College Preparation and Work Culture: Why do they leave?

“Students now come to college not to get a degree or even knowledge, but to get a job. That is all students—whether at Yale or Phoenix. Vocationally oriented community colleges and for-profit schools have got this piece very right. This reality is driving much of their popularity. This is especially true for first generation, low income and students of color. Their families want them to get the traditional job—doctor, lawyer, businessman.  I remember one student at Princeton who grew up in the Bronx and was getting his doctorate in bio physics at Columbia and his parents kept asking when he was going to get a real job. They could not understand that his job was to spend time in the library and to sit waiting for his experiments to gel or whatever they were supposed to do. This is not the vision of work that most families have.

Large research universities and liberal arts colleges are creators of knowledge but are often slow to adapt to new things themselves.  They create the trends and then may be the last to jump on the train.  So, while the world has changed in term of the workplace and career paths and the financing of education and even who goes to college, the faculty in these institutions have not necessarily caught up. Thus, they may not appreciate the vocational focus and anxiety that students and their families are now bringing to the academy. Part of it is driven by the vocational uncertainty that is now part of the work landscape in ways it was not in the past.”

The above was taken from a blog I did in 2012. The situation continues to exist but there is much more attention being paid to the preparation for life after college than ever before. However, the work being done is still problematic. For one thing there is still an underlying assumption of a linear and long, term career path. That ship has sailed long ago. Few will stay in the same jobs, firms, fields over a lifetime. Medical doctors, teachers, perhaps social workers might. Note that those are all service professions and that those in them are generally there for love of what they do and the gratification of the outcomes.  Certainly, for teachers and social workers they are not there for the pay. In Studs Terkel’s celebrated book Working published in 1974, it is clear in the interviews of those in fields like these, that they have the satisfaction of service.

There are those too who have inherent skills that may range from sculpture and playwriting to plumbing and mechanics who find enough gratification in that work to maintain it for a lifetime—the plumbers being more stably and gainfully employed perhaps than the playwrights.

But today others in fields that are characterized as corporate—finance, retail, technology which may dominate the workplace landscape are the best paid and often most transient and least happy. There are certainly companies, Google comes to mind, that try to assure workplace satisfaction.

But part of the issue, I think lies in the fact that students are not taught what the workplace is actually like and why. Parents rarely have talked about what they did all day—glad to get home and away from the grind. Events like “Take Your Child to Work Day” give a sugar coated view. So, the tasks that may be boring or the interminable meetings that seem to lead nowhere or the bosses that terrorize or the cliquishness of colleagues to say nothing of the disruptive new technologies are unknown until one is actually in the job. This is especially true for those who are first generation to go to college and thus first in their families to find themselves in major corporate – or even start-up settings. They have no frame of reference to deal with the highly politically charged workplace, now in a volatile state of constant change with every new technological advance. Those who at least had parents who worked for Fortune 500 or smaller firms may have an inkling. But these are not generally the first gen, low-income and students of color that are increasingly our college populations and hence moving into these workspaces post-graduation.  But when they reach that dual holy grail—college graduation and a job in a recognized firm/industry they are not staying.

Industry specific observations in, for example, the advertising and marketing space points to serious problems even in an environment that one would expect to be culturally attuned. But the low starting salaries are a deterrent. And so being not culturally aware marketers continue to make blunders like H&M’s “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle” with a Black child as the model. Some places like Minneapolis have seen diverse hires leave because of the environment being culturally sterile or even unwelcoming.

This is not only an ethnic issue. Women are still not in significant senior level roles in major firms in the ratios one might expect 50 plus years after the legal barriers to their presence were removed. ME TOO has cast a light on some of the issues women deal with.  Hence, they create their own firms or gravitate to smaller ones that might be more friendly. Perhaps consequently they are the greatest creators of new businesses.

Savvy firms have begun to talk about Diversity and INCLUSION. The evidence is in that better decision making comes from diverse teams. Command and control, once the model for management no longer fits with millennial workers and those who follow. Indeed, those graduating college now are outspoken and political as those of us who graduated in and after the turbulent ‘60’s.  That process of becoming inclusive has to begin before college graduates graduate. Faculty have a role in this. Administrators have a role in assuring there is exposure to internships and meeting alumni and finding other ways to expose students to what they will find in the “real world”. And companies have to find ways to begin before hiring, to share what it is “really” like in their firms and how best to navigate the shoals that will certainly be there.

So, I am going to restate slightly amended recommendations that I made in that 2012 blog directed to faculty and add a couple more.

  • Teaching vocationally — explaining how skills get applied in the workplace. It is important to engage students in experiential, applied, and community- based learning opportunities to show how disciplines are applied in the “real world”.  Students today learn differently.  They learn online, they have shorter attention spans and so the pure lecture format is not always the best. One course I taught did not come together until the students had to go into the community to do projects that helped them see for themselves how the disparities of social class really functioned beyond the texts I had assigned.  This is especially useful for adult learners, who can relate better to experiential learning.  And adult learners or returning students is a growing number – maybe the majority of students now entering college.

