, poverty, and social marginalization, which have robbed them of cognitive resources for learning.”

All year, our groups discussed how many of our students feel compelled to go to college because their families’ economic situations are so dire (not despite that reason); unlike in previous generations in this country, students can’t wait until they “have the money to go to college.” Many of our students need to go to college now because being in college can have the immediate effect of patching over precarity for the short term (through grants and loans) while it can promise to solve precarity in the long term. My students are dealing with so much; at the same time, they show incredible resilience and wondrous imaginations by enacting hope and seeing college as a route to dreams. This is #RealCollege: a third to a half of our students are dealing with food insecurity as I write this.

I’ve come to understand that even for so-called “traditional students” (those matriculating immediately after high school and living on campus, for example) it’s never been true that we should tend only to the student’s academic self. Like many professors, I used to ask students to leave non-academic issues at the door. But I’m working to change and to do better. What we can do as faculty members is make space for the aspects of our students’ lives that don’t get “left at the door” (even if we feel unequipped to solve the other issues). Now I say: “Here is a space where you can rest a little, receive a little bit of a sanctuary, a little challenge, and hopefully a little fun.” A simple acknowledgement of what our students come in with can help a great deal. Beginning of class “small teaching” exercises, such as quick, reflective, and focused freewriting, or “one-minute essays” at the end of class, give students a chance to regain a little hope and bandwidth.

But we do little for that hope if we fail to heed Verschelden’s contention that not only are students’ capacities for learning undermined by the baggage they bring in with them, but also that we can help students build back some of their bandwidth. As professors, we can choose to value empathy and academic vigor over academic “rigor.” In the pandemic pivot, many professors worried that the sudden switch to teaching class remotely would lead to a lessening of rigor, and so designed the rest of their semesters in ways that may have emphasized professorial authority without actually increasing learning. Unfortunately, the effects for our students might have been further dehumanization. This kind of academic rigor is what happens when we fail to acknowledge what #RealCollege is like for our students and insist on certain versions of studenting that are no longer current or economically supported.

We should instead embrace academic vigor, a vision of higher ed teaching that engages the minds and hopes and dreams of our students without denying their humanity. As professors, we can advocate for our students in our departments and disciplines past the classroom. We can recommend and fight for pedagogies and policies of care across silos. We can lean on our training and do what we want our students to do: synthesize information, make connections between bodies of knowledge, and keep learning.

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