Student voice

After students propose racial justice club, some professors deem it divisive

Students at the University of Dallas proposed a club focused on racial justice. Some students and faculty members argued the club would be divisive.


Some students do feel political pressure from their professors, but few change their views

Some students do feel political pressure from their professors, but few change their views.


Massive surge in college student voting in 2018

A new Tufts study documents that voter turnout among college students doubled in the last midterm election, which may likely influence the coming presidential election.


First-generation students often view their identities as a source of influence and power (opinion)

“At my high school, folks said because I was brown and an immigrant, I was going to have ​duck​ and impostor syndrome ​at Stanford. The expectation was that I would hit a wall, but I feel like I belong at Stanford and I’m happy to be here,” Xavier, a second​-year undergraduate, told us.

“The transition wasn’t always easy, though, as Hispanic households want you to stick close to home,” he added. “However, I wouldn't be here without my parents’ unconditional support and reassurance. My mom says ‘You grew your wings yourself -- I’m not going to cut them.’”

Although highly accomplished scholars, students like Xavier share identities that are often minoritized within higher education. Xavier’s reflection highlights how, too often, narratives about the identities of first-generation and/or low-income students, or FLI students (pronounced “fly”), center on stories of depravity, otherness and barriers to success. Xavier, like other trailblazers, arrived on our campus well aware of the ​deficit-based assumptions people have about his background: that he and others like him lack the cultural skills and experiences needed​ to successfully acculturate to institutions of higher education.

Our conversation with him led us to additional discussions with other students at Stanford University who identify as first generation and/or low-income. Although many people have tried to define such students by their disadvantages, our students viewed their first-generation and/or low-income identities as a source of influence and power. To them, FLI people persist and thrive because of, not despite, their identity.

Nov. 8 is National First-Generation College Celebration Day, where campuses across the country celebrate the success of students, faculty and staff who identify as part of the first-generation community. In this article, we hope to contribute to this celebration by exploring how: 1) FLI students leverage their backgrounds as assets when navigating higher education and 2) what practices administrators can employ to support their advancement.

Perspectives of FLI Students

Though challenging, our students told stories of reclaiming painful experiences as motivation for academic pursuits, a form of navigational capital. Navigational capital is part of ​Yosso’s model of community cultural wealth -- an asset-based approach that was originally applied to highlight the unrecognized cultural skills and knowledge students of color bring to social institutions.

Yosso’s model is a lens through which we can also frame our interactions with FLI students by understanding the precollege skills and experiences that they bring to campuses across the country. One Ph.D. candidate in engineering told us about pursuing his doctorate: “I benefit from my military training and being older, especially when it comes to presenting myself in a certain way, being strategic and being political.​” He explained further, “Given we were a low-income family and my parents had to work five jobs growing up, I was surrounded by kids who had little parental oversight, which led me to a street life that landed me in jail. Through these experiences, I became comfortable with uncertainty, vigilance and situational awareness -- skills I use when planning a project or experiment and working on a team.”

Chris, another one of our interviewees, exemplifies how his multiple intersecting identities have influenced his academic pathway. ​Intersectionality is a theoretical framework coined by law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw ​for understanding how aspects of a person's social identities overlap and interact with various structures of discrimination and privilege.

We discussed with Chris how being at the intersection of FLI, Black and queer identities has shaped his experiences as a third-year law student. “Being Black and being queer are the two biggest additions to my FLI identity,” he said. “There is privilege that comes with being a man and a Stanford alum, but I’ve also experienced the impact of how others perceive me, given how I present. Namely being vulnerable and showing softness are things that others don’t expect of Black men, but they are traits that are assumed in the queer community.” He concluded, “But I don’t view all of these stereotypes as barriers. Navigating these various experiences will help me become a better lawyer and connect with so many different people.”

