Today is my Happy New Year!

Today is the two year anniversary of what I’ve dubbed “my life explosion“. Some might think it is odd that I acknowledge this date, and even sometimes refer to it as my new birthday.

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My life on  January 6, 2015

For me, however, I’d rather put it out there than keep my acknowledgement of it inside. So, here I am, two years later still working on recovery…a process that is measured in years and not months or days like some other illnesses.

 

“The actual length of the rehabilitation process varies according to the person and to the severity of their injury. Some people may only require a few weeks or months of rehabilitation, and others may require years or even lifelong rehabilitation.”

(http://www.brainline.org/landing_pages/categories/rehabilitation.html)

 

I can see my growth over the past year. I am much stronger, and can therefore walk a bit better and last longer before hitting complete exhaustion (and my goodness the exhaustion).  I am better able to complete higher order executive functioning skills. And, I continue to challenge myself so that my neurons build complex pathways.

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Me=Snoopy

I also recognize the accomplishments I’ve achieved. For example, several times over the past year my Physical Therapist has strapped me into a harness over a treadmill. Each time my goal was to get to 3.5 in my speed (the lowest speed that is considered running), and the past few times I’ve done it I have reach my goal….albeit, the longest I can last at that speed is 5 minutes, but still, I was running.

I have hit my goal of 4,000 steps a day for almost all of this current school year (I take one day a week off…see exhaustion note above). It has helped to have a furry friend to enjoy going on walks with, and he goes at whatever speed I go, so it works out well. I’ve fallen several times on my walks, but let’s be real…I’ve always been clumsy. The best part is that Optimus is right there looking at me when I do without judgement.

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My furry friend, Optimus Prime.

Somehow I’ve managed to travel and present at conferences, as well as attend and participate in a wedding, and I say somehow because there is a ridiculous amount of sensory input in airports and conference centers. Even hotel carpeting…seriously, what is up with hotel carpeting? Does it really need to be (often) bright geometric patterned?  These are important questions, people, so please pay attention…it is dizzying. Not one of these adventures would have been possible without my co-presenters and my a0aab073555e4c72cd69f8d1e00ec450bdventure partner.

I often spot others with walking challenges wherever I go. Yes, these folks were probably around me before my life explosion, but I truly see them.

I also recognize the hypocrisy of a call for social justice that continually stays silent about the issue of disability.  If 19% of the population reports having a disability perhaps we can find a way to talk about it more?

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I really hope that you saw this and were not okay with it no matter your vote.

I  wrote a book. I’m not sure if it is any good, and I’m still working on editing it. I often remind myself that it took Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor 10 years for her to share her story. Perhaps I am emulating her in some sort of way.  What I do know is that I needed to get my life explosion out of me as a method of grieving (also a reason I talk a lot about Optimus).

There has been a lot that I’ve lost, and I am sad about it. It is okay to be sad.

Still, I want to use my story to encourage/help others, and so I’ve shared bits of it at community wide events, a classroom of speech therapists in training, and a monthly support group for caregivers of stroke survivors. I hope that by sharing it I’ve helped others in some way as all of these groups of people have helped me.

Goal for 2017: Do much of the same as this past year, except add looking at my experiences with more gratitude.  I spent a lot of time over the past year thinking “I woke back up for this?! Why?”

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My Macomb Family (Me, Optimus, John, Anas, and Amjad)

Over the past few weeks I’ve had the opportunity to spend time with two students from Syria, and couldn’t help but think about how amazing it is that we were eating good food, playing games, and enjoying each other’s company. Who would have thought I would be sitting around a table two years later enjoying time with two people from Syria in Macomb, Illinois?

 

This world we live in often looks like this:       scribbles

when we want it to look like this:       straight_line

Perhaps if it did we would miss out on discovering all of the:       main-thumb-t-1800-200-lon8kkfhqfctckdt2gwalfgnc0jejhmv

that exists where the lines cross.

Happy 2017 Everyone!

