Perspectives

As a special section in this “Whole Student” conference-focused issue, we asked a few conference attendees to respond to open-ended questions with their reflections on conference themes, as well as their thoughts on where and how our shared work can grow. These reflections have been edited for clarity.

Rabbi Josh Feigelson
Founder and Executive Director,
Ask Big Questions

Josh presented a provocation at the conference titled “We’re Asking Lousy Questions and Setting Our Campuses Up to Fail. How Can We Do Better?”

In his essay for BTtoP’s publication, Civic Values, Civic Practices, Adam Seligman asks some crucial questions about a pedagogy of integrity in plural societies. Seligman writes, “The real challenge of any pedagogy that will promote living together while maintaining substantial differences in values and practices in a complex world is just this: can we take individuals from very different, context-rich communities, who have very different interpretive grids and share a pedagogical experience without either turning everything into a form of generalized and context-free knowledge (the type we are so good at developing in the university context), or without reducing everything to the purely individual and relatively atomistic vision of self and society?”1

In other words, how do intersectionality and well-being—of both individual students, and the broader university and civic communities with whom individual student lives are braided and intertwined—manifest in a pedagogy and in learning that engages the whole student?

Based on the response to my brief presentation on our work at Ask Big Questions during the “Whole Student” conference, I’m optimistic that we’re contributing to an answer. I received a lot of feedback immediately after my session, and by email in the weeks following the conference, from colleagues and partners interested in question design, public language, and using learning objects for communal reflection.

Moving ahead, the conference encourages me that there is a field ripe for cultivation—a field that includes not only cocurricular staff, but also faculty who are embracing a role as both subject matter expert and facilitator of learning.

The biggest challenge? I still feel like we’re all in the vitamin business: our goals are aspirational, and there is not yet a strong enough statement of “so what” in our failure to reach them—even after the 2016 election. In the coming months and years, this field of committed colleagues needs to find a way to marshal more significant financial and human capital in service of our hopes and dreams. We need to articulate bottom-line benefits to a more holistic and integrated vision of education and living. And that requires a sustained commitment to assessment; storytelling; and, yes, marketing. We cannot afford to speak only to ourselves in academe—the conversation needs to include a broader set of stakeholders, including people able to invest in our work.

Kimberly Lowe-Sawyer
EdD Candidate, Holy Family University

Kimberly presented as a panel member in a conference workshop titled “Traffic Jams, Speed Limits, Potholes, and Open Roads: The Intersections of Adult Learners.”

As an African-American and first-generation college student, I found integrating into college life difficult. I felt unprepared for the new college culture. Despite resources offered by my university, I needed something more to feel like I belonged. I entered college with experiences of social injustices and inequality. The byproduct of those experiences caused me to have feelings of inferiority and doubts regarding my ability to flourish academically and socially. This sentiment is common for adult learners and minority students from low-income families. Studies support the notion that factors like these may have contributed to my apprehension to integrate [with my new college culture].2

I recall a professor questioning my ability to succeed in my program because I was doing poorly in his statistics class. I could handle the defeat of a difficult subject; retakes occur in academia. However, the condescending comments towards struggling students like me became costlier than a decline in a GPA. It was a detriment to my overall well-being. I immediately withdrew from his course and contemplated leaving college altogether. Fortunately, there was another professor and fellow students who encouraged me to dispel my negative thoughts and to persevere. Years later, I am one paper away from completing my doctorate degree! 

I know firsthand the impact a college community has on the retention of students. Laura Rendón suggests that students with diverse backgrounds and innate desires to succeed can benefit greatly if they feel validated as competent learners.3 The workshop I participated in during BTtoP’s “Whole Student” conference gave me a voice and I felt valued. It refueled my enthusiasm to complete my degree because the attendees showed interest in hearing my experiences and research. It was not just a few individuals, but a community of genuine well-wishers.

While attending this academic conference, I dialogued with experts on the topics of intersectionality, well-being, and civic engagement. I heard perspectives different from my own. As a nontraditional student, I strengthened my academic and emotional support system through networking. Research suggests that faculty members are leading influencers of student experiences and facilitators of institutional missions and visions,4 so it was meaningful to be in direct communication with participants to share the importance of faculty validation and the continuum of engagement with students inside and outside of the classroom.

