Another School Year Started

I took a break from personally blogging this summer, and need to get back into the swing of doing it at least once a month. For these reasons, I thought I would post about my summer and the beginning of the school year.

For starters, the first week of the new school year is over.  Woo hoo, 🙂 I did it!  I will say that I notice my energy went up over the summer, which is exciting.  Still, I am quite exhausted in the evenings and have spent a good bit of time sleeping this weekend.

I am still going to physical therapy at the local hospital to work on my continued recovery.  Yes, this means that I’m continuing to also improve physically too.  I do still have foot drop, but I have become much stronger, the spasticity has decreased, and I can walk faster.  One of my goals is to be able to run, and I am happy to say that I got to a speed of 3.5 on the treadmill (which is the lowest speed for running), and I can do that for just over 3 minutes.  Yes, to do this I wear a harness that is attached to the ceiling in case I fall, but I can still do it!

This summer I worked again on the book I’m writing about my January 2015 life explosion (as I now call it). I finished another draft of it in early August, and am having someone edit it for me now. I actually think it isn’t too bad, and might possibly be something folks want to read. I’ve kept it focused on the patient perspective of everything I’ve been through. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that it is worthwhile.

Third, I did get to go to my favorite place, Lake Vermilion, MN, this summer for two weeks. This year I had a chance to spend time with family, and I swam in the lake. I tried out a pool later in the summer too. FYI, swimming is very hard, but also very enjoyable. A special moment was when my niece taught me to do all of the swimming moves she learned from her swim instructor when I told her that I was afraid to swim. Like a good student, I listened to her instructions.

I also taught a summer course, which was quite enjoyable, and I prepared for my fall semester courses.  Now that I have a better understanding of my disabilities, I was able to be more strategic in my planning.  All of this is to say that I feel as though I’m both improving and adjusting…hopefully the first year back was the hardest for this “new” body I inhabit.

It was great to see the students both in classes this week, as well as those in the Western 1st Generation Society (W1Gs) group.  I am very excited to say that all of the students in the group came back to WIU this fall, and are prepared for the Activities Fair next week.  I anticipate it will be a great year thanks to all of them too!

Finally, no great year would be complete without a new dog.  He is a 5 year old PomChi mix that we adopted from the McDonough County Animal Shelter.  I know that not everyone is a dog person, but it is pretty awesome to have something SO EXCITED to great me each time I come home.  Dogs are the best! 🙂

Optimus Prime our 5 year old ChiPom mix.

Optimus Prime our 5 year old ChiPom mix.

Are Our Inclusive Communities for Those with Disabilities?

Since the beginning of 2016, I’ve challenged myself to have new experiences, which have led me to increasingly realize how hard it is to function in a world that isn’t designed for people with foot drop.  I have a physical disability that can be seen, and although people can see it, I often think of disabilities that aren’t as visual.

Where are our student affairs conversations about any of those who comprise these groups when we talk about social justice? 

In our efforts to create more inclusive communities?

Unfortunately, I can find it only occurring among those like me (or those who are close to us), and I am new to the group.  So, please don’t take what I’m writing here as me speaking on behalf of everyone with a disability, and don’t dismiss it either, as it is insight into one person’s experiences.

Identifying as a person with a disability is not unlike many other identities, except that it is not always visible.  Nearly 1 in 5 people have a disability in the United States.  It is an identity that cuts across race, class, and gender, etc.

As someone who has more recently become disabled, I get it:

The world would be easier if people like me, people who looked abnormal when trying to function in a “normal” way (in my case walking) would just go away.  I feel that message from the systems that exist in the world almost every single day. I know that I am not alone in feeling this way, and I know that the feeling does not belong to just those with a disability.