Part of teaching vocationally is to be interdisciplinary and to use teams. Collaboration with colleagues in different departments to team teach is exciting.  Take an example—Civil Rights. What if that were team taught by professors from Economics, History, English and Art.  How cool would that be for a student. Or one that intrigued a former student of mine pulling together Geography, Computer Science and the Environment. Bryn Mawr College has, now as a hallmark, it’s 360 courses. A subject is taught from a 360 degree perspective by a team of faculty from very different disciplines and the course ends with a “capstone’ that is in the “real” world. It may be a project with the Philadelphia public schools or mounting a major art exhibit.  It is how the real workplace functions— in teams of people coming from many different perspectives. Students should be given team-based projects where they bring their own diversity of skill and experience to problem-solving on an assignment and they should see this as a workplace simulation. Clinical professors who have one foot in the workplace and one in the academy are useful and this can inform these faculty with insights they can take back to their workplaces as well as offer them more gratification.

Teaching vocationally also means using technology to build technology skills among students. Students use technology every day.  Those skills can be pushed in the work assigned. Employers not only check to see if students have an online presence on Facebook or LinkedIn (a clean one) but also how adept they are at using varied tools like Doodles to schedule meetings, or Powerpoint, or video conferencing, or researching on Lexus/Nexus  or other tools as a baseline for employment.

  • Partner with other college offices –career office, counseling services, even the library.  Faculty can help students to take advantage of the resources they may not on their own. They can encourage students to go to events (often under-attended regardless of how much pizza we serve) where high profile individuals or alumni will be speaking. This is a networking opportunity for students. Students need to know how to network—introduce themselves appropriately, engage in conversation and follow up. Sometimes faculty can take the class to the event or make it part of an assignment.  I used to make one class session meet in the library prior to assigning final papers.  Professors can direct a student to the writing center.  Professors should ask the Career or Alumni office for a list of alumni who majored in their field and what they have done with their degrees so they can answer the “what to do with this major question” with real stories.

In addition, find ways to engage students in workplace settings or with recent alumni to hear from students like themselves what it is like and to feel the spaces and whatever vibe it puts out. Firms should send the worker bees and not just the recruiters to visit campuses. Those they send should be ready to engage in some level of mentorship following the visit. The Associate Board of READ Alliance is made up of young corporate employees who can engage with the READ teen tutors who are college bound and let them know what to expect on the other end. They find it is gratifying to them to do this work.  Organizations like Project Basta, Futures and Options and BUILD all work to give youth real workplace exposure, build connections, understand processes and cultures. But these programs themselves are under resourced and so only can reach a drop in the bucket of college going first gen, low-income and students of color. Supporting and expanding them would be helpful too.

The issue is not just getting into and graduating from college for first gen, low-income and students of color. It is getting into and thriving in the workplace once they do.

 

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1968 Revisited with an Eye to 2018

Marcia Y. Cantarella, PhD

As our 50th Bryn Mawr reunion rolled around many of us were stunned to realize that it had been that long. And so of course reflections began. And, not surprisingly they took a political slant. When our class entered Bryn Mawr in 1964 we had all sorts of rules about attire (skirts for class), social life (no boys in rooms and curfews), ladylike behavior (tea time, meals served by African American maids.) When we left in ’68 all that was gone. We were the class that came in already involved in antiwar and civil rights activities. We came in on a wave of Beatles music and were the generation of peace and love. We marched, we fasted, we attended teach-ins. Some of us were radical in our activities and some of us interned for legislators as I did for Bobby Kennedy. Our second month on campus we were taking part, as a campus, in election activities working phones to take returns from various Philadelphia precincts. This was not everyone for sure, but enough to make a real mark on the campus culture. And our activities made a mark on us.

In the run up to reunion several of us were talking about then and now. How the Parkland students, and the Me Too movement and Black Lives Matter all represent things we were doing fifty years ago. For some of us our grandchildren were marching with us in opposition to gun violence, or for women’s rights (we had been there at the beginning of the women’s movement too) or to preserve the rights of Black and Brown people being harassed at every turn.

So we thought it would be interesting to have a panel discussion at reunion to share our experience, stimulate discussion and action, and to hopefully encourage and empower those students in classes behind ours to be engaged. The college liked the idea as a launch into reunion weekend. They had one stipulation that there be an alumnus from a younger class who would moderate the panel from a different generational perspective. And so my stepdaughter Maratea, class of ’89 was chosen.

She was perfect. She is a staunch activist herself, coming from a family of activists including my father the late Civil Rights leader, Whitney Young and her own dad, my late husband Francesco, who was a corporate change agent for 40 years. She came to the panel wearing her “Nasty Woman” t-shirt and armed with shirts she had worn to various protests and the remaining pussyhats left over   from the dozens she had knit and sold to benefit Planned Parenthood.