On My Journey Through Darkness

I recently reread a short essay by Maureen Watson (2015) titled: Treasures in Darkness: Loving the Questions.  In the essay, Watson speaks about what it feels like to live in the darkness. A year ago I was in a dark place, and although I had good reason to be there, it was torture. Parker Palmer’s metaphor of winter also speaks to where I was at the time. It was cold and it felt like the wind was blowing hard as I stood on a flat plain all alone in the dark of night.  1488905_10102331116884928_919608754_n

My choice to phrase the above paragraph in the manner that I did was intentional, and does mean that I’m no longer solely in that place. I don’t want it to be heard that I’ve somehow done a 180, but I have made progress. And I can see the progress. All of this I share because recently I’ve been thinking about how I once had a counselor who asked me if it was okay to revisit experiences that I thought I had worked through.  I was in a very stubborn place and was sharing with her that I refused to consider the past…I just wanted to be fixed even though I knew that she wasn’t going to tell me how I could be fixed. She pointed out that despite working through something in the past, I had since had more experiences that might lead me to see my past experiences differently, and she asked me if I thought that was possible.  Her question stayed with me, and is often something I still consider.

All of these thoughts combined with a passage I was recently reminded of in my Introduction to College Student Personnel course:

“Personnel workers see the person–at whatever age–not as a single moment independent of the past and the future, but as a transition point in a stream of experience that goes back to infancy and will continue on into the future” (Lloyd-Jones, 1954).

And the combination of these thoughts with current events such as the shooting of Keith Scott, the homelessness of the Syrian Refugees, the Native American tribal land protest, and the weekly interactions I have with first generation students place my mind in a spot where I can’t imagine how we could ever feel settled in higher education.  Yet, feeling settled is often what I believe we desire.  I know that I’ve desperately wanted to feel the security of having settled over the past year and a half–the safety that I can count on at least one piece of knowledge and believe it to be true.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could feel comfort in spite of today’s current events instead of only frustration and darkness?

It is in these moments of desiring comfort and stability, however, that I can see that I’ve managed to get through the dark place I was in and find a bit more light by going one step at a time.  And this time, I deeply value the light rather than taking it for granted.  In other words, now that I am able to see how far I have come, I find that I want to make sure that I am always a bit uncomfortable, and in many ways I hope that we all are a bit uncomfortable. For it is in that spot, that I believe we discover the most about ourselves.

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Myths About Self-Authorship in Student Affairs

I thought I would blog about self-authorship to help clear up some misunderstandings I’ve personally experienced throughout my time in the field.  Self-authorship is something that I research and study, so I try to notice when it is misunderstood.  I thought an easy way to clear it up would be to share four main myths I’ve heard about the concept.

Myth #1: Self-authorship is simply saying “I’m making this decision myself, so therefore, I’m self-authored.”  For example, “I’m sorry Sarah, I decided to self-author my homework and not do it.”

Myth #2: Self-authorship is only for White people.

Myth #3: Self-authorship is participating in self-reflection.

Myth #4: Self-authorship doesn’t allow you to build relationships with others.

So let’s start with some basics.  Self-authorship is a way of making meaning. A self-authored individual makes meaning of their experiences by determining their own values and beliefs while seeing others’ views as important and worth considering (Garvey Berger, 2011). This addresses myth #1 and myth #4.

Another way of looking at self-authorship is that it is a way of making meaning in which individuals possess the ability to face economic complexity, balance multiple roles, interact effectively with a diverse world, and responsibly confront social issues (Baxter Magolda, 2001).  Having the ability to face each of these issues most certainly is necessary for those working within the field of student affairs, as the problems of our field seem to only be increasing in complexity within each of these areas and more.

A self-authored way of thinking isn’t just about thinking about oneself (myth #1), it actually requires one to become closer to others in order to see their view point. Kegan (1994) discusses this by stating,

“When we see that we are not made up by the other’s experience, we then have the capacity not to take responsibility for what is now genuinely and for the first time not ours. And as a result, we can get just as close to the other’s experience (even the other’s experience of how disappointing, enraging, or disapprovable we are!) without any need to react defensively to it or be guiltily compliant with it” (p. 127). 

Imagine if in student affairs, we could interact with each of our colleagues and others at work having this capacity!

