A recent student advising meeting really got me thinking. Although there is hope that we may be turning a corner with Covid (or just getting used to this new normal), there is also a Covid aftermath many are facing right now. An aftermath that is a result of the impact of two years of unexpected life changes, disruption, and anxiety. Like so many, my student started college expecting the “old,” or pre-pandemic normal, but about the time he was feeling somewhat acclimated on campus, March 2020 came along and college became defined by Zoom. It is hard to fully digest this. His college life turned into Zoom...how could that be??? And the impact of this sudden and profound change meant he was changed forever. Class engagement through Zoom was particularly challenging for him. It was harder to concentrate, harder to participate, harder to ask questions, harder to connect with classmates, harder to motivate to do work, harder to study with the ever present distractions of technology, harder, harder, harder. Two years later, this student is doing everything he can to figure out how to change his college habits, to better manage his time, improve his study strategies, pull away from distractions, and also pull up his grades so he can get off academic probation. Before saying more, I do want to acknowledge that colleges did what they could to figure out this new and unchartered territory of fully virtual learning environments. And nuggets of good news emerged, with some students thriving even better in this type of class setting. But I want to focus on the aftermath for those trying to pick up the difficult pieces of an unexpected college life. In this aftermath, there is grief. Grief in what could have been and then the shocking reality of what actually happened. Grief in an expectation of college life that was dashed in merely a few days. Grief in the extended period of disruption that meant months and years of different, not just days and weeks. In the speediness of life, many have not taken a moment to acknowledge, let alone feel, this grief. I hope anyone reading will take some time to reflect on the grief that might still be lingering, maybe with a friend, counselor, mentor, or through journal writing. It’s okay to be angry, sad, and feel frustrated. Sitting in the grief rather than ignoring it can often help us let go of those difficult feelings and truly put the past behind us, or at least provide an opportunity for some healing. Another challenge in the aftermath of Covid is lingering anxiety. College anxiety is already ever present on campuses as students manage new college expectations, challenging coursework, being away from home for the first time, balancing school, work and family life all at the same time, etc. Many of us have to manage underlying levels of anxiety to begin with. Then you add Covid to the mix and anxiety can really invade the mind and body. My anxiety escalated during this period and took me back to my sophomore year of college when anxiety took over and I almost left college. It was an incredibly difficult and lonely time, but thanks to the gentle urging of a college instructor, I found my way to a mental health counselor and a career counselor who became a lifelong mentor. These essential supports made it possible for me to share my struggles with a classmate who was going through a similar experience and felt ashamed that she too couldn’t seem to “handle” college. I found that regular river walks and rehearsals for a singing group (my personal versions of meditation) made a big difference in helping me turn the corner too. Why share this? Well, I recently realized that these very same strategies helped tame my Covid anxiety – consistent mental health support, seeking help from my mentor, honest friendships, walks outside with a new puppy, and joining a church choir. How lucky was I to have a college instructor who could really see what was going on for me? That one compassionate conversation helped me lift the mask I was wearing (that everything was fine) and find my way to essential resources I didn’t know much about and was honestly too proud to seek out. I could then face my anxiety instead of hiding it and recognize that I was suffering and getting low grades, not for lack of effort, but for lack of understanding how I could really help myself. I became open to learning new strategies for coping, which meant I was better able to handle college work. It’s not always easy to know what students need, but honest check-ins can allow them to be more vulnerable and see that they not only deserve the help, but that it is essential to figure out what works given the many resources and options out there. This could mean they too find lifelong strategies that make new challenges, like Covid, easier to manage. And improving health and wellness frees up mental space for college students to focus more fully on what is happening in the present. And so I want to bring us back to the present. By finding ways to stay more present in each moment of our lives, I think it is easier to actually manage what life hands us and remain resilient in the aftermath of difficult situations. And college life in all its excitement and all its challenge hands you so much to manage. The ability to be more present can help with critical thinking, concentration, deep learning, studying, relationships, self-care, and much more – all things that feed into college success and enjoyment. My student has fortunately found a good support system and as a result, he is staying more present to how he can make positive changes for himself. I have told him to take pride in all that he is handling in the aftermath of Covid, and I hope you all do the same.
... View more
Whether you find yourself teaching in-person or online this term, the need to promote social belonging remains a high priority. I say this based on what we know from the extant literature on college student success and retention ,, – that a sense of belonging is associated with improved student well-being, academic engagement, and performance. I also say this based on my own research examining college student adjustment and barriers during COVID-19  – that students struggled with social connections and building relationships early on during COVID and continue to struggle. Moreover, research shows that social belonging is especially important for students from historically underrepresented backgrounds; those who felt more connected to their college reported greater self-worth, social acceptance, scholastic competence, and had fewer depressive symptoms. 