What she elicited from us was a discussion of how our becoming “woke” during our college years shaped our entire lives. One classmate was part of the Weather Underground for several years after graduation until pregnancy led her back home to Seattle and a nursing career followed by a marriage that led her to embrace her unwavering political views through thoughtful philanthropy.  Another  two went on to law school with one being in the forefront of thought on sexual discrimination and the other a labor lawyer who cut her teeth taking on textile unions in the south. And I was the fourth with a career that began with engagement in corporate responsibility work and then higher education focusing on enhancing the experiences of students of color. None of us lost our activist tendencies and all have passed on the germ to our children and now theirs.

However we all feel that it is not about us anymore. We want to see our children and theirs doing what we did. We take heart in the Parkland students. We want to see the young people who came out for Obama and Bernie Sanders do it again. We want to see local engagement. For us making changes on our campus – helping the Black maids and porters who served us to move to jobs of more meaning and responsibility and less subservience was local engagement in change. We obviously took it further as we left campus. But we each found our niche causes to give focus to. We hope that while some of us have aching joints and replaced knees and hips, younger folks will do the heavy lifting of door to door canvassing. We are encouraged to see women, including others from Bryn Mawr, running for office and that people who are very young  are giving it a shot. We have had some legislators and judges among our classmates and some mayors among other college alumni.  If the 60s represented our moment then this is another time for youth activism supported by the same kinds of folks, whether Pete Seeger or Pauli Murray who were pioneers raising voices and supporting us. Everywhere there should be folks like Alexandra Ocasio-Ortez breaking into the ranks of local politics but supported by women like, Bryn Mawr alumna, veteran politician Minneapolis Mayor Betsey Hodges. Our classmate Drew Faust leaves her role as Harvard President with four new Black women deans in place. We can support driving change in all kinds of ways.

At the end of our panel discussion we gave out a list of source material—bloggers, organizations, news forums that we found to be balanced (well maybe, nuanced to the left of center…) and credible. We encouraged people to read and speak up and “share truth to power.”

But comes the downside. There are those who feel betrayed by the fact that, in their minds and experience, the Democratic party did not go far enough during the Obama years. On the other hand many who voted for the President did not vote during the  midterms and gave away a legislative majority that could have done far more. Once upon a time we taught Civics in elementary schools so that folks understood how it all worked and our own roles in the process but those courses are gone now. So people do not understand the political process. (Interestingly on our reunion panel three of us were Political  Science majors and one did Anthropology.) When we, Black folks,  were fighting for the right to vote in the south in the 1960s we understood every nuance with the fervor of those with a vested interest. But when the focus of one’s life has to be on just surviving it is hard to muster the will and energy to engage in fickle political action. Many disillusioned voters reacted against the “establishment”,  represented by Hillary Clinton, or so they thought in the 2016 election but instead ended up entrenching  powerful forces who do not have at heart the things that are truly on the minds of most citizens who are not wealthy. Many more, including people of color, did not vote at all.

So the powerless remain powerless. Unless we go old school again. One of the things that most impacted me during the 60’s was the “Teach In” where on campuses faculty and others met students outside class hours to teach us about the Vietnam war. This was important to me in a special way. My dad was civil rights leader Whitney Young. Daddy was a WWII veteran and thought about the troops who were there. Many of these troops were Black men who had no way to avoid the draft. He did not want to demean their service by speaking in opposition to the war. He traveled to Vietnam twice to show his support for these Black enlisted men and, as a veteran,  he always wore military fatigues on these visits to hospitals and barracks. His position was also made tricky by his ties to the Johnson administration. He was the voice and force behind Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty which incorporated much of what daddy had articulated as a Domestic Marshall Plan referring to the rebuilding of Western Europe after WWII using US aid. Daddy got Johnson on board with his ideas of domestic investment in the poor and blighted neighborhoods. He did not want to upset that  relationship. So when he found himself on a dais at a dinner sitting  with McGeorge Bundy, the Under Secretary of State,  rather than stating any views of his own on the war he used me as proxy. He told Bundy what his Bryn Mawr daughter thought. Then after the dinner he introduced me to Bundy as the daughter whose views he had shared. Then daddy walked off. He left me to continue to share all I had learned in my campus teach ins. (Many years later my husband and I met Bundy at a dinner and told him that story and to his credit he responded… “And history proved you right.” ) The point is I had become informed about the issues on campus outside classroom hours.

There is evidence that when the poor or low-income folks mobilize they often win. The numbers are in their favor. And there are issues out there that relate to poverty threats like health care, criminalization of petty crimes, disparities in educational systems and access with its implications for work, technology as a threat to work, the environmental crisis impacting weather and quality of life,  and the elephant in the room (pun intended)— income disparity counter to the whole vision of the American dream.