The findings of my research will hopefully impact the way educators and college administrators engage with diverse student populations and increase college completion. My main takeaway from the conference is that higher education needs to be willing to adequately address issues that impede creating a welcoming campus climate.

Rebecca D. Graham
Instructional Consultant, Research Academy for Integrated Learning, University of the District of Columbia

Rebecca led a workshop titled “Connecting Identity, Well-Being, and Student Success to Campus Sexual Assault Prevention Efforts” and moderated the concluding panel, “Reflections from the Intersections.”

In so many areas of our lives, we are often asked to separate, even pull apart, different aspects of our identity. Normative practices (and current political discourse) prefer uncomplicated categories, but we do not live our lives (including our campus lives) via separated identities. To do so is to sacrifice our whole selves, which is why the timing of this conference felt so critical. As we return to campus this fall to deeply engage in learning practices that matter to students, we can bring the lessons learned from “The Whole Student” conference to our institutional homes during an increasingly complex cultural and political moment.

The idea of building a “consciousness of caring” throughout campus life, addressed and demonstrated by Leeva Chung and Laura Rendón at the outset of the conference, stayed with me as I moved through different sessions. Sitting in Shiva Subbaraman’s session, “Uneasy Homes,” I was reminded that this “consciousness” often starts with educators’ own identities (i.e., how we feel about our identities in our campus work and whether we can meaningfully engage with our identities on campus). Once we experience this greater sense of connectedness between ourselves and our work, we can connect more openly with students—to understand how their personal and scholarly identities intersect and affect their success. The leaders from Trans Student Educational Resources (TSER), for example, spent time distinguishing gender identity from gender expression, sex assigned at birth, sexual attraction, and emotional attraction. Patrick Arsenault additionally unpacked aromantic identities, and associated terms, for conference participants. These are much more nuanced discussions of identity than the categories of gender and sexuality tend to offer, and they help us understand the kinds of intersecting identities students bring to their learning.

Campus practices would benefit greatly from the conference’s impulse to interconnect student identity, well-being, and learning. These nuanced understandings of identity would also resonate deeply throughout our campus work—via course design, cocurricular activities, student success assessments, cross-campus partnerships, and so on. When we bring these nuanced understandings (e.g., this “consciousness of caring”) to our campus work, students additionally benefit through profound connections to their learning, their identities, their peers, and us.

Hannah Altman
Student and Community Engagement Advocate, Tulane University

Hannah led a workshop titled “Entering the Community.”

As a student, it was incredibly meaningful to attend, “The Whole Student: Intersectionality and Well-Being,” a conference that focused on two extremely relevant topics (intersectionality and well-being). These terms are buzzwords on my campus; students involved in community engagement use them daily to discuss campus climate and explain complex ideas to our peers.

Yet, it’s rare that members of administrative staff—outside of admissions and public service offices—use these terms to describe the college experience. So, it was incredibly refreshing to step into a room where faculty, experts, administrative staff, and students alike could discuss intersectionality and well-being without even needing to define the terms. So often, students involved in civic engagement worry that the administration is unaware and unreceptive. Being at this conference with members from different universities across the continent gave me hope. It demonstrated the sheer number of people who care about these issues and are willing to devote themselves to creating change.

At this conference, I presented Tulane’s Community Engagement Advocates program, one of our campus’s ways of creating more educated public servants. I started my presentation by asking everybody in the audience to “shake it out” with me. Speaking in front of experts, faculty, and administrative staff was incredibly nerve-wracking to an undergraduate student like myself, and I needed to feel a certain level of comfort. As my presentation went on, I found myself opening up to conference attendees as they opened up to me.

What surprised me most was the amount of work going on at the administrative level. I’ve never been invited into the rooms where decisions are made, and usually only find out what’s going on with the administration after it’s happened (or sometimes, hasn’t happened). Hearing about the work that universities have done to create safe environments for their students, educate their freshman population, and change institutional rules was both amazing and astonishing. But, these practices were happening behind closed doors. While it makes sense to not share news until it’s official, it can leave students feeling alone in their battles.

