I recently was invited to speak at my alma mater Cal State University Fullerton. Going back 22 years later does many of the things you think it’s going to do to you. For starters it makes you feel old and out of it. The English department chair asked if I needed any help and I of course said no, I know this campus like the back of my hand. Well, I got lost trying to find my car in a lot that didn’t exist when I went there. I was happy to see, however, how diverse and thriving the campus was.
California State Universities are a treasure trove of smart kids without huge financial assets. We are the kids who did well in high school or community college or both but our parents were solidly middle class or lower. We might be the first ones in our family to even go to college. For us, the experience of college is a huge challenge that has nothing to do with academics. We have to figure out a way to get to school everyday without cars, we have to take on jobs and sometimes be at work and equal amount of time or more to the time we are in class. We often have families to take care of at the same time. Whew!
I taught at Feather River College for the better part of eleven years. I tried to always keep in mind that my students, much like myself, did not hail from rich families with their futures neatly mapped out before them. I’m the first one in my family to graduate from college on my mom’s side and the second after my father on his side. The majority of my students at FRC were pretty similar.
I’m glad I’m not up at 2 am grading papers English composition papers anymore and inhabiting what surely must be one of Dante’s levels of hell (Earth to CFOs at colleges—grading papers correctly means hours of work teachers aren’t paid for—I clocked my wages once at $1.50 an hour if you factored in paper grading). However, I miss the students and I worry about them—both the ones I know and the ones I’ll never get to meet.
You see, there’s a magic secret to student success—to be successful as a student –K-12 or college—a student needs to be supported. Many people think the word ‘support’ is just a financial word. It is and it isn’t. Money always helps, of course, but it’s not everything.
Students need to feel that they are part of a community, a cohort, of something bigger. That there’s a reason they’re plugging away at what they’re doing and a pay off somewhere at the end of the tunnel. Feather River College, for example does a good job of this for its male student athletes in terms of study halls, recruitment, mandatory discussions of various issues, and a Golden Eagle team spirit that they’re all in this together.
But here’s a secret I’m going to let you in on: students who aren’t male athletes deserve and need support too. Adult students coming back to school after having their families need support to guide them to the finish line. They need help navigating financial aid and finding ways to go to class when their babysitters flake or their partners don’t want them to get an education. The former mill worker who never thought he’d be out of a job needs guidance to navigate and figure out a new line of work that education will lead him to. Students recruited from other areas should be told to pack warm clothes. Most years I was at FRC, we had coat drives to get students winter coats as some hailing from warmer climates didn’t own such things and couldn’t afford to buy them.
Students shouldn’t go hungry. In K-12, food programs offer free breakfasts and lunches to help mitigate hunger, but there aren’t systems in place for college students struggling with the same hunger issue. Students whose income needs are based on far away families or for those in dysfunctional families often are seen as having income they don’t really have (based on a parent’s last years tax return). Sometimes they qualify for foodstamps. But often, they don’t.
I often invited students home for a family dinner on the weekends and send them home with leftovers. I know many people in the community who feed students too. Still, a foodbank without shame on campus is what we should be striving for. Currently FRC has a locked cabinet where hungry students must beg to have it opened to grab cans of soup or bags of pasta. If we were serious about supporting our students we’d have open shelving in the student center, like many other campuses have, so students down to their last few dollars before the end of the semester, could have something to eat to sustain themselves through finals. Of course, this also means we’d need a real student center.
Speaking of support? FRC needs a Women’s Resource Center. That empty space below the cafeteria is the perfect place for one. At other college campuses Women’s Resource Centers help with a variety of student needs. A woman going to college often faces a barrage of obstacles she shouldn’t have to face, let alone face alone. People in her family might be berating her for not being home in the kitchen cooking dinner. She might need counseling to cope with abusive situations, career counseling—especially if she wants to go into a male dominated field. Older women need a place where they can meet other older women on a youth dominated campus. Women students get pregnant. They need a non-judgmental ear. They need help letting teachers know the reason they were out for a week was because their kid was in the hospital.
Of course there’s bigger and heavier issues that Women’s Resource Centers handle. Often they provide safe haven for women experiencing violence—whether in their homes, dorms or on the campus. Students who have been harassed, assaulted, or raped find it difficult to concentrate on their studies when they know there’s someone walking around on campus or in the community that is actively trying to or has hurt them. A Women’s Resource Center is an advocate on their side. WRCs help women students know they are not alone and that crimes committed against them are exactly that: crimes. It is a safe space for women. I know some reading this will say, well shouldn’t we have a Men’s Resource Center too? To that I say, yes, that’s what a typical campus is: A Men’s Resource Center. Can women just have one small safe space to talk freely and be supported by their fellow women as they navigate their new world of education? We thrive in safe environments.
Students and faculty also should always have a reasonable expectation of safety. I used to think that just meant clear-lighted pathways and ice free walkways and parking at the top of campus in the winter, but it’s also about violence.
Two years ago, while I was teaching a night class, a student who apparently was on some narcotics went ballistic in my class and vented his anger an inch from my face. Nothing was ever done about him and I still see him walk around Quincy and FRC free to harass other women. He beat up his girl friend as well. I’d never experienced violence in a classroom like that before and I taught at Los Angeles City College with gang members! I know my decision to quit teaching began the moment that student threatened to hurt me if I assigned him his earned F. Had I felt supported perhaps things would be different now.
I was thinking about these things as I was walking passed the student union at Cal State Fullerton. I thought too how well supported I was there as a student. My professors who brought my friend Jennifer and I home to dinner. My relatives who collected their recycling so I could turn it in and get the money for groceries. My mom who sent care packages. My dad who talked me through classes. The financial aid officer who had me declared independent when my stepfather refused a dime in my direction. The Chicano Studies department who let another student and I sleep on cots behind the office since we had no cars and needed to take classes that ended after the last bus. The counselor who helped me get away from my abusive boyfriend. The Women’s Studies/Resource Center who helped me gather my courage to apply for my first post college job at the Los Angeles Times and to keep writing. My graduation was a supported group effort. I owe them all. I like to think their support paid off.
I believe we collectively owe the students of this county our support too. I’d like to think our support of them will have an immense impact on our future too.