Diving Beyond the Comfort Zone

Our own experiences in unfamiliar environments can help us appreciate the kinds of sustained support our students need, writes Elizabeth H. Simmons.

March 8, 2018
 
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I recently ventured into unknown waters by scuba diving after years away from the sport. It was ultimately an exhilarating experience, but getting there proved unexpectedly challenging. The dedicated help of experienced teachers was essential to my regaining the confidence and skills required for successful dives.

That experience has given me a more visceral appreciation for the challenges that college students from populations traditionally underrepresented in academe must surmount. Since my administrative responsibilities include overseeing support programs for diverse student cohorts, I am trying to put this perspective to good use. I hope that my experience may prove helpful for colleagues with similar responsibilities.

Poolside Lessons

Given the time since my last open-water dive, a refresher course in a swimming pool was required. I assumed this would be straightforward, given my prior experience.

Then I flubbed Instructor Alex’s very first question: What is the most important thing to maintain while diving? Situational awareness, I said. The correct answer, vital to survival, is breathing.

Moreover, as Alex took me through the essentials, I realized that scuba gear had changed markedly since I first qualified as a diver. The revisions all enhanced ease and safety, yet the changes made me feel disoriented and underprepared.

I also felt a certain degree of pressure to succeed. My husband and I had added vacation days to a business trip specifically to dive at this renowned site, where the ocean reefs lay deep enough to be accessible only by scuba.

Looking back, I can see analogies to the situation of college students who are the first in the family to attend college or belong to a population that is underrepresented on campus. After four years mastering the patterns of high school courses, such students may be expecting college to be similar. Discovering that very different time management and study skills are required in the new environment may come as a shock. A great deal is riding on the outcome: fulfilling familial dreams, achieving career plans, paying back loans. Initial setbacks may, thus, be deeply disquieting and sow doubts in students’ minds about whether they belong in this environment.

Deeper Lessons

As the lesson progressed, Alex helped me relearn how to assemble and operate the diving gear: tank, buoyancy compensation device, breathing regulators, air pressure gauge, weight belt, mask and snorkel. While the components were familiar, their use was no longer instinctive; I would need to think through every action step by step.

Then we entered the chilly outdoor pool. Two meters below the surface, I became deeply conscious of my loud and constrained breathing, the weighty viscosity of the water and the tunnel vision imposed by the mask. I felt increasingly unsure of my ability to relearn the skills needed for the open-water dives.

Sensing my disquiet, Alex suggested that I stand on the pool’s upper shelf, breathing through the regulator, and immerse my face at will. In shallow water with plentiful air nearby and with my ears in the air so my breath did not reverberate, remaining focused was far easier. I could suddenly recollect how much I used to love to “fly” underwater, my buoyancy device keeping me effortlessly suspended and my flippers impelling me ahead at top speed.

Alex took me through the rest of the lessons carefully, explaining what we’d do, demonstrating and then having me do it. That established a predictable rhythm, and watching him do the drills showed that the steps were straightforward enough for me to follow. He held me to high standards and made me redo anything I didn’t accomplish well the first time.

Near the end, we practiced how to enter the water from a boat. Alex explained both what to do and why -- distinguishing true pitfalls from misconceptions and myths. I felt the cognitive load from the initial stressful immersion lift under the mounting number of successful drills we had completed.

The last drill was an emergency ascent. Here, I noticed a mismatch between what Alex had told me the drill would involve and what he signaled when we were underwater. Because everything else had matched perfectly, I had the confidence to halt the drill and ask how to proceed.

As I reviewed the lessons during the ride to the dive site, I appreciated how important Alex’s patient and predictable teaching patterns had been for helping me set aside my fears. By helping me build skills and confidence, he enabled me to prepare to take the next steps on my own.

That kind of focused attention and well-designed teaching is exactly what colleges and universities need to provide to students from at-risk populations: teaching and advising that address the psychosocial as well as the academic dimensions of students’ lives.