I’ve spent time considering a few points this semester since attending and presenting at a conference, and participating in recruitment days

Western Illinois University representing at ACPA (I am on the far left)

Western IL University representing at ACPA (I’m the far left)

for the program in which I teach–neither of which were especially challenging for me physically prior to everything occurring.  I am not sharing these points because I want everyone to constantly think about what it must be like to have a physical disability.  In fact, I suspect that most people, even after reading this, will do what I used to do, which is go back to a comfortable, able-bodied routine.  However, I still think I have some points worth sharing, so here are three thoughts for the field of student affairs to consider:

  1. Please understand that I will not walk into a crowded room and work the room, as I don’t know who will be paying attention to where they are walking and/or what might suddenly change about the environment.  In fact, I would prefer to sit and, as I meet people, I will explain to them why I am not getting up.
  2. Just ask me if I need help and know that I am okay with saying that I have a disability.  Perhaps I haven’t had my disability long enough to insist on person first language, and I do understand (deeply) the negative stereotypes that come to mind when folks use the world disabled.  However, after all the work I’ve put into my recovery, the last thing I have energy for is serving as the “word police.”  I get it…if you are describing me, I’m okay if you say “the disabled person”.  I’m just happy that you saw me without me having to remind you that I exist.
  3. Finally, I know there is talk about gender inclusive restrooms within the field, which is great. For me, at the end of the day, it comes down to being able to use any restroom.  At.  All.  So, please stop going into what is often the only accessible stall simply because it has more room.  I know people do it…I used to. I’m six feet tall and used to weigh 36 pounds more than I do now (I’m still considered “big boned”), add to that a backpack, a winter coat, and I feel more comfortable using a larger stall.  Now, I need it. Please don’t hear that we should decide who gets which stall and when. However, for me, there is no getting off the toilet if there is no bar to use to pull myself up.

The “How”, Spoon Theory, and #SAPros

In January, I experienced a medical crisis that caused me to reestablish all of my personal and professional goals for 2015.  I have been working toward my goal of recovery and adjusting to my “new” normal ever since.  Recently, I was given permission to return to my teaching position in order to teach one course this summer.  I am both excited and anxious about it.  So far, it is progressing nicely, but week one is always an easy week, because you are getting the course established and going.  🙂

Beyond my anxiety around not being able to fully walk due to my acquisition of foot drop, I knew I would be challenged to have enough energy to fully return to work.  I’ve been told ever since I “woke up” on January 7th that I would be tired and would need a lot of rest.  And, yes, early on this was true, I did need rest.  Yet, my need for rest has evolved as I’ve progressed in my recovery (at first I was tired from coming back to life, and now I get tired from using more higher order cognitive skills).

brain-sleeping1Recently, I was describing the unique way in which I found myself tired– “I can feel my brain and it is tired”, and a friend told me that it sounded to her as though I was describing Spoon theory.  A few days later, Spoon theory was shared on the Stroke Talk for Facebook group that I am a member of, so I decided to spend more time with it.  Prior to my January experience, and the conversation with my friend, Spoon theory was not a theory I’d come to know.  It isn’t found in any student development book that I know of, nor have I come across it in any counseling theory texts.  I found it to be accessible, easy to understand, and quite important to our field when considering a host of invisible disabilities.  (I will assert that I believe we quite often complicate how to bring theory into practice by not using accessible examples for all—perhaps we need to use more dining utensils 😉 ).  midi-spreader-appetizer-fork-demi-spoon

Furthermore, I teach the Student Development Theory 1 course at Western Illinois University and during class we spend time exploring how development occurs.  We do this because I believe it is powerful to know how development occurs if one is going to promote development amongst students, not just what the identity or characteristic that is developing.  It is challenging to explore development theory this way because it is almost always easier to identify “what” the theory is developing rather than clearly articulating “how” it is being developed.  As we do such exploration as a class, we begin to realize the power dynamic present when one determines a developmental place:

Does one place another in a specific spot in their development? 

Does one allow another to share where they are at in their development for themselves? 

These are important questions.  They are the difference between prescribing developmental interventions, as if we ourselves are fully developed, and creating developmental interventions, with the assistance of others, because we acknowledge that none of us are fully developed.