Myth #2 is addressed through research that is being conducted worldwide, as documented in Development and Assessment of Self-Authorship: Exploring the Concept Across Cultures (Baxter Magolda, Creamer, & Meszaros, 2010).  Book+Self+AuthorshipWithin the book, there are chapters on Bedouins and Jews in Israel, Latino ethnic identity, and other groups of people; and those aren’t the only studies occurring.  In fact, if you explore almost all development theories, you will find a common ebb and flow to them if you explore “how” development is occurring, not just “what” is being developed. Like almost all development theories, those who experience the most dissonance are the most likely to develop toward it.

Myth #3 is not what self-authorship is, but is instead a way to promote the development of self-authorship.  Again, given the issues facing our field, I believe we want to promote it. We need people who are conscious of themselves and the systems that are at work in student affairs and higher education, so that they can make responsible decisions for the good of the community by recognizing what is their responsibility and what is not in an ever increasingly complex world.  Other processes that promote self-authorship include:

  • “an ingenious blend of support and challenge” (Kegan, 1994, p. 42)

  • “listening without judgment, working on the process of one’s own way of making meaning, and intentionality” (Garvey Berger, 2012)

  • “identify diverse experiences, epistemological reflection, and participation as methods” (Mezirow, 2000, 2009; Zull, 2002)

It is also important to remember that being self-authored in how one makes meaning isn’t the end goal–there is more to our development and it continues to be explored.  Being self-authored in how one makes meaning allows individuals to move beyond solely depending on the external environment to tell them who they are and what actions they should take. Being able to think for one’s self is a way of thinking that employers seek in employees (Kerry, 2013, para 6; Krislov and Volk, 2014, para 13). However, my own research on new professionals indicates that those entering the field of student affairs aren’t yet self-authored (Schoper, 2011) (sorry if I’m bursting that bubble), so how can we expect them to assist in fully developing undergraduate students to meet the qualifications that employers seek?  I don’t believe it is simply the fault or full responsibility of student affairs preparation programs. It seems as though the field of student affairs may still be, “overly focused on outcomes and not process” (Jones, 2006, p. 4).

To me, it is the collective responsibility of all of us to promote continued development, not just in our students, but in ourselves. If for no other reason then it enables us to approach the problems we are facing with a different mindset.

Einstein

 

Congratulations to the Class of 2015 New Student Affairs Professionals!

The following is the speech I gave at the graduation reception for Western Illinois University’s College Student Personnel program 2015 graduates.  I share it, slightly amended, because I think that it applies to all graduates entering the field of student affairs as new professionals.  Congratulations to everyone!

Hello, parents, family, and friends. My name is Sarah Schoper, and it is wonderful to stand before you here today. I want to start off by thanking you for being who you are because who you are has had a profound impact on the students. I have truly valued getting the opportunity to learn with each of them, and find them to be amazingly, beautiful individuals. I look forward to seeing how they contribute to the world around them, and cheering them on from afar.

(You should be forewarned that my mom told me to be funny so that I wouldn’t cry, and what I’m going to share is my attempt to do that.)

As you may have heard from your student, I decided to take a last minute sabbatical this semester (they probably referred to it as a trip to the hospital). Apparently, I felt the need to do a little more research on the biology of learning, and have indeed discovered that the experiential learning cycle is how learning occurs, that neurons need to connect to build pathways in the brain for learning to happen, and that we take in information through all of our sense that contributes to our learning, amongst other things. I am still in the midst of my research, also known as therapy, but so far, I can assure you and your student that I’m doing everything I can to teach only accurate and true information. It is this most recent research process that I’ve engaged in that has led me to five points, I want to share with the graduates to consider as they continue on in their life’s journey.

1.  Celebrate everything (and if you do so with nonalcoholic mimosas, various owl gifts, inspirational items, orange nails, and motivational quotes) all the better! In our world, it is far too easy to see the gl10968367_10204276114079969_5288278294979119983_nass half empty rather than half full. Don’t underestimate the small steps you take because they add u10562959_10206085533515956_3287090894491426514_np over time to big changes.