FLI students often convert challenges into victories. Motivated by her experiences, Karla, a second-year undergraduate, has channeled her fear into activism. “As a FLI and Latinx Dreamer, [I was] kind of scared to open up and form connections for fear that others will look at me differently, and question if [being a Dreamer] is the only reason I got in [to Stanford],” she told us. “There’s an increased fear given the current political climate. Despite this fear, I want to build community, so I am researching how to create an organization for Dreamers.”

Despite feeling isolated because of her undocumented status, Karla, like many undocumented students, is highly active and civically engaged.​ Indeed, activism and advocacy were strong connecting themes throughout our interviews.

As one recent graduate has described to us, activism is often symptomatic of her intersecting identities: “At Stanford, my white identity is modulated -- especially by the intra-differences of being one of the few working-class white people. Having conversations about income inequality with my white peers has helped me reflect on my positionality. Working at the Martin Luther King Jr. Institute has also given me a perspective on activism historically. I understand that the brunt of this work falls on FLI folks of color.” As an active ally for FLI folks of color, she not only has ​​a ​strong willingness to understand her own privilege, but she takes action on behalf of nondominant groups when it’s her turn to do so​.

Strategies to Support FLI Students

As those of us who work in higher education prepare our students to be successful in and beyond college, we need to take a closer look at how we support FLI communities. We recommend that faculty members and administrators consider the following tangible strategies to champion the success of FLI students.

Recognize, appreciate and affirm differences that exist within the community. ​That is crucial to helping FLI students navigate their personal identity development and flourish within their intersectional experiences. Forming a FLI student group, ​building Listservs, ​​establishing a physical space​, addressing food insecurity and materials costs, and investing in branded FLI materials such as ​​stickers, shirts and media spotlights​ are avenues to highlight the experiences of FLI students on campus. Prioritize visibility and representation by incorporating diverse voices and perspectives into the fabric of such institutional efforts to support FLI students.

Assess needs throughout the full student life cycle and extend resources beyond the first year. Administrators often focus on FLI students at the beginning of the undergraduate experience, but this support must be expanded. Research suggests that as the ​​level of influence coming from students’ family career values increases​​, ​their active pursuit of graduate school decreases. In this way, FLI students need to be ​exposed to academic role models throughout their undergraduate career​. FLI doctoral students often have a ​​diminished sense of belonging and exhibit feelings of “intellectual phoniness.​” In particular, they often speak of the ​​divide between their daily academic practices and their family lifestyle​​.​ Resources to help FLI doctoral students navigate these challenges include ​​onboarding programs, mentorship opportunities with FLI faculty and ​​engaging FLI graduate student groups​.

Create outreach tools to increase visibility and representation. ​For example, Stanford Engineering distributes #DearFutureGradEngineer postcards ​at national conferences and outreach events, which allow prospective graduate students to see themselves at Stanford. Among those profiled are many first-generation and/or low-income students from underrepresented backgrounds, whose postcards inspire prospective students to apply. Additional recommendations include hosting affinity groups for DACA students, inviting queer and trans alumni to FLI career panels, and introducing FLI students to multicultural community centers that provide intersectional programming. ​

Faculty and administrators should also consider whether and how ​they ask students to compartmentalize and conform themselves to a narrow definition of a first-generation and/or low-income person. A holistic institutional approach to supporting FLI students is vital. For example, Texas A&M University’s Regents Scholars Programs provides more than ​​900 FLI students with scholarships, an academic success program, a student group and a newsletter​​ ​​each year.

Equip and empower FLI students with knowledge and tangible strategies to master the ​​hidden curriculum of academe.​ Beyond grades is the hidden curriculum of academia, which assumes that all students: 1) know how to ask for support and resources, 2) are at ease when engaging with faculty and administrators in positions of authority, and 3) will acclimate to a university culture that emphasizes individualism and independence. Colleges can support students’ development of interpersonal skills by hosting workshops and creating resource guides that demystify networking with faculty, navigating office hours, finding research opportunities, managing finances and conducting informational interviews. ​​

Mentorship programs​ and student-led study groups ​can also combat isolationism by providing spaces for FLI students to engage academically with peers while connecting over shared experiences. In addition, communal spaces affirm a cultural normal of interdependence and provide FLI students with leadership opportunities to give back to their communities. Student affairs offices can partner with student groups and invest financial and human resources to support, rather than duplicate, their efforts.