If the young took it upon themselves to disseminate information that is balanced and easy to understand  that alone would be helpful  if that is done along with clear awareness of where candidates stand locally, on local issues. Then maybe another shift could occur. We of the old guard would be happy to teach in community forums or craft materials that are clear and balanced to disseminate in the old school door to door, neighbor to neighbor way. Social media may not be the only or best way to proceed especially given threats of tampering. Operating intergenerationally,  we might just do something to preserve what we say we believe our national values to be.

However such a strategy also means crossing lines of race, income, age, or  gender to find allies. If we look at the photos taken at the various marches for women, or in opposition to gun violence or in opposition to punitive immigration policies we see an amalgam of people of all ages, gender orientation, ethnicities.  We can do this. We did it 50 years ago and then fumbled the ball and let the bad guys win. We need to do it again.

 

 

 

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Not So Little Women

As she approached her 60th birthday my Bryn Mawr classmate Kit Bakke was being introspective in the way we often are at significant birthdays. She was looking to see where her role models and inspirations had been and not surprisingly hit upon Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women among many other books about feisty women that she wrote in the 1870s and 80s.  Every woman I know of my generation read Little Women.  It was made into at least two fabulous films, one starring June Allyson and one Katherine Hepburn in the role of the irrepressible Jo March whom we all wanted to be. Kit identified however, with the author who had worked for women’s rights, was an abolitionist, a nurse briefly in the Civil War, and ultimately a writer. Kit had been an activist in college—a member of the Weather Underground, a pediatric oncology nurse and a writer. So she wrote a book called Miss Alcott’s Email in which she miraculously communicates with Miss Alcott over time and space about what they shared and what was different. It was a book that seemed written for our age group, those of us who were of the early baby boom wave growing up in the  40s and 50s and sliding toward adulthood in the sixties.

I grew up on Alcott—read everything she wrote and I have visited Orchard House where she grew up in Concord, MA. She lived a stone’s throw from her mentor  Ralph Waldo Emerson’s house and Walden Pond where her friend Thoreau hung out. I sat at the desk where they say she wrote Little Women. When I was awarded  my doctorate in American Studies my wise husband took me to the Concord Cemetery where they are all modestly buried along with Nathaniel Hawthorne in a plot the size of a small New York bedroom.

Jo March, her protagonist was also the central character in the two sequels—Little Men and Jo’s Boys.  Jo was a contrarian who hated to do those things women were supposed to do. She was a rebel. In the sequels she heads a school for boys that is non-traditional and economically diverse and liberal in its pedagogy. There was something about her breaking the rules of what was expected of women that drew us all in.

But she was not the only character that we grew up with that did that. There was also Nancy Drew, the detective who lived with her lawyer father and solved crimes as a teen. I am sure she is responsible for my love of Janet Evanovich’s much racier mystery series now. Anne of Green Gables ultimately grew up, married her childhood sweetheart Gilbert Blythe and had a family but on her terms having gotten a college education, worked for her own money, lived away from home and broken all sorts of rules along the way. The little girls Betsy, Tacy and Tibb  of the series bearing their name  authored by Maud Lovelace, ran around all over their town and countryside all by themselves having adventures in the late 1800s and early 1900s. There was nothing demure or restrained about them.

I am sure that Jane Austin and the Bronte’s whose women were also rule breakers had the same appeal for us and remain timeless. Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Secret Garden and Little Princess  , with their brave girls, were childhood staples for us and reappear today.

My parents insisted when I was about 8 that for every 3 books of fiction I took out of the library I had to take out one  non-fiction and that led me to biography and the “orange books”. They are actually called the Childhood of Famous American’s series and are now in blue paper backs as opposed to the orange hardcovers that I knew. There I found Jane Addams, Molly Pitcher, Dolly Madison, Florence Nightingale and, of course,  Louisa Alcott. I am amazed by how many of my friends also knew and loved “the orange books” and how many of them are also writers and educators and activists.

These were the books—to name a few—that were read and loved by my generation. We often think of The Feminine Mystique as the clarion call of the women’s movement, but I think it came before.

When my class entered Bryn Mawr in 1964 it was at the peak of the seven sisters women’s colleges—the women’s counterpart to the all male Ivy League. We had made a choice to go to a women’s school which had a history of marrying off its graduates appropriately, maybe sending some off to grad school but also preparing them to be women who were generally unsung leaders (except Katherine Hepburn) in all sorts of fields including the military. As we arrived at the college the rules were in place to assure that the MRS would be as valid for us as our BA or maybe MA or PhD. The thought was that educated men should have educated wives to keep them company.  There was a marriage course required for seniors, strict curfews, permission required for weekends at Princeton or other appropriate Ivies, no men in the dorms outside the public rooms and  skirts required for class unless there was a foot of snow.  We even had African American maids cleaning our rooms and serving our meals. By 1968 when our class graduated none of those rules or practices applied. People slept over at Haverford, wore jeans to class and maybe shoes or maybe not. Once the existing staff was appropriately redeployed in good jobs around campus, we cleaned our own rooms and waited tables ourselves.

