Given the reality of a 24-hour news cycle, simply trying to keep up can be overwhelming and exhausting -- even before taking into account the added stress of widespread divisiveness in our country, controversial policy decisions and all-too-frequent public tragedies. For those of us who work in student affairs, it can mean being regularly pulled away from focusing on our students’ long-term development by demands to create programming that responds to immediate traumatic incidents.
While it is necessary to acknowledge what is happening in the world around us, to best serve students we have to find strategies to support their emotional and social growth in ways that go beyond the crisis of the day. That was the lesson we learned when we joined the Intercultural Affairs office at Grinnell College in the summer of 2016 -- one that we think will resonate with college administrators at other institutions as they prepare for the new school year.
Grinnell College is located in rural Iowa, and though our local community is rich with culture, resources for racial, ethnic, religious and other minority groups are less readily available. As a result, it falls on the college, and subsequently, Intercultural Affairs, to make those resources available within the institution. That reality, along with Grinnell’s activist, social justice-minded roots, sets the tone for a passionate, vocal and action-oriented social environment. As new staff members on the campus whose work centers on challenging and interrogating difference and oppression, we felt a responsibility as soon as we came to the college to respond to mounting social concerns. Within our first few weeks, the Orlando nightclub massacre and the shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile prompted us to reach out and connect with our students, even before meeting them.
This high-touch response continued. In the days following the 2016 election, we shifted our focus toward providing outlets for students, staff and faculty members to discuss the implications of, and their concerns about, a Trump presidency. Though we weren’t initially aware of it, both student and faculty groups were duplicating our efforts -- a consequence of poor communication all around and an unclear campus process for handling such issues. What resulted were small, fractured conversations that, while happening simultaneously, were isolated from each other and created a perception of disorganization and a lack of progress. One thing was clear: our approach wasn’t working.
We began to fall into a pattern of creating reactionary programming to cope with whatever news story was breaking: the Muslim travel ban, the Me Too movement, mass shootings in Las Vegas and Texas, NFL anthem protests, and white nationalists rallying in Charlottesville, Va., to name a few. We were holding vigils every week and acting without a plan for next steps because, as soon as we started making progress, we had to pivot to a new crisis intervention. As a community, we were so busy coping with various situations that we hadn’t taken the time to help students build the skills to truly process an experience and heal from it.
And we saw this trickle down to our students’ activism. They were seeing injustice and acting on feeling, rather than thinking holistically about outcomes or conversations that should happen in tandem with their protests. What’s more, the various activist groups on the campus were often holding meetings concurrently, drawing attention away from rather than supporting each other. Their activism had less of an impact than it could with some more foresight and advance planning. For example, one protest involved occupying the office of the president during a trustee visit, but the students did this over a weekend, when the office was closed and trustees had already left campus.
A Focus on Learning Outcomes
As we began to reflect on our work, we wondered about our effectiveness. Were students growing by engaging in this form of organized response? Were they masking feelings of pain and hurt? We decided that reactionary work, though incredibly vital, was, in these situations, taking away from our student development work. We knew we needed to switch from immediate responses to more long-term and strategic approaches.
So we took a step back to think about our goals and a framework for accomplishing them. It was, and continues to be, essential to help our students figure out what type of community they want to build at Grinnell, what types of leaders they want to be and how they should think about change. We also recognized that any direction we take with students must also include the larger community.
We developed learning outcomes that could scale out over the course of student development and direct our office’s outreach to other departments and community partners. These learning outcomes -- heal, relate, learn, educate, organize -- now serve as guiding functions to the work of our office. They promote skill building in communication, resilience, problem solving, relationship building and strategizing to help our students and community better effect change. This has allowed us to shift from being the sole responders to supporting others as they learn to better help themselves and others.
Though reactionary programming wasn’t ultimately sustainable or most effective, one positive did emerge: when the campus community was reacting to an incident, we were present, and consequently, we built relationships and trust with students, faculty and staff. Those relationships earned us the trust from our students to engage them in learning opportunities and push them to confront challenging and uncomfortable ideas ahead of time, so they’ll be better prepared for any difficult social and personal realities they might face.
Now, we see more students reaching out to us before taking action. They continue to raise issues passionately and vocally, but now they also do so with intention. For example, athletic teams have shown an interest in addressing bias and how to create inclusive environments. Before the season starts, they’ve been evaluating where they are in their ability to heal, relate and learn from and with each other, with support from focused, goal-oriented workshops. Our multicultural student organizations also put into practice each of our learning outcomes by establishing spaces to individually and collectively come together, supported by biweekly trainings.
These organizations serve largely as spaces where students engage in understanding the impact of their own lived experience on themselves and their community while cultivating joy and resilience through discussions, dinners, conferences and claiming space (learning outcome: heal). One example was a chalking event after the 2016 election, where we closed a street running through the campus and invited people to process their emotions through art. The event, titled “Replace Hate,” brought hundreds of participants together in an effort to create a sense of community in a moment of discord.
Such groups also incorporate practices of intersectionality, multiculturalism and interculturalism through co-sponsoring events and investing in relationships across various groups (learning outcomes: relate and learn). For instance, the common read book club, a partnership between the college and surrounding community, brings students and Grinnell town residents together in discourse around identity, difference and social justice, centered on a singular text.
Finally, they practice inclusive communication and strategic social change as student leaders who imagine a more just institution and create environments that center and celebrate their authentic experiences (learning outcomes: educate and organize). One student group developed a mentorship program for students of color at the local middle and high schools, providing support, resources and development opportunities for younger generations.
At Grinnell, we’re not alone with dealing with news-related issues -- such student concerns continue to crop up all over the country. We can all be more prepared to support our students and others on our campuses. We need to continue to think creatively about what people at our institutions need and to support the professionals who approach this work creatively.
We also recognize that campuswide buy-in is essential for us to be truly effective and that incorporating these goals and trainings across an institution depends on developing relationships with others who will support our efforts. Our team was lucky to have a director join us in the spring of 2017 who saw our vision and helped others see it, too. The learning outcomes we came up with are now part of the diversity plan of the Council for Diversity and Inclusion at Grinnell, and all offices on campus will use them in framing how to meet their diversity and inclusion goals.
We’ll never be able to stay on top of the onslaught of news, but our approach has given our students and our campus a framework for dealing with incidents that may pop up. We’re better able to think about what our campus needs and respond appropriately. With our learning outcomes, we’re not doing anything radical or revolutionary -- just what’s right.