Accepting Identity in Student Affairs

In my last blog post, I wrote about the connections I saw between rehab and learning. Since that post, I’ve been home for three weeks going to outpatient rehab. Outpatient rehab requires me to be outside much more, and living at home makes it so that my world is much bigger than it was when I was living on the second floor of the hospital. This also means that there are many more chances for me to be “watched/observed” by others. Now, I’m not necessarily someone who care what others think, but since January 6, I have felt much more exposed than usual while I am adjusting to my own “new” way of being in the world. This includes wearing an ankle and foot orthotic and walking with a four point cane.


Last year, I attended and completed a series of workshops put on by Western Illinois University’s Disability Resource Center called Faculty and Staff Partnerships for Accessible Solutions (FASPAS). During these sessions, I learned again about the importance of universal design, and how I could bring such concepts into the learning environment within my classroom. I say again because as a student affairs professional I sat on committees at other institutions and attended workshops on accesssibility in higher education. At these workshops, there is always discussion about letting the person with the disability speak up and ask for help…don’t assume you know what they need. What there is a bit less focus on was the “feeling” in the room when everyone gets silent simply because you walked in to take a seat. The whole journey I am on, has helped me to realize that I, too, was probably one of those people, who suddenly got quiet when someone who looked like they needed my help walked into the room. Now, however, I feel quite different about that silence. I get it, I don’t look “normal”, but I am still the same person I was before, and I am on the journey of integrating a new identity into the whole of who I am as a person.

Recently, I finished reading the book Whistling Vilvaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do by Claude Steele (2010). In Steele’s book, he writes:

“Prejudice matters. It can shape contingencies. But identity contingencies can profoundly affect a person–to the point of shaping her life–without her encountering a single prejudiced person along the way….But remember, contingencies grow out of an identity’s role in the history and organization of society–its role in the DNA of a society–and how society has stereotyped that identity.” (p. 212).

If you had the chance to be around me since January of this year, there are a few main points you might hear me share.

First, I am not dead nor am I dying any time soon (if I can help it).

Second, I still have my brain. Simply because I am working on my recovery doesn’t mean I can’t think and/or that I am suddenly stupid.

When I came across this quote in Steele’s book, I couldn’t help but realize that what I’ve been concerned about are stereotypes that exist about people with disabilities in our society. Not that anyone has done anything directly to me, but they exist because I know them and I am impacted by them because I want to make sure that I am not fulfilling them. So, I’ve been working extra hard to get better as fast as I can. Now, it does occur to me that I am quite privileged in the sense that I have somewhat of a choice about getting better. I say somewhat, because nobody really knows how much I will recover, and I find that while I want to recover fully, I also am trying to process through what it will mean if I don’t. Steele summed up my recent tasks this way:

“My mission in this book is to broaden our understanding of human functioning, to get us to keep in mind that, especially in identity-integrated situations, people are not only coping with the manifest tasks of the situation, but are also busy appraising threat and protecting themselves from the risk of being negatively judged and treated. Perhaps the chief discovery of our research is that this protective side of the human character can be aroused by the mere prospect of being negatively stereotyped, and that, once aroused, it steps in and takes over the capacities of the person–to such an extent that little capacity is left over for the work at hand” (p. 213-214).

And, I by no way think that I am the only person who has ever acted this way. Indeed, Steele’s book cites research that supports his points. It does cause me to pause, however, and realize in a much more intense and powerful way what the students attending institutions of higher education who are exploring various identities might be experiencing.

Now, Steele offers a way for us to help lessen the impact of his reaction:

“A central policy implication of the research discussed here is that unless you make people feel safe from the risk of these identity predicaments in identity-integrated settings, you won’t succeed in reducing group achievement gaps or in enabling people from different backgrounds to work comfortably and well together” (p. 215).

What I am learning, is that safe environments aren’t environments that simply state that “all people are welcome”, nor are they environments in which people have learned social justice speak (both, assertions I experience student affairs professionals make). For me,

safe environments are those without the intense feeling of silence because everyone is afraid that you might fall and hurt yourself.

It is quite important that we consider how we create these environments in student affairs in such a way that they don’t inadvertently trigger identity contingencies.

Steele, C.M. (2010). Whistling vilvaldi. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. New York, New York.

One thought on “Accepting Identity in Student Affairs

  1. Pingback: Seven Lessons I’ve Learned From My Strokes | Sit_With_It


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