First Open-Water Dive

Knowing that I was apprehensive about my first open-water dive, Dive Captain Ben promised to guide me down to the reef. Since the other divers in our group were more experienced, I was glad to know that I would not be expected to keep up entirely on my own.

When the boat reached its anchoring point, I drew on the poolside lessons and completed the pre-dive checklist, despite the disconcerting motion of the waves. Floating at the surface, I was glad to see Ben appear beside me as promised. He faced me, and we grasped arms to stay together as we descended, flippers first, toward the reef.

Falling away from sunlight into the cool depths of glassy, gray water while my exhaled breath bubbled upward, I was acutely aware of the alien surroundings. It was immensely comforting to see a human face, even with the masks between us. Ben’s calm eyes and graceful movements reminded me that this environment was one he thrived in and dedicated his life to sharing with others as a leader and teacher.

When we reached the reef 15 meters down, Ben signaled me to check my gear while floating in place. Only after confirming that I was prepared and seeing me gesture a confident “OK” did he release me to the care of his assistant.

Having been guided safely into the depths and encouraged to exercise my revived skills, I was able to focus my attention outward -- and was immediately rewarded by a surfeit of visual delights: coral slumping like melted Dalí plates, shy rays departing at our advent, slow-swimming turtles and darting fish streaked with color. My eyes trained on the endless living seascape, I rediscovered the joys of flying above the reef, reveling in the low-gravity environment.

That experience illustrates how important it is for students who are unfamiliar with college and advanced academic work to interact directly with educators who demonstrate concern for their learning and exude confidence in their ability to excel. By modeling good learning practices and guiding students to follow them, such teachers build students’ self-efficacy and enable them to become intellectually fascinated by what they are learning.

Continuing to Learn

With such a wondrous first experience on the reef, I anticipated equal enjoyment for our morning dive the next day. Instead, while descending alongside the other divers, I found myself panicking. My breathing felt constrained, my lungs half-empty. I could not convince myself that my gear and skills would keep me safe.

The other divers -- suspended about me in the water and absorbed in checking their equipment -- appeared calm, competent and inaccessible. Moreover, scuba divers, their mouths stopped by breathing apparatus, cannot readily converse. I was alone with my fears in the midst of a dozen companions. Worried about losing control later in our trek when we would be far from the dive boat and an ascent would put others at risk, I decided to abort.

Waiting in the sunlit launch, anchored by gravity and comforted by plentiful air, I deduced what had happened. It was the breathing. My panic arose from the way scuba gear constrains a diver to breathe only by mouth and from feeling that I could not inhale deeply. Back on shore, Ben confirmed that less experienced divers often fail to exhale with sufficient gusto to empty the lungs for a robust new inhale.

Having understood the sources of my fear, I felt able to re-enter the water for the afternoon dive. Luckily, Ben was back with us. He had me practice proper breathing techniques during the boat ride out to the reef and while floating at the surface before diving. As a result, I was able to descend without incident, take my turn peering at half-hidden lobsters and eels, and swim through a rocky arch festooned with coral.

Returning to basic skills, analyzing what caused me to feel out of my depth and continuing to work with a skilled teacher was essential for getting me back on track. Similarly, sustained, active coaching is necessary to support the academic success of college students who are encountering unexpected challenges.

In conclusion, universities strive to help their students become capable scholars, develop the capacity to tackle unfamiliar challenges and orient their education toward meeting life goals. For students adjusting to an alien environment, those tasks can feel overwhelming. If one doubts one’s capacity to succeed, then every error or obstacle looms large.

My experience as a diver has vividly reminded me how crucial it is for our students to be supported in several interlocking ways. They need patient, experienced teachers who can help them bridge from mastering core skills to grasping the beauty of advanced concepts. They need campus settings that enable them to relax sufficiently to reflect, seek advice and plan to meet challenges. And they need us to consistently communicate that we are confident they can succeed.

Bio

Elizabeth H. Simmons is executive vice chancellor of academic affairs at the University of California, San Diego.

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