Expand knowledge of first-generation and/or low-income students within and beyond the context of student affairs. ​Many faculty and administrators working with underrepresented populations may draw from personal experiences to connect with the communities they serve. Although helpful when building connections, we must acknowledge the limitations of projecting our own experiences onto students.

Also, as colleges recruit and admit students from historically underrepresented backgrounds, our institutions’ connections to those communities only grow deeper. ​​Sociologists, ​​urban designers and ​​policy analysts​ are just a short list of those who can provide insight into the cultural and societal factors that shape the students who enter our institutions -- and inform us of the environments those students return to when they leave our campuses to navigate the duality of their college and home personas.

Leverage first-generation and/or low-Income alumni groups. FLI alumni serve as an excellent source of collaboration for faculty and administrators working to empower their students because they have successfully navigated institutions of higher education. Alumni are distinctly positioned to provide insight and guidance to current FLI students, often having the necessary institutional context to provide tactical and institution-specific advice.

At Stanford, the ​First-Generation and/or Low-Income Network (FLAN) co-creates mentorship opportunities with several faculty and administrators. FLAN recently launched its AlumFli series, an initiative to support graduating undergrad and graduate FLI students and welcome them to FLI alumni life. The series has provided students with a series of workshops, webinars and virtual social events. Example events included a “FLI-nancial Literacy” focused on planning for retirement and “Help! I don’t know what to do after graduation,” which included a panel of FLI alumni sharing their experiences navigating uncertainty in life after undergrad or graduate school.

In conclusion, by centering the perspectives of FLI students and highlighting current literature, we hope we’ve provided insight into their personal narratives and suggested some practical tools for faculty members and administrators at other institutions to engage and empower this important and vital community.

Marlette Jackson, she/her (mar[email protected]), is the manager of diversity and inclusion at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. Ngoc Tran, she/her ([email protected]), is the assistant director of equity and inclusion initiatives at the Stanford University School of Engineering.

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Thriving Because Of, Not Despite, Their Identity
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Colleges undermined their reopening plans by not communicating effectively (opinion)

It’s a simple persuasion strategy. Had it been used effectively, it might have helped campuses safely reopen, and stay open, this fall semester.

But it’s not clear any college or university fully deployed it.

This strategy leverages peer credibility over edicts issued by leaders and goes by different names, depending upon the social science discipline. Thus, one version is commonly called peer education, and colleges and universities regularly use variations of it to promote better understanding of such sensitive subjects as sexual health, alcohol and drug use, and other challenges to student well-being.

It goes by other names, as well. In my Propaganda and Political Communication course, we discuss Jacques Ellul’s version of it. In Propaganda: The Formation of Men's Attitudes, his classic 1965 analysis, Ellul names it “horizontal” versus “vertical” propaganda.

It's also what we all intuitively understand as peer pressure, and its known effectiveness long predates Ellul. During World War I, several of the Committee on Public Information’s most successful propaganda campaigns used it, and Edward Bernays -- the “father of spin” -- exploited it for commercial clients in the 1920s.

Scholars who study and publish research on applied persuasive communication know students will generally be more influenced by messages that their peers and campus student opinion leaders deliver than by top administrators. Yet judged by the apparent ineffectiveness of COVID-19 messaging across American colleges and universities, it appears that much campus communication expertise was overlooked. It seems as though institutional leaders believed that their authority and credibility alone would suffice to significantly alter student attitudes and behavior. Oddly, they remained committed to that belief even when, over the summer, evidence kept mounting that their assumption was faulty.

Instead of reconsidering their messaging, or prioritizing an understanding of how others were receiving key messages, they seemed dedicated to their faith that students would fear COVID-19 as much as they did -- and that their accrued credibility would be enough to prevent the occurrences they feared.

