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.


Starting a Student Organization for First Generation Students


A few students within the College Student Personnel program at Western Illinois University and I have been meeting over the past few weeks to discuss (and put in motion) the creation of a student organization for First Generation students. This next week, on September 25, we will host our first interest meeting (Sept. 25, 5-6 p.m., Fox Room, University Union). How am I feeling about all of it?

I’m nervous and excited at the same time.


The idea for a student organization came to me when my student affairs background and research interest collided in my mind.

(I “grew up” in the student activities area…orientation, leadership, commuter affairs, fraternity and sorority life, etc.)
(transformative learning)
= First Generation Student Organization Idea

And the idea was affirmed the other night when I attended a speaker, President and CEO of the NIC, Pete Smithhisler, sponsored by the fraternity and sorority life community at WIU. As I sat there listening to Pete speak about courage, I could not help but consider the founders of my own organization, Pi Beta Phi. What it took for them to first decide to go to college, and then to start I.C. Sorosis. I can see how the structure the Pi Beta Phi founders modeled is the same structure the students and I are emulating as we work to get the first gen. group up and running. I also think the creation of both groups is somewhat similar…or at least comparable:

A group of students with similar identities coming together to form what in many ways is a family as they proceed through college together.

These similarities give me hope, as I reflect on Pete’s speech and how much good fraternities and sororities have made in the world. We want the student organization to do good. Yet, how it will is still to be determined. We want the students to contribute to the creation of the group around the following values:


Still though, even with the identification of values, how they are enacted is left to be determined. We know we don’t want it to be like a class, and aren’t trying to become a bridge program. Such initiatives are worthwhile, but different than the aim of a student organization. We do hope to have first generation faculty and staff involved in some way, but that way is still to be figured out. So much is still left to be decided, but that’s a part of what makes me nervous and excited. Here’s hoping for a nice turn out next Thursday night…all are invited. 🙂


First Gen Flier

On First Generation Students

I recently finished reading two books about First Generation college students (The First Generation Student Experience: Implications for Campus Practice, and Strategies for Improving Persistence and Success by Jeff Davis and First-Generation College Students: Understanding and Improving the Experience from Recruitment to Commencement by Lee Ward, Michael Siegel, and Zebulun Davenport). Each book was a fairly quick read, and both have been on my mind since completing them.

What was quite clear to me from both books (Davis’s book contained more personal narratives, and Ward et al.’s book discussed more institutional strategy) is that what is known about first generation students is that they are hard workers.

Hard workers.

I put it out there because I don’t hear a lot of folks in higher education talking about first generation students being hard workers. Rather, if first generation students are spoken about at all, I hear folks identifying things they usually need to “tell” first generation students so that they will “know it” and thus catch up them up to everyone else around them (I, myself, admit to having thought and spoken this way about first generation students). Yes, it is true that there are things that first generation college students might not know about how college works. But I worry a bit that we are missing out on what it is that they do know. Instead, we are too busy trying to fit them into the processes and structures we have in place, which only continues to encourage us to see first generation students as less than other students. The deficit model approach. So, I thought it might be helpful to post three (well, really four if you count what I noted above about first generation students being hard workers, which I most certainly do count) of the key points I read about first generation students that might help to counter such a common approach:

1. Focusing on creating learning environments in which students are shared what they will learn, how it contributes to the mission of the institution, and then have experiences aiming to reach those learning outcomes helps first generation students understand and get on board with the experiences they are participating in. (Incidentally, creating such environments assists non-first generation students too.)

2. First generation students are conscious of the opportunity they are receiving. This is not necessarily how either of the books discussed first generation students approach to their experiences. Instead, they discussed the “imposter phenomenon” and how first generation students are constantly questioning if they should be in college. I chose to re-frame it to highlight the awareness they have of the opportunity they are experiencing (which does include if they are deserving of it–my goal isn’t to leave that out) because in doing I hope to draw attention to the approach many non-first generation students take to their experience, which is more of a taken-for-grantedness.

3. There is no common definition of what it means to be a first generation student. Davis’s book discusses how this is a problem, and Ward et al.’s book selected a definition and used it throughout. I, however, think that there not being a common definition is an opportunity for first generation students to identify for themselves if this is an identity they have and what it means to them.