“The Whole Student: Intersectionality and Well-Being” conference taught me that there are just as many administrative staff struggling to create change as there are students concerned with the same issues. But I wish I knew what administrators were trying to accomplish; open communication would make it so much easier to coordinate our goals and change our campus for the better.

Lott Hill
Director, Center for Teaching and Learning, University of the Pacific
Soo La Kim
Assistant Dean, Graduate Programs School of Professional Studies, Northwestern University

Lott and Soo La presented as part of a group-led workshop titled “Ain’t Just Breaking Ice: Community Building as Pedagogical Practice.”

During the opening keyduet (keynote duet), Leeva Chung and Laura Rendón discussed the concept of intersectionality in relation to grappling with identities that may be in resistance to each other and the idea that we have learned to struggle with ourselves and against ourselves. In her brilliant introduction to that conversation, L. Lee Knefelkamp asked, “What are the intellectual capacities we need to deal with an increasingly recognized complex society . . . to stay in the intersection, . . . to stay in dialogue with one another?” These concepts and questions were clearly echoed throughout the national conference and, at least in part, were demonstrated and answered through the interactions that took place during the gathering.

On college campuses, which Knefelkamp referred to as “the most diverse intersections in the US,” faculty and staff are striving to create inclusive environments that provide support for students as they make sense of the world and engage with others even while many feel their own identities colliding. How can we better support our students, our colleagues, and ourselves in the current culture of division and divisiveness? How can we stay in the intersection—in dialogue—with individuals and identities that appear, at least on the surface, to avoid meaningful engagement?

Many of the conversations we had at the BTtoP conference came back to the concept of well-being, and though many of us came to Chicago expecting to explore what we can do to empower our students to be or become whole, we were continuously reminded that to support intersectionality and well-being, we had to first allow ourselves to be whole. In Teaching to Transgress, bell hooks writes, “Teachers must be actively committed to a process of self-actualization that promotes their own well-being if they are to teach in a manner that empowers students.”5 Both in the sessions and in the informal conversations at lunch and elsewhere, we sensed a real hunger for dialogue and connection where participants could express their whole selves and acknowledge the discomfort of having to recognize one’s privilege, one’s marginalization, or the messiness of such intersections in an institutional context.

In our own work in faculty and professional development, we have found that opportunities for authentic conversations are few and far between, even when campus priorities such as curriculum revisions, student success and retention initiatives, diversity and inclusion efforts, etc. would benefit from key stakeholders having time and space to practice before they preach. The experience of the conference thus drove home for us the necessity of creating and advocating for spaces where faculty and staff can reflect, connect with each other, and feel motivated to try something new, whether that means trying a community-building activity in class for the first time or reconsidering hiring practices to be more equitable. Trust is essential for collaboration. Collaboration is essential for meaningful change. The BTtoP conference inspired us to continue working to build academic communities rooted in trust where authentic dialogues can happen.

SaCora Williams
Undergraduate Student,
Loyola University Chicago

SaCora presented as part of a team panel titled “Reaching Student Success Through Cross-Cultural Mentorship.”

The first knowledge I had of the Bringing Theory to Practice “Whole Student” conference came when my mentor informed me that I would be presenting with her and others on a panel on the topic of cross-cultural mentorship. My first response was a perplexed, “…What?”

However, with a little more information, I was on board with her decision. As I did more research, the conference truly sparked my interest. As a social work and sociology major with an interest in student affairs, student well-being and intersectionality are at the center of my future work. And as a student organizer and active Loyola community member, they are even more important. I believe centering “the whole student” in practice is vital to the work of faculty, staff, and administration within higher education.

The conference challenged me to think in broader terms, and to critique whether institutions can truly advocate for student well-being without intentionally paying attention to intersectionality. When it comes to providing marginalized students with the support they need to succeed, universities tend to fall short due to a lack of focus on the “whole student.” We are more than whitewashed student leadership theories and more than academia’s diversity quotas. It is important to recognize that we are more than our experiences within institutions of higher education, and that our personal journeys and narratives cannot be left at the door.