But what exactly is social belonging? A sense of belonging is a subjective perception of inclusion and connectedness to any or all aspects of the learning environment. This can be a connection to peers, faculty, staff, student organizations, an academic department, or the institution as a whole. Many students will question their social belonging. That questioning can be a normal part of the college transition experience as students develop an identity and explore their interests, majors, and careers. However, it should not be a normal experience for a student to feel unwelcome, unsafe, excluded, or disrespected. As faculty, we can help students build connections within and outside of the classroom. We can also keep an eye out for students who may be struggling with a sense of belonging and intervene.
Ideas for Promoting Social Belonging
Connect students with resources to meet their basic needs (so they can then fulfil social needs)
Post links to Financial Aid, Academic Advising, Counseling Services, Student Health, etc.
Provide information about your institution’s COVID policies, testing/reporting protocols, and any emergency aid (e.g., healthcare, housing, food insecurity, transportation)
Identify on-campus resources for accessing broadband and digital services
Take the “temperature” of your class and help normalize student experiences by using a word cloud generating tool (e.g., Poll Everywhere)
Share free online applications that can assist with:
Meditation (Headspace, Insight Timer)
Slow, controlled breathing (ReachOut Breathe, Serenita)
Sleep (iSleep Easy)
Happiness (Happify: For Stress & Worry)
Self-care (SuperBetter is a free video-game style app in which users create a secret identity and progress through the game by completing quests that are self-care activities)
Managing distressing thoughts and feelings (Woebot is an AI-powered chatbot that guides users through managing distressing thoughts and feelings with principles of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy)
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD Coach is for service members who may be experiencing symptoms of PTSD)
Communicate more often and more intentionally
Videotape and post brief, weekly pre-class introductions or post-class summaries
Reach out to students who don’t typically initiate contact to check-in
Find upper class student volunteers to serve as peer mentors to your class
My peer mentor meets with a small group of students twice a month via Zoom
Create a class Facebook Page to broadcast updates, alerts, and college activities
Use Twitter as a class message board to post reminders for assignment due dates or share inspirational quotes and helpful links to practice quizzes or resources
Create a YouTube channel for your class and have student students upload a YouTube “short”
Give students a virtual TikTok tour of your office
Use live and interactive polling tools to engage students (e.g., iClicker, Mentimeter, Kahoot, etc.)
Facilitate student interaction in and out of the classroom
Have students create and deliver a 3-Minute elevator pitch
Assign weekly online discussion posts (via Canvas or Blackboard)
Use Instagram for photo essays and digital storytelling (class-specific Instagram accounts)
Create a class blog and assign blog posts as essays
Initiate a class specific Pinterest board for students to curate a digital bibliography for research projects, papers, or group assignments
Require small groups to use Google Docs to record their discussions and turn in
Ask students to create brief TikTok video clips to explain a concept or theory to the rest of the class; post or watch in class and have classmates provide feedback
Prepare students for their career by having them register for LinkedIn and build professional networks and connections
Pascarella, E. T., & Terenzini, P. T. (2005). How college affects students: A third decade of research. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Harper, S. R., & Quaye, S. J. (2015). Student engagement in higher education: Theoretical perspectives and practical approaches for diverse populations (2nd Ed.). New York: Routledge.
Tinto, V. (1988). Stages of student departure: Reflections on the longitudinal character of student leaving. Journal of Higher Education, 59(4), 438-455.
Hill, K.C., & Metz, A.J. (in preparation). Academic, relational, and socio-emotional factors of adjustment and barriers faced in first-year college students during COVID-19.
Gummadam, P., Pittman, L. D., & Joffe, M. Ioffe (2016) School Belonging, Ethnic Identity, and Psychological Adjustment Among Ethnic Minority College Students, The Journal of Experimental Education, 84:2, 289-306.
... View more
As a recent college graduate, a STEM major, and an introvert, I appreciate that the first step in this chapter to becoming a better communicator is becoming a better listener. In college, I had the chance to practice this listening through different classes, but this skill was never as explicitly explained as in this chapter. Now, I wonder what would have changed if it had been.
On my first day of college and my first class, the professor divided us into two groups--the people who felt comfortable talking in class and the people who generally didn’t. I was in the second group at the time. But, in that conversation between the “quiet” people, we perhaps unexpectedly had a good discussion. I think we weren’t just “quiet,” but rather, we were listeners.