I’m not necessarily advocating for Spoon theory to be included in student development theory courses, although I do secretly think it would be a good idea.  I am asking us to consider what it would look like if, instead of focusing so much on “what” is being developed, and the end result of that developmental process, we start the conversation about bringing theory into practice by focusing on “how” development is occurring.

For example, Spoon theory asserts that if my foot drop heals (which I am really hoping that it does) and I am left with a non-visible neurological disorder due to my January experience, I will only be given a limited number of spoons for the day that I can use to accomplish my tasks.  It also claims that each of my tasks will use up a spoon, which might result in me only having one spoon left for the day come 6 p.m., but more work to do.  In other words, instead of focusing only on what my decreased energy is at various places on my road to recovery, Spoon theory also helps others understand how it is that I’ve come to have decreased energy.  And, personally, I’ve found that understanding both how I’ve come to have decreased energy, and what decreased energy is like for me, allows others to better understand my experience and support me as I continue to develop toward my goal of full recovery.  If this is how I’m left feeling about the inclusion of attending to how, and not just the what, in the process of development, imagine how our students might feel if we were to do the same as we put theory into practice as student affairs professionals.  It certainly seems to me as though it would create a more inclusive environment for our students.

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):

632f563f7dcc6c1fc67c531d3653d147

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!

11017198_10103664047626038_568414393632349137_n

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.

014839001

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.

Starting a Student Organization for First Generation Students

photo

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.

ann-williams-quote-they-were-a-little-nervous-but-mostly-excited

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:

Dedication
Grit
Curiosity
Community
Integrity

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. 🙂

Bl843mQCUAEgSPX

First Gen Flier

The Rejection Letter and Start to a New School Year

I’ve waited awhile before publishing this post.  Waiting seems to be the standard advice on the Internet if one Google’s “rejected journal manuscript”…wait a few days and then consider the feedback and keep working on the document.  That I did (and I’m keeping my fingers crossed for goodness from the new submission location!), although I waited longer to write this post.  Mostly because I was still mulling around some of feedback I received.  Additionally, it is hard to receive a rejection (This site indicates that there are four steps for responding to it…none of which apply to the kind of rejection I received).  In this case, I am talking about the rejection of a journal submission, but I think rejection is painful to receive not matter the context (at least this is what I recall from school dances). This post, however, will focus on the feedback I received about a research paper I wrote.

As you know from another post (where I confessed that a part of my motivation to blog is to improve my writing), writing does not come easily to me. I have to work at it, and while I have improved due to my continued commitment, I know that I need to keep doing it. So, this blog will not be about the feedback I received related to my writing abilities. Although I do want to add that I received three positive comments about my writing (woo hoo! 🙂 ). Instead, this feedback will be about two similar comments I received regarding the results of the research I was reporting.  Now, before I share more about the comments, please know that after spending time with them, I can see how the reviewers came to understand what I wrote in the way that they did. I actually agreed with what they wrote, and I believed that the research I was reporting did too, however, that is not what they read. Instead, they read that my research was incongruent with other, previously published research and they indicated that it should be rejected because of that, which is what got me thinking.  Again, please keep in mind that this was not the case, but I still couldn’t help but wonder what if I had made a new discovery that was not congruent with the previously published research?

What if my research discovered something different?

It was clear to me that if that had indeed been the case, the two reviewers were not open to it.  They did not even seem to notice that my research results section started off with a sentence indicating congruency (not opposition) to current research. So this got me thinking about what that might mean for the field of student affairs.

Are we so focused on what we’ve been doing that we have closed ourselves off to what is different and new?

This, to me, is a Thomas Kuhn question,

This video of Thomas Kuhn is hilarious: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H-v_onEWGv0

You should go here though to learn more about his contributions: http://www.theguardian.com/science/2012/aug/19/thomas-kuhn-structure-scientific-revolutions

and a question that I look forward to exploring with the students in College Student Personnel (CSP) program as a I start by fourth year as a faculty member tomorrow at Western Illinois University.

CSP_bigger