We were Miss Alcott’s army of Josephine Marches. We were going to wear our hair long and free, and wear pants if we wanted and have real jobs. We would march against the Vietnam War or for Civil Rights. We would become feminist attorneys, Ivy Deans and presidents, corporate leaders, groundbreaking scientists, political analysts, judges, NY Times columnists, and philanthropists making our own decisions about money as did Louisa Alcott’s Rose in her Rose in Bloom.

At the time sending us off to a women’s college, our families thought it was all very genteel. But, that class entering college in 1964 was raised on the literature of female hell-raisers. Seeds had been planted of rebelliousness and a different view of what girls/women could and should do and what we should stand for and/or tolerate. We had seen our mothers, many like mine, who were the subject of the Feminist Mystique, being educated and underutilized and often depressed or angry. The same women who had run the factories during the war were expected to return to roles of docility and secondary citizenship. We did not like what we saw at home often and not what we saw on TV—Donna Reed and her ilk. Even Dale Rogers was a secondary citizen behind Roy Rogers’ horse Trigger. We loved our Jo and Nancy Drew and as we got older Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath and Erica Jong took their places and we followed their lead. When Ms Magazine first published in 1971 the key article for many of us was about the Click point—that moment when it hit you that you were being patronized or discriminated against or sexually harassed or even abused. We all knew what ours was. It was a moment like the “Me Too” movement now.

We are the grandmothers now but we are also the leading edge of the next feminist revolution and this one may be political. I revel in the options my granddaughters have in front of them. While the books I had which gave me my role models were limited and the Childhood of Famous Americans series had far fewer girls than boys, today when I go to a book store there are shelves of biographies of noteworthy women of every age, ethnicity and gender orientation either as individual stories or anthologized. And sure enough my granddaughters down to the tiniest have books telling those stories of resisters… sometimes with matching T-shirts.  Louisa Alcott was a resister, we grew to be like her Jo and now we can tell our own stories to what many of us hope will the next generation of resisters. Sisters.

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The Fear Factor in College Completion

Marcia Y. Cantarella, PhD, Author, I CAN Finish College: The Overcome Any Obstacle and Get Your Degree Guide

In an interesting discussion with a group of students recently I was sharing what I call the ten key elements for college success. One of them is that it is alright to fail. And this one caught their attention. I explained that I did not mean that it is OK to fail courses but that when you fail an exam or fail to do as well as you have hoped it is a time to regroup. It is a moment to ask questions and find out what you did wrong so that you can do better next time.  But fear of failure creates paralysis that keeps students from doing the very things that they need to do to succeed.

When we think of F the word that comes to mind is failure. When you think of F in relationship to college life it is a screaming panic letter invested with all kinds of power. Who knew that your entire life was wrapped up in one little letter of the alphabet? But in reality F before it becomes failure (which is not, by the way, a terminal state) also can stand for the fear that can lead to failing grades—which can also lead to failing to complete college.

Fear—the fear of looking dumb is one of the biggest barriers to college success that there is. This is the fear that translates to not asking questions whether in class or of advisers. It is fear that  prevents students from getting the help they need.

Youth (broadly defined as anything under 40 in my book) is a time when belonging and fitting in, finding one’s place are crucial life passages. Eric Erikson, noted psychologist, mapped life phases and this period of needing to belong as a rite of passage. It is why teams, gangs, cliques, clubs, and frats thrive. Even the military plays on this need to belong.  And who wants to be seen as the loser that no one wants on their team or in their gang? So being cool, savvy, cute or smart – or all of the above– become prized values.

So college life has this contradictory feature—it is a place where it is OK to make mistakes (within reason) if they become teachable moments. The reality of faculty life is that their research is a constant quest for answers and an engagement with trial and error. It is about ongoing inquiry. That is what is valued in college. Curiosity is good.

Truth is that as an employer I am going to prefer the employees who ask for help, learn from mistakes and have humility enough to know what they don’t know and how to access those who are smarter than they are.  So the kind of inquiry engaged in in college is again part of the dress rehearsal for the rest of your life.  But that is not how students engage it.

On many campuses first year biology is a course that is taken by students who think they want to go to medical school or enter the health professions (often not because it is a real passion but because of other pressures—more on that in a different blog post). In any event, a large number of students take bio and a large number fail. When I have spoken to these students after the fact it turns out that from day one they did not understand what was going on, but assumed everyone else did (since no one was asking for explanations) and so everyone sat with material flying over their heads and the fear of being thought dumb keeping them from asking for the help and explanations they needed. And as much as half the class will fail.

I have even known students of color in particular,  say explicitly that their fear of asking questions or for help in or out of class is about the fear of triggering a stereotype that all Black or Hispanic or immigrant students are dumb. It is pure stereotype threat as described by Claude Steele. The fear of looking dumb trumps the fear of failing.

This then extends to accessing other resources like tutoring centers or faculty office hours or advisers. In the minds of these students being seen in the writing center would suggest a deficit in writing as opposed to a desire to improve oneself.  The cool factor creates a fear of doing anything that might look geeky, or “white” or stupid.

What students don’t understand about college is that it is set up to deal with the lack of knowledge. It expects you to come in knowing not very much and to leave knowing a great deal. But that won’t happen unless students get that message.

The message is that the faculty is there to teach you things you do not know and so asking is part of that process. No one will think you are dumb if you ask. They are more likely to be impressed. The teachers, the advisers –called advisers because their job is to advise you –, the deans, upperclassmen, tutoring centers are all there to answer questions and see that students get the information needed to succeed in college and beyond. And on top of it students pay these salaries with tuition dollars and so it would be dumb not to use what they are paying for. It would be like paying for the hamburger and leaving the meat behind.

Like many other aspects of the college experience this message is not made explicit. Asking needs to be rewarded in class and visibly.  Students need to know that colleges are low-risk environments compared to the “real world” where  making a mistake can get you fired. This is where you can actually learn the right way to make mistakes and build the capacity to overcome the fear and take calculated risks.

The message that most successful entrepreneurs have seven failures behind them is not what we see. We only see and value the successful outcomes and not the painful processes that lead to those successes. College, ironically, is a safe space to fail. Not engaging in college and its resources can lead to leaving college and failing for real. For the student seeking to make it to the top they need to remember that fear begins with an F and ask begins with an A.

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Depression and the Sorrow of Not Graduating

By Marcia Y. Cantarella, PhD, Author, I CAN Finish College: The Overcome Any Obstacle and Get Your Degree Guide

I am not referring here to how sad it is when students do not graduate though that is also very true. What I am referring to is the sorrow that prevents graduation. Over the years I have dealt with a great many students who were simply depressed, sad, stressed –maybe clinically and chronically and maybe as a result of a situation affecting them at the moment.

We are finding now that adolescence for many biological reasons is a time of high emotional vulnerability. Personal life, and sometimes physical issues, can result in emotional stress and distress—these are sometimes difficult to confront because they make one feel out of place or incapable of coping, which can be demeaning.  So we often deny the pain we’re feeling, and then it pops up in a new form.  Sadness over a breakup can pop up as overeating.  Stress about a family matter may lead to drinking too much.  Concern about appearance can show up as exercising to excess or binge eating.  Or there may be a neurobehavioral issue, which shows up as attention deficit disorder (ADD) or predisposes one to addictive behavior or depression.  The reality is sixty-seven percent of students with depression or anxiety do not report it or ask for help.

Social worker-turned-successful-entrepreneur Terrie Williams writes of her own depression and that of many well-known figures in her book Black Pain.  She notes that persons of color or from cultures outside the U.S. are more inclined to suppress these issues, which does not serve us well in the long term.  I have known students who wanted therapy, but feared that if their parents found out, it would be taken as a sign of weakness, or there would be concern that family dirty laundry was being aired among strangers.

Depression is now accepted as a real health issue with physical as well as psychological components and manifestations.  We speak of being depressed when we are sad or down.  But often we are walking around in a depressed state without knowing what it is.  Causes can be bio-physical or situational.  If you feel overwhelmed, want to do nothing but sleep, are avoiding others, abusing drugs or alcohol, eating nothing or too much, or crying at the drop of a hat, then you may be suffering from depression.

Some circumstances in college can trigger situational depression: homesickness, missing old friends, not making new friends fast enough, too much work to do, concerns about money, feeling alone in your confusion, starting a new relationship or ending an old one, and worry about your family. Some may be years of accumulated self-hatred coming from a life of poverty or exposure to racism or sexism or homophobia.  It is not uncommon to be dealing with several of these at one time, when any one can be a bear all by itself.

Campuses offer facilities and resources to deal with these issues, and some report that their counselors and professional staff have seen as many as half of the student body.  Campus resources can range from full medical teams to psychiatrists or social workers, all trained to deal with various kinds of physical, psychological, and emotional issues, both short and long term.  Some resources may be able to offer medication and others therapy, some may be able to do both.  Some schools have ties to other schools or medical facilities where even more extensive resources are provided. It’s a sign of a desire to survive and thrive that a student seeks help.

Seeking help is better than self-medicating.  One of the biggest problems on campuses these days is the use and abuse of prescription drugs to manage mood and productivity.  The risk is high for addiction and permanent damage to both physical and mental health.  While headlines report student deaths, they seldom report the cases of long-term damage from drug use, in which abusers permanently harm themselves, and in many cases harm others.

But also an impact is that students do not graduate. I have known students who in depression went into hiding and did not go to classes or went on bulimic binges or were too drunk to take exams or were in the infirmary dealing with some side effect of depressive self-destructive behavior. They have sabotaged their academic careers often fearing both success and failure. They have created a self-fulfilling prophecy that affirms what they believe about themselves – that they are not worthy. They may act in depressive anger directed at family who have pushed them along when they did not feel internally that they were smart enough or good enough whatever the evidence to the contrary. They may have feared the next step of life after graduation where again they would be put to the test in a new environment of work or graduate school. I have seen students cheat in the second semester of senior year or fail to complete requirements like a final thesis. This is self-destruction—and depression– at work.

We need to be sure that faculty and staff are alert to the signs of student depression in all its forms. We need to make sure resources are not stigmatized and that confidentiality is understood to be complete. We need to realize that students are among the best at wearing the mask that says all is OK when it is not.  We want to avoid the sorrow of not graduating.

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The Academic/Financial Nexus of College Completion

The Academic/Financial Nexus of College Completion

By Marcia Y. Cantarella, PhD, Author, I CAN Finish College: The Overcome Any Obstacle and Get Your Degree Guide

 

For years the common wisdom cited often in places like the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education was that low-income, first generation and students of color in particular dropped out of college for financial reasons. Certainly as the cost of college—even public colleges –has risen dramatically and the weight of debt has taken its toll in a straitened job market, the economics would seem to be a daunting challenge to overcome. Now however, comes a report from “Community College News Now” (May 2, 2012) of a study by the Louisiana Board of Regents showing that academics play a greater role in college attrition than finances. And I am not surprised.

It has for some time been my contention that academic problems were masquerading as financial problems. My evidence is purely anecdotal based on 20 years of student conversations as a dean and senior administrator in a wide range of institutions.

First, not to fully discount the purely financial, I have been very glad to see the rise of programs about financial literacy and have written part of the curriculum for one called “Winning Play$” myself. Students come to college and take on debt without understanding it. They do not understand the implications of interest rates for one. There are students whose families are culturally averse to taking loans but will put tuition on a credit card not realizing that it is, in fact, a very high interest compounding loan. They do not think to correlate the amount of debt to the profession they may end up pursuing. They do not or– if in the gray economy- cannot take advantage of tax breaks for education. They may not know they exist. These same populations may not be able or willing to fill out the FAFSA giving them access to federal financial aid programs.  They may not know about loan forgiveness for certain careers or programs like teaching in high risk or underserved areas. Students try to pay as they go, dropping in and out while deferring higher earnings and often complicating their academic progress.

This takes us to the key point. First generation, low income and students of color, especially coming from urban or poor K-12 systems do not understand the ways in which their academics affect the financial side. Therefore, there has begun to be recognition that required remedial courses most often taken in Community Colleges and public institutions chew up valuable credits that are needed for degree completion. Pell funds only allow for 8 semesters of full time attendance at college. So if a student has both general education requirements to meet and then major requirements the additional remedial work may add credits and time to degree completion which would then use up some of those 8 semesters, leaving some to be then paid out of pocket. Obviously, it would be better if high schools actually graduated students college ready but that is a whole other matter. Given the current reality that students are primarily entering state and city colleges under-prepared we should be able to offer the remediation as non credit bearing in some way or as part of a specially funded summer experience so as to not use up the valuable federal or state funds.

Most students however, do not know that they only have 8 semesters of Pell funding or that the new rules are that they may not use them during the summer. Further they do not know that they are being accessed on the basis of normal progress to a degree. Therefore, if they fail too many classes, have GPAs below 2.0, or drop to part time status they cease to be making normal progress to the degree and risk loss of Pell funds (and often state funds.) If they are lucky enough to have private scholarships those also have rules and usually stipulate that a GPA in the area of 3.0 is a requirement. Now the academic problem becomes the financial problem.

Additionally, when students for whatever reason—work demands, poor grades, being overwhelmed—decide to drop out either from a course or school all together they can create a bigger problem. Legions of financial aid officers, advisers and registrars can attest to the numbers of students who just walk away from a class or a school thinking of themselves as having dropped out. But unless they have told a dean, professor or registrar they are still technically on the rolls and what they get next will be an F (or several) and a bill for courses they think they did not take. The academic again becomes a financial problem. Unless these bills are paid or resolved the student cannot progress further.

Given that the price tag of college keeps going up, students need to be very savvy about how their college dollars are spent. There are ways to address this problem to some degree within our colleges. First is to expand the idea of financial literacy such that students are made very clear about all the processes within a school that can have financial impact and the ramifications and the ways to approach these processes and procedures. This can be part of orientation, on the financial aid website, and in materials designed for this purpose. There can be reminders at key times—the drop/ add period or after midterms or when FAFSAs are due, for example.

Without becoming financial aid experts, which would not work, there is still a role for faculty in helping students navigate financial mine fields. Just knowing where students can find financial information is key. Each professor can also create a relationship with  one financial aid officer to whom they feel they can refer students when the issue seems to be financial.

In discussions with struggling students professors can ask questions that may  uncover financial issues underlying a surface problem such as absences that are job related. The goal is to use one’s instincts to try to avoid a student’s dropping out before the student does it. It has been very helpful to me when students were referred to the dean or advisor’s office because the professor noted danger signs like a lack of engagement or frequent absences. Often we have been able to salvage the academic situation before it became a financial crisis.

Advisers, deans and faculty can offer solutions to academic problems that protect students financially—maybe more forbearance in an absentee policy, offering incompletes, suggesting drops before the drop/ add period ends so a student can change courses, suggesting pass/fail when appropriate, being sure a student is placed properly in courses like math or languages, getting students help like tutoring so they don’t have to drop classes. We need to let them know that we  know the risks they bear so they are more likely to approach us.

Having a more strategic approach to financial literacy that connects the dots between academic performance and actions helps create more willingness for students to get the support and help  they need. College completion is about a complex web of interrelated issues and the financial/ academic nexus is a key one.  Academics may be, in fact, the financial side of college completion

 

 

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A Question of Potential

By Marcia Y. Cantarella, PhD, Author, I CAN Finish College: The Overcome Any Obstacle and Get Your Degree Guide

A long time ago I took on the role as head of the Academic Achievement Program at NYU.  The program was small and targeted Black and Hispanic students in the college. But it was not then clear about whether it was remedial or quite what it was. Giving it some thought the question in my mind was why would Black and Hispanic students who had gotten into NYU in the first place be assumed to need remediation. The idea implied that there was something about them that needed to be fixed. That did not make any sense. And so that was the question that we decided to take on. The positioning of AAP became the program that would prove that Black and Hispanic students could thrive at a predominantly white institution despite what anyone thought ( and to be honest, despite the evidence of lower retention rates for these students.) But we said we were going to disprove this myth that these students could not survive. And so we did.

We took an attitude that was frankly defiant and a bit arrogant. We said that these were in fact high potential students who could go the distance anywhere. And so they did. In fact, most from those early cohorts that I knew well are now PhDs, MDs, JDs, social workers, business leaders and educators. I assume this is true for later cohorts as well. We not only retained students, we showed that they could achieve at full potential.

At Princeton we identified women and minority  students who never thought of themselves as being much and led them to win top honors as Rhodes, Marshall, and Fulbright Scholars among others. They had all come in for the discussion about their potential with the question – “what me, really?” And then they went on to do it.

Over and over I have seen what can happen when students are told that they have actually got lots of potential. They begin to blossom. Infused with that shift in attitude which many have never experienced they begin to walk taller and dream bigger.

A student at Hunter whose dreams were of being a Physical therapist, was spotted by a professor who saw his potential in his lab work. The student is now pursuing his doctorate.

The media representations of people of color has so denigrated the image of the potential for success that it not only seems alien but defiantly black males especially reject the idea of their own promise. Students in the CUNY Black Male Initiative have spoken of the program as their safe space to be smart. They could not have the same conversations or envision their real dreams in the communities they come from because the idea of having potential has been lost. It may have been beaten out of them in unloving schools or by parents whose own aspirations have been shattered.

But there are many of us, including Yvette Jackson, author of the Pedagogy of Confidence who believe that if you infuse students with a sense of confidence and belief in themselves and that someone else believes in them too they can do extraordinary things.

We have seen it over and over. I saw the light shining in his eyes recently when a young black man was accepted into an honors program that he never envisioned for himself. He is brilliant but did not know how much or that he belonged in a community of other brilliant people. When you say the words—heartfelt—“you can do this. Let me show you how…”  miracles happen.

We all have potential far greater than most of us imagine. But for some of us the threshold of imagining is lower than for others. Our national crisis of educational performance may be actually a crisis of confidence.

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Teaching to the workplace: A paradigm shift for faculty

By Marcia Y. Cantarella, PhD, Author of I CAN Finish College: The Overcome Any Obstacle and Get Your Degree Guide

Students now come to college not to get a degree or even knowledge, but to get a job. That is all students—whether at Yale or Phoenix. Vocationally oriented community colleges and for-profit schools have got this piece very right. This reality is driving much of their popularity. This is especially true for first generation, low income and students of color. Their families want them to get the traditional job—doctor, lawyer, businessman.  I  remember one student at Princeton who grew up in the Bronx and was getting his doctorate in bio physics at Columbia and his parents kept asking when he was going to get a real job. They could not understand that his job was to spend time in the library and to sit waiting for his experiments to gel or whatever they were supposed to do. This is not the vision of work that most  families have.

Large research universities and liberal arts colleges are creators of knowledge, but are often slow to adapt to new things themselves.  