I appreciated that exercise a lot. In the context of STEM classes like computer science, listening as a step of communicating is so important. I’ve only ever taken mathematics courses, not computer science. But, I don’t think you can grow as a scholar in these disciplines without collaboration based on a foundation of listening.
In my first math class in college, we had random seating in each class. So, we worked with a new partner each lesson. At the beginning of each class too, we would answer a warm-up question by working with our partner. If called upon after this time, we would either give an answer or share what we talked about.
Looking back, I appreciate this exercise more now as a practice in gaining emotional intelligence, conflict resolving skills, and multicultural competence, not just about reviewing content and making sure we read the chapter. I had the chance to learn from everyone in the class about mathematics, their lives, and their communication styles.
I wonder what I would have gained if the topics of Chapter 11 were discussed more explicitly in these classroom settings. How would my understanding of listening, communicating, and social belonging changed if it had been? How would my STEM experience specifically have changed as a result?
I can’t answer these questions for sure, but I think I would have maybe declared my STEM major earlier. I could have asserted myself in that major as one who belongs, not just someone who takes all the classes and eventually graduates with the major.
I can’t go back now, but I still appreciate that this kind of chapter exists in a STEM book.
... View more
I need some validation. Is it just me, or are the tensions, frustrations, anger, and divisiveness in our society being played out in the classroom? Although my class was held via Zoom this week, I could see it and feel it. And so could the students. In fact, I got an apology e-mail the day after class from one student who labeled her own behavior as disrespectful and dismissive.
I know my students want to talk about what’s happening in the world and how it’s impacting them but these conversations can be difficult dialogues that necessitate empathy, respect, and an acceptance of diverse lived experiences, ideas, values, forms of expression, and ways of being. Are my students ready for that? And an even bigger question, am I? Can I facilitate these conversations without harming anyone?
I’ve been reading, reflecting, and talking to my colleagues about how to create a safe space to address important issues of diversity and multiculturalism. I’ve decided to start small. First, I think it’s important to help students build self-awareness about their own unconscious biases. This can be a springboard for conversations about how biases develop and how they can lead to stereotypes, microaggressions, and discrimination. Second, I think it’s important for students to get to know each other on a deeper level and listen to each other’s stories. This can build empathy and respect and, hopefully, tolerance for differences.
To build self-awareness, I think it can be helpful to introduce the idea that we all have thoughts and feelings outside our conscious awareness and control (hidden biases). Project Implicit is a non-profit organization created by researchers at the University of Washington, Harvard University, and the University of Virginia. They provide an online Implicit Association Test with feedback (see https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html ). This can be a great in-class or out-of-class activity to prompt reflection and discussion. After taking the test, you can have students describe their own self-understanding of the attitude or stereotype that the test measures. You can then introduce the concepts of stereotypes, microaggressions, and discrimination.
Another activity to help students think about their stereotypes and biases of others is to complete the “How Comfortable Am I?” worksheet (pgs. 8-9 of the “Diversity Activities Resource Guide” https://www.uh.edu/cdi/diversity_education/resources/activities/pdf/diversity%20activities-resource-guide.pdf ). This guide was compiled by the University of Houston, Center for Diversity and Inclusion and includes activities from the tolerance.org website. I’ve had students complete this worksheet and break into small groups to discuss how comfort level might relate to biases or stereotypes, then brainstorm ways to better understand and challenge those beliefs.
One of my doctoral students who taught a “Strategies for College Success” course for international students designed a really wonderful assignment for helping students get to know each other yet also build empathy and respect for differences. She called it the “Twelve Statements Project” and said she learned about the activity in a book by psychologist Sam Gosling titled Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You. For the assignment, students are asked to describe themselves with 12 photographs or images they feel comfortable sharing – each on their own PowerPoint slide. They then present these images to the class in a 10-minute slideshow. Every course evaluation of this instructor reflected the meaningfulness of this particular assignment. So much so, that I encourage all my instructors to incorporate this activity into their courses.
Finally, there is a very popular and powerful TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story” ( https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_ngozi_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story?utm_campaign=tedspread&utm_medium=referral&utm_source=tedcomshare ) that can be used to validate cultural misunderstandings and our sometimes limited perspectives of other people. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie uses her own personal experience growing up in Nigeria as well as her experience in America to explain how “the single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story the only story.” Adichie is funny, vulnerable, and calls us to action to seek out alternative stories. Following the Ted Talk, students can be encouraged to reflect on examples of “single stories” in their personal life, in their education, or even in the news.
I hope these ideas are helpful or even spark other ideas for how you can create a safe space in your classroom to address diversity and promote tolerance and inclusion.
... View more