Earlier this month, Achieving the Dream (ATD) hosted the 2021 Holistic Student Supports Institute, a virtual event for educators, leaders, and student service providers to gain tools and strategies that help them set students up for success.
This year, the two-day Institute also included the Student Mental Health and Well-Being Summit to address a critical, timely concern for institutions of higher education, as colleges and universities continue to grapple with the ongoing effects of the coronavirus pandemic. The Summit took place on Thursday, November 4, with ATD’s director of Holistic Student Supports, Dr. Laurie Fladd, welcoming guests. “Changing policies and practices is something we can all do without hiring a ton of people or adopting expensive platforms,” she said, stressing that policy changes can lead to institutional transformation with broad student impact.
Dr. Karen A. Stout, ATD’s president and CEO, talked about the urgency of equitable student supports in a higher education system that was not initially designed to serve the diversity of students now seeking degrees and credentials. “We have to stop taking a cookie-cutter approach to these issues and start developing more culturally relevant approaches that meet students where they are,” she said.
Dr. Stout then introduced plenary speaker Dr. David P. Rivera, an associate professor of counselor education at CUNY Queens College and a national advisor at the Steve Fund. Dr. Rivera’s address explored how colleges can better support the mental and emotional well-being of students of color, the central mission of the Steve Fund.
Creating a culture of belonging
Dr. Rivera explored how systemic racism and institutional inequity can affect mental health through racial trauma, anxiety, “a sense of imposterism,” and other harmful effects. He discussed the impact of “dignitary harm,” which “results from people not being understood fully for who they are.” A student whose self-confidence has been eroded may not seek services or opportunities, particularly if those opportunities exist in the same context as the poor treatment they have received.
“When our dignity is harmed, when our sense of self-worth gets depleted, we might not pursue those dreams that we have.”
To build a culture of equity and dignity on college campuses, Dr. Rivera asserted that college leaders need to educate the entire campus community about the racial realities of students of color. He laid out five recommendations for higher education leaders and practitioners to improve equity and wellness on campus:
- Build trust through racial trauma–informed leadership.
- Take a collaborative approach to promote mental health for students of colors.
- Engage faculty and staff to support the mental health of students of color.
- Treat student mental health as a priority area for investment.
- Leverage community and external stakeholders to promote emotional well-being of students of color.
To build a community of care rooted in equity and mutual respect, “start with cultural humility,” Dr. Rivera said. “Taking a culturally humble perspective is going to help us in meeting [students] where they are … and creating a culture of equity, inclusion, and belonging for students of color on our campuses.”
Spotlight on student parents
On Friday, the Holistic Student Supports Institute plenary speaker Nicole Lynn Lewis read a passage from her book, Pregnant Girl: A Story of Teen Motherhood, College, and Creating a Better Future for Young Families. About one in five undergraduate students in the U.S. are parents, but less than 2 percent of student mothers will earn a degree before the age of 30. Lewis became an exception to the norm when she graduated from the College of William and Mary in four years. Throughout her time in college, though, people questioned her decision to pursue higher education while she was caring for a child.
“As community college leaders, we have to ask ourselves, do we truly know these students? Do we understand their experiences and what they’re up against? Do we view them as assets to our communities or liabilities? Do we ask them in subtle ways, ‘Why are you here?’”
Lewis is the CEO and founder of Generation Hope, a nonprofit that supports teen parents in college to ensure all students have the opportunity to succeed. She asked Institute attendees to ensure that parenting students are included in all of their policies and strategies, and outlined four ways that Generation Hope encourages colleges to better support parenting students:
- Collect and track the parenting status of students.
- Apply a parenting student lens to all diversity, equity, and inclusion work.
- Update campus policies and procedures related to childcare, access, etc.
- Build strong relationships with parenting students so that they have support and resources to thrive.
While higher education can be a daunting system to attempt to change, Lewis stressed that the work is too important to give up on. “What if we said yes instead of no?” she asked. “Yes to tuition assistance, yes to helping you keep the heat on, yes to having someone in your corner who believes in you.”
Participants at the Institute left the two-day virtual event with expanded skillsets to say “yes” to supporting their students in the diverse ways that learners can experience challenges and barriers to access on their educational journeys. With a greater understanding of their students — both their needs and the unique assets they bring to the classroom — higher ed staff and faculty can continue to design holistic, equitable supports that help every student succeed in college.