2. If you are doing your job well, you will be uncomfortable and feel quite challenged. (no, this doesn’t mean that you should go around instigating issues haphazardly). Going into the field of student affairs means that you get the opportunity to impact every day (no matter your position) the lives of the students you interact with in ways that are life altering. This enormous amount of responsibility and privilege should leave you feeling uncomfortable and challenged for many reasons, including that by doing so you are also continuing to grow and develop. (which, as we learned together in theory class, most of us don’t want to do.) So, breathe deeply, stand tall, and be persistent as you find yourself feeling uneasy, it might just signify that learning is about to happen, which is hard, but also might just provide an amazing opportunity to grow.

3. (and this relates to the point I just made about seeking out uncomfortable experiences and challenging yourself.) Do your best to step back so that you can get a different perspective on the situations you are experiencing. This can mean taking time to quietly reflect while going on a walk and/or it can mean discussing a situation with a trusted friend or mentor in order to help process out your experiences. We discussed once in class how we tend to focus on those who we interact with the most (which are also those who happen to be like us the most), but remember it is important to be aware of those we don’t spend time with and to consider why that might be. Especially since student affairs exists to serve all students.

4. It is okay to be protective of your environment, so that you can be yourself, and perhaps more importantly, so that you can have hope. In almost every class, we’ve discussed the interaction between environment and person, and we’ve established that it has a profound impact on how a person makes sense of the world, which in turn has a profound impact on what they contribute to the world. If you don’t create space for hope to exist within the educational environment, it is far too easy…especially these days, to become negative and cynical, which will then impact the work that you do and the learning that occurs for your students. If you don’t believe me about this, consider times when you’ve been around people who are pessimistic about their experience and how easily their negatively caught on and became the thing to do…almost without conscious realization of it. You will pass along such negativity to those coming to you for help if you do not create space for hope.

5. (and perhaps most important) Show love to everyone around you. I know that you are all capable of doing so, because you have shown it to me (especially this semester as I’ve been doing my research 🙂 ). Doing so, won’t always be easy either (again, sort of like this semester), but it has the ability to transform the world into a kindeunconditional_lover place, and I know this because it has transformed me.

During your program interview days, I remember sitting in the academic discussion, and one of you asking me to share what I’ve learned from the students since I had just finished talking about how learning goes both ways. At the time, I had a lot of thoughts in my head, and stumbled through my answer—the student came to WIU, so I must have done something right.  🙂  Now, that you all are about to graduate, the answer to that questions seems so clear. I’ve continually learned how to love more unconditionally, and for that, I am ever grateful. You’ve helped transform me into a stronger person, and I thank you for that because I’ve needed that strength this semester. One of my mentors, Marcia Baxter Magolda, once told me to never underestimate the students, and I sincerely believe that and encourage you all to hold onto it. All students have something to contribute, and it is amazing and beautiful to acknowledge and an honor to be a part of that.

So, in conclusion, I will leave you with two quotes. First, a Christopher Robin to Winnie the Pooh quote (seems sort of fitting at a graduate level graduation):

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The second quote is from a spoken word poet, Shane Koyczan: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gZfhpD42Z4Y  The specific quote I read starts on 4 minutes, 2 seconds.

“Shine in the dark places. Lend the world your light.”

From my heart to your heart, thank you for helping me to find my light this semester—I can only hope that I have returned the favor and helped you to find yours during your time in the program. Congratulations!

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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.

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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.

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

Microaggressions in Everyday Life

In November of 2013, I attended a Lilly Conference on Teaching and Learning in Oxford, OH. One of the conference speakers was Derald Wing Sue, and he presented on his recent book Microagressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation. His talk was quite powerful for several reasons:

1. I can vividly recall some folks rudely walking out.
2. Sue ran out of time, and I remember being quite disappointed because I wanted to hear more.
3. I recall feeling like I wasn’t alone and that I wasn’t crazy for how I felt and made sense about experiences I’ve had.

These thoughts and feelings led to me placing Sue’s book in my Amazon cart for future reading, which I just so happened to find time to do over the last week.