From presentations by Trans Student Educational Resources on the flaws of policy and statistics about higher education, to the experiences of the student panelists from Berea College, it became evident that the challenges of underserved populations within institutions of higher education are universal. I recalled the many challenges I’ve faced as a queer, low income, and black woman navigating a predominately white and upper-class Catholic institution. We are often boxed out of our own narratives and into preset bubbles created by institutions that stifle our ability to succeed.

The various presentations and themes brought me to one conclusion: higher education stakeholders must “put their money where their mouth is.” Administrators, staff, and faculty members must use these theories as tangible practices to truly begin engaging the whole student. Engaging the whole student means acknowledging lived experiences as pedagogical tools alongside scholarly knowledge. It means intentionally providing resources for students of trans experience to simply exist within institutions of higher education. Educating and nurturing the WHOLE student requires more than theories and rhetoric, but creating substantial change.

Sivagami (Shiva) Subbaraman
Special Assistant to the Vice President and Director of the LGBTQ Resource Center, Georgetown University

Shiva presented a workshop titled “Uneasy Homes: Rethinking the Diversity Paradigm.”

I must confess that when I was first asked to serve on the planning committee for the conference, and later invited to do a workshop, my first thought was, “Here was yet another iteration on a well-worn theme with the appropriate buzzwords: intersectionality and well-being.” I could not have been worse prepared for my own growth and experience through the process of planning and being part of the conference. The conference was a multi-layered experience, and I would like to focus on a couple of major takeaways and what could gesture towards the future.

What made the conference particularly valuable and rich was that it brought together all the constituents of a campus community: faculty, students, staff, and administrators; most higher education conferences are focused predominantly on one or two of them. This allowed for a true 360-degree understanding of many of the challenges facing our campuses. Our conversations as educators tend to be “other focused,” usually “student-focused,” and my main takeaway was the importance of recognizing that we (faculty, staff, and administrators) are part of the fabric, and we cannot fundamentally ensure well-being without also a critical excavation of our own praxes, biases, and learning processes. Many of the sessions brought this nexus to the fore in a clear and imaginative fashion and allowed for a more nuanced understanding of what “well-being” and “intersectionality” look like.

Working as I do at a Catholic institution, particularly around LGBTQ and diversity-related issues, I am always mindful of the balances and disjunctures between Catholic teachings of social justice, inclusion, and doing right, and the civil rights approach to the very same concepts. Coming to a more clear-sighted understanding of these disjunctures will help us frame the conversation differently on our campus, and to help create connections where there are fissures.

The greatest take away is also a challenge for our future: how well-being is not an individual matter, but should really apply to institutional structures at the micro and macro levels. Well-being is not simply a passive acquisition by an individual student, nor something created by us to be consumed by students.  Well-being, correctly understood, is in fact an act of creation by all those who are participants in the community. Being so other-focused, we often elide our own role and responsibility as faculty and staff in such a creation.

In many ways, Walter J. Burghardt’s definition of prayer and contemplation as “a long and loving look at the real,”6 can serve as a useful mantra for us as we try to take a long, loving look at the well-being of the institutions we are all a part of—whether it is at the level of our own centers, our departments, and of course the institution as a whole. Our ability to make sustainable and sustained change is going to depend on our willingness to look at well-being not simply as an individual state of being to be achieved, but as a collective and shared responsibility.

Leigh-Anne Royster
Director of Inclusive Community Well-Being, Elon University

Leigh-Anne led two workshops at the conference: “Microaggressions and Marginalization: Implications for Professionals and Campus Climate” and “First Do No Harm: Creating a Comprehensive Bias, Harassment, and Violence Prevention and Response Model.”

When I reflect on the “Whole Student” conference, it is my reflection on the terms “whole student,” “intersectionality,” and “well-being” that causes me to understand how critical it is to bring together these topics in a shared space.