It didn’t work. When students returned to campuses and behaved as students normally do, college leaders professed shock and disappointment that their top-down, vertical messaging proved ineffective. Many blamed students for not responsibly translating communicative directives into prescribed attitudes and behavior. In complaining about students, leaders avoided accepting their own responsibility for a much more essential misunderstanding: that communication is always dynamic, and persuasion is a difficult, complex and multifaceted problem.

What we had here was a failure to communicate.

That failure is especially notable when compared to successful approaches already demonstrated for COVID-19 communication. Last spring, peer-to-peer public health messaging had already proven effective in places like Japan, where networks of “cluster busters,” or contact tracers, were successful in quickly reminding people to avoid “the three C’s” (closed spaces, crowded places and close contact settings). The Japanese government did not authorize those cluster busters to fine people, suspend them from their employment or expel them from educational institutions. Their efforts were not seen as punitive, but rather as encouraging more collaboration from fellow citizens to mitigate COVID’s spread.

The good news is that it appears some American college students, who have completed contact tracing training, have begun acting as independent cluster busters on their campuses. A few colleges have instituted “student health ambassador” programs in which students are employed to gently remind their peers about required protocols. Yet the very nomenclature of these programs (the word “ambassador” implies mediation between two distinct groups) suggests they exist to promote behavioral prescriptions rather than encourage authentic cooperation.

That these programs are only now being instituted illustrates just how badly strategic communication has been neglected. Imagine if, early in the summer, colleges and universities had assembled campus opinion leaders -- the editor of the school newspaper; the captain of the football team; the heads of the Christian, Jewish and Muslim student organizations; the heads of the campus Democrats and campus Republicans and so on -- and asked them for assistance, not as a directive but in the spirit of shared cooperation. Student opinion leaders obviously enjoy college and campus life and are clearly invested in its continuation. Having worked with such student leaders in my career, I am confident they would not only comprehend but also embrace the essential communicative role they could play in keeping campus open and the activities they love ongoing.

This mode of communication requires sincere respect, an admission of humility and candor. Honesty and transparency are essential. Yet far more often, we’ve seen incidents that stoke student suspicions about the motivation of their campus leaders. For example, the student journalists at the University of Kansas have asserted that their institution’s leadership used a biased survey to obtain a predetermined result and then mischaracterized the results for the press. Similarly, University of North Carolina students discovered and publicized the discrepancy between their campus leadership's shared belief in the likelihood of COVID-19 outbreaks tied to reopening and their public communication on the subject.

To again use social science terminology, every such example of motivated reasoning and confirmation bias that backfired ended up damaging the respect for, and authority of, university leaders. These events reaffirm the truism that nothing is as difficult to accrue, and as easy to squander, as credibility.

Judging by what has occurred on campuses around the United States, competent surveys of student attitudes would likely have revealed a seemingly unresolvable paradox. What’s particularly clear now is that many students wanted to return to their campuses for both in-person learning experiences and to party. Had campus experts surveyed them in advance, senior administrators could have used the revelation of this dilemma to produce focused strategic messaging campaigns. It still might not have worked, but by and large, it wasn’t even tried -- probably because so few college and university leaders wanted to face unpleasant facts about their own students.

Communication is always negotiated, even when authorities believe their messaging will be accepted, respected and fully integrated into specified behavior. The notion of the hypodermic model of communication -- where ideas can be “injected” into audiences -- is so anachronistic that no serious scholar would argue its application could ensure significant compliance. Similarly, basic carrot-and-stick approaches that emphasize incentives and punishments have limited utility in a situation where overwhelming compliance is demanded. Events have demonstrated how overconfidence in both approaches can backfire.

I’m not asserting most reopening plans were fraudulent or that those who promoted and implemented them acted mendaciously. I’m only saying that many plans apparently relied far too heavily on simplistic notions of effective persuasion. That so many plans have already failed because of unmodified student attitudes and behaviors, despite extensive and costly efforts in other planning areas, provides evidence for this conclusion.

Perhaps it’s too early to second-guess and point fingers. But if we’re to learn from this experience we must examine every success and failure and apply basic lessons in real time, right now, as well as in the future. It’s clear, in retrospect, that focusing so tightly on legal ramifications, scientific and medical frameworks, and political and economic consequences -- while neglecting to emphasize the importance of focused, engaged, collaborative and interactive messaging -- ultimately rendered a lot of herculean effort fruitless.

And that might be the most important lesson that college and university leaders can learn from the COVID-19 crisis.

Michael J. Socolow is an associate professor of communication and journalism, and the director of the McGillicuddy Humanities Center, at the University of Maine.

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Fraternity chapter suspended for statement on ties to Confederacy

Kappa Alpha Order chapter at Southwestern University suspended for releasing a statement denouncing the organization's historical ties to the Confederacy.


Working with student social media influencers

Colleges are increasingly collaborating with students who have large social media followings. Where do the boundaries lie?


How local student voting reflects core democratic values (opinion)

Inside Higher Ed recently published an article on a report on college student voter turnout, "Democracy Counts 2018," compiled by my organization, the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education at Tufts University. The article stimulated conversations in the comments section about the role of higher education in American democracy. Many of those comments reflected reader concerns about how much impact college students have, and should have, on local elections.

Readers debated key ideas about how democratic principles meet electoral practice: Is it fair that students at large universities in small towns can influence local elections? Does living on a college campus really constitute “residing” in the wider community? Are voter registration systems too relaxed and vulnerable to exploitation?

Those are important questions for higher education and our democratic society. We are excited that such conversations emerged from the report’s release; as an applied research shop, our mission is to engage higher education communities in conversation about the civic education role of American colleges and universities.

Data from our ongoing National Study of Learning, Voting and Engagement, the only national study of college student voting, shed some light on the current scope of nonresident students’ influence on local elections. The study is based on the voting records of more than 10 million students at more than 1,000 colleges and universities in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, and it combines student enrollment records at participating higher education institutions with public voting records to estimate electoral participation at campuses across the United States. Our data set includes information about where students are from and where they are registered to vote, which allows us to infer out-of-state student voting rates and to determine if they vote at home or near their campus.

Using this information, we’d like to dispel some myths, raise some questions and keep the conversation going.

What the Numbers Say

A large majority -- 79 percent -- of students in the 2018 national study database attended college in their home state. The image of the college student traveling to a distant campus and living in residence halls only applies to about 16 percent of students nationally. Most live off campus and commute to attend college near their permanent homes. Yet the students who do attend college in a different state -- nearly 3.75 million in 2018, by our estimates -- are not a small population. Thanks to our national voting data, we can examine this group’s impact on U.S. elections more closely.

And the fact is that we’ve found little evidence that out-of-state college students are redistributing the U.S. electorate and affecting local elections. First, such students participate in elections at much lower rates. In 2018, the out-of-state student voting rate was 26.5 percent compared to 40.1 percent among in-state students.

Second, they overwhelmingly choose to vote in their home districts. Of the out-of-state students who voted in 2018, 82.7 percent did so in their home state rather than where their college is located. It is also worth reiterating that of all college students in the United States, out-of-state students only account for one-fifth of the total to begin with. Extrapolated to the national college population, that implies that fewer than one million out-of-state students voted, and fewer than 200,000 voted in elections outside their home states -- or just 0.2 percent of the U.S. voting population. Empirically, out-of-state college students are not a formidable voting bloc.

Those numbers do not capture students attending college in their state but still far from their hometowns, which describes the bulk of enrollees at many states’ flagship public university campuses. But we can assume that our insights into voting patterns of out-of-state college students apply in some measure to those students, as well. Our data suggest that the scope of the actual influence of college students on local elections is low, in general.

Three Values-Based Views

Of course, specific campuses and local elections matter as much as overall trends. So, more important than the data themselves are the principles in question.

The U.S. Supreme Court has made it clear that students have the right to vote in either their home state or near the campus where they reside. But rights do citizens little good if they cannot exercise them. As a research institute that studies democracy, we are concerned with efforts to suppress the student vote. All else being equal, every American should support rules that make civic participation easier and be wary of those that make it more difficult.

That said, all else is never equal. So, the essential question in this case is “Should college students be allowed to vote at their 'place of domicile' -- in other words, in the campus precinct?” That is a wonderful question, because it requires us to reflect on a few core values of American democratic society and higher education. We face real trade-offs; both restricting and expanding voting access have their hazards. I would like to offer brief thoughts on three key values-based perspectives that frame the conversation.

Local residents should decide local elections. College towns often have a political dynamic that appears to pit college students against settled residents. College students and long-term residents may have different interests, and it seems unfair that students are able to influence policies that they won’t have to live with.

But college students are not the only population that challenges the definition of who counts as a local resident. As Sheri Iachetta, registrar of Charlottesville, Va., observed in a 2008 congressional hearing, housing transience among students is not entirely dissimilar to that of so-called snowbirds -- people who maintain seasonal residences -- and the idea that students are more invested in the college itself than committed to the local community is true of “any number of transient professionals … doctors in [residence], visiting professors.” Yet we see special value for all local constituents to encourage students to develop connections to the community, foster better town/gown relationships and cultivate a sense of localized civic responsibility. Communities can benefit from the energy and fresh perspective of their highly motivated college student populations, and students should have some influence in local politics, given that they are affected by the policies and political climate of their surroundings.

In a democratic society, political participation should be easier rather than harder. Laws imposing barriers to voting arise from concerns about the integrity of the electoral system. Increased national attention to immigration policy, along with allegations of voter fraud, have motivated legislators to enact laws that impose higher costs on electoral participation through stricter proof-of-residency requirements or restricted voter-identification options. In principle, neither of those ideas are bad ones; in a world without trade-offs, anyone should prefer more certainty about the identities of voters.

But we do not live in such a world, and such rules conjure our country’s disturbing history of debate over who is qualified to vote and how hard they should have to work to prove it. Attempts to impose requirements on would-be voters are nearly always justified by perfectly rational principles, but those requirements can often have negative impacts, especially on vulnerable populations. Contemporary incarnations of rules involving voter identification, residency definitions and voter registration practices appear to disproportionately affect college students, sparking recent litigation in New Hampshire and Tennessee. A growing body of credible research reassures us that voter fraud is negligible in the United States, which leaves little justification for rules that deter turnout.

Civic engagement should be a core component of the college experience. One of the functions of American higher education is to support upward economic mobility for its students. Our core conviction at the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education is that political mobility should be just as important, because its consequences are just as lasting. A citizenry should be as well equipped to contribute to public life as a collectively reasonable, deliberative body politic as it is to contribute to the labor economy as a capable workforce.

At the institute, we spend a lot of our energy improving our process for generating accurate and useful statistical data, which we hope helps galvanize and guide civic engagement efforts on campuses. But at the end of the day, increasing and enhancing engagement in politics is largely about changing culture: how we talk about politics across lines of difference, what commitments we expect of our fellow citizens and how invested we are in the processes that underpin democracy. We aim to improve political learning, discussion, equity and participation, and we view those outcomes as reflections of institutional commitment and climate. Colleges and universities can be central to that transformation, if they embrace it as one of their essential roles.

Dave Brinker is a senior researcher at the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education at Tufts University.

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College students are still taking a knee against racism

Athletes and activists who modeled themselves off Colin Kaepernick have continued their campaigns.


Student activists' biggest obstacle often is the rhythms of college activism itself

College leaders often aren't the top hindrance to campus protests that have proliferated in recent years -- holiday breaks, finals week and graduation tend to be the biggest challenge for student activists.



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