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Microaggressions, according to Sue, “are constant and continuing experiences of marginalized groups in our society; they assail the self-esteem of recipients, produce anger and frustration, deplete psychic energy, lower feelings of subjective well-being and worthiness, produce physical health problems, shorten life expectancy, and deny minority populations equal access and opportunity in education, employment, and health care” (p. 6). Sue goes on to discussed the negative impact of built up microagressions throughout one’s life. Although I read the book due to my own personal interests, I couldn’t help but consider if there is a way to include at least exerts from it into my classes (I’m still considering this).

Most powerful to me were the narrative examples that Sue shared from his research. I also found the book powerful because it caused me several times to consider counterarguments and then to question where such arguments came from, as well as why they came so easily. For example, when Sue discussed health impacts of microaggressions to various marginalized groups, I found myself wondering how he knew that the negative health issues were connected to microagressions. I could think quickly of numerous explanations for such negative health concerns that aren’t about microagressions–or so I thought until I continued thinking about it. I had to work to spend time considering the connections to microaggressions that Sue was discussing…at least a bit harder than it took to think of all the numerous explanations. I had to work harder despite connecting personally to several of the types of microagressions he discussed. For example, when I thought “oh, no that could be due to not eating healthy”, I then thought about all of the systems and structures that don’t make choosing to eat healthy as simple as choosing to eat healthy. I felt stretched through this process, and appreciated the book for providing such an opportunity. This isn’t to say that I necessarily agreed with all that Sue asserted (I’m “sitting with” much of it still), but I did find it worthwhile to consider.

One of the biggest overall takeaways for me was when Sue stated, “the most disempowered groups have a more accurate assessment of reality, especially related to whether discriminatory behavior is bias-motivated” (p. 47). This statement caused me to pause, and although it was provided early in the book (and repeated several times thereafter in a variety of ways), I’ve continued to spend time reflecting on it and what it means for my practice. I can’t help but wonder what the world would be like if such a statement was deeply believed by all.

Learning is Messy

Learning is messy.

I was sent this image a few years ago from a former student, and I think it perfectly portrays the learning process….at least for me.

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Recently I’ve been revisiting the blurriness that the learning process is for various reasons (let’s be real…I’m probably do this more often than not since my research is on the learning process, so I probably don’t need to use the word recently or revisiting 🙂 ). One of the reasons I’ve been spending time reflecting on the learning process is because of what it means as a faculty member, which like other positions (e.g., student affairs professional), is no easy feat. Parker Palmer wrote a book titled: The Courage to Teach, and the title couldn’t be more true.

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Learning takes courage no matter who you are, and spending time each week trying to facilitate learning for and in front of others requires that one learns themselves, so it is at least just as challenging. I could draw connections at this point to the concept of vulnerability that Brene Brown talks about:

or remaining unfinished that Paulo Freire wrote about:

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I’m not interested in doing that, however, because all that would I would be doing, or at least how it would feel to me, is that I would be intellectualizing the complicated process of learning. That don’t fully get at the messiness of learning. So, instead, I thought I would put together my own visual description of the learning process in relation to how I experience it.

Enjoy! 🙂

At the beginning of the process, I’m usually pretty content. Feeling like things are going good.:
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And then something new enters my world and I can’t see where it is going to take me fully, but I’m curious enough to give it a try.:
new-path

I admit that usually in the beginning I try to reject it.:
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And/or worse, I think I already know all about it.:
know-it-all

Until I start to realize that what was once familiar I now don’t know what to think about?!?:
crazy_pug-HD

And I start to question all sorts of things and how I’m making sense of them???:
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Through that process, I start to see things, but I’m not fully confident in them.:
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And in trying to incorporate what I’ve learned, I stumble, make loads of mistakes,:
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and experiences lots of failures.:
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Until I reach a point where I start to understand it more clearly, which usually results in me feeling so excited and thinking about it all of the time!:
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at which point, somewhere in the process it starts to become habit, or a part of how I see the world around me.:
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Now, while I wrote this whole process as though it happens in a linear fastion, it is in no ways linear (please see the first visual image I included in this post). It is messy, but it is also interconnected.:
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And eventually brings me back to feeling pretty good, but with a slightly different way of viewing the world.:
happiness-1

stenen-gestapeld