If I think about the “whole student,” or any “whole” individual for that matter, I understand a complex being—one that exists with their own constellation of identity markers, but also a complex interaction or set of interactions with the world, space, and society around them. This requires a complex analysis if we are to offer the best support, understanding, and connection for students as higher education professionals. For me, intersectionality is that complex analysis.

Sometimes, I shy away from using the term “intersectionality” because I think it often invokes an image of an intersection of two (or more) identities coming together. I interact with the concept of intersectionality in the way I understand the originator of the term, Kimberle Crenshaw,7 to mean: an intricate justice analysis that considers the whole self and its relation to others and systems. If I understand intersectionality in this way, rather than adding up identities like a math problem, it allows me to have the most valuable tool possible in dismantling systems of oppression and unequal distribution of power based on identity (conferred or otherwise). That is because an intersectional justice analysis of power, oppression, etc. considers our place in history, our economic influences, our identities, our environment (built or otherwise), and a plethora of other factors that must be deliberated when creating the changes that would produce a more equitable world—one that allows the “whole self” to show up in a safe, supported, and celebrated way.

Finally, my understanding of promoting “well-being” is two-fold and rests on the complexity of the analysis I just described. If “well-being” is being well with and in the world, we must support and celebrate people from a vast variety of identities, perspectives, and backgrounds doing just that, and recognize that we all participate in systems that undermine this work by upholding oppressions and perpetuating disparities. So, the two arms of this work, for me, become: (1) redressing instances of injustice/violence, while (2) providing spaces for education and growth around understanding and engaging across difference and appreciating the vital value of doing so—work that seems well suited for institutions of higher education.

So, it is critical for leaders in higher education to more intentionally think about their campus community’s approaches to these concepts. Campuses often use words like “well-being” or “intersectionality,” but you often find that various departments have different understandings of what those words mean. Further, implementation of policies that seek to address these concepts differs widely across the field of higher education and even within individual campuses.

Many campuses have likely learned how difficult it is to put the values and priorities behind such nebulous or loaded terms and concepts into practice. Let’s learn from our previous challenges with terms like “diversity” and “inclusion” and try to face the potential disconnects head-on, so we can avoid finding ourselves in situations where the touted values and matching efforts of an institution are not dissonant with climate surveys and other tools that report actual student, staff, and faculty lived experiences.

Ultimately, if campus communities are to be successful with efforts related to well-being or holistic student support, campus leaders must be clear about what they understand about the concepts and the language being used, and what and how they intend to address the concepts through curricula, programming, or other campus priorities. This requires deep exploration of these concepts through responsible engagement with affected communities. This also typically requires additional training (for leaders and policy implementers) to more fully develop multifaceted, multidisciplinary, and complex engagements with the meaning around the efforts they intend to engage.

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1  Adam Seligman, “Pedagogic Principles for the Production of Knowledge in Deeply Plural Societies,” Civic Values, Civic Practices, eds. Donald W. Harward and Barry Checkoway (Washington, DC: Bringing Theory to Practice, 2013), 57–64. https://www.aacu.org/sites/default/files/files/CLDE/CivicValuesCivicPractices.pdf.

2  Laura I. Rendón Linares and Susana M. Muñoz, “Revisiting Validation Theory: Theoretical Foundations, Applications, and Extensions,” Enrollment Management Journal 2, no. 1 (Summer 2011): 12–33.

3  Laura I. Rendón, “Validating Culturally Diverse Students: Toward a New Model of Learning and Student Development,” Innovative Higher Education 9, no. 1 (Fall 1994): 6–21.

4  Mark Nichols, “Student Perceptions of Support Services and the Influences of Targeted Interventions on Retention in Distance Education,” Distance Education 31, no. 1 (2010): 93–113. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/01587911003725048.

5  bell hooks, Teaching to Trangress: Education as the Practice of Freedom (New York, Routledge, 1994).

6  Walter J. Burghardt, “Contemplation: A Long, Loving Look at the Real,” Church 5 (Winter 1989): 14–17.

7  Kimberle Crenshaw (1989), “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” University of Chicago Legal Forum (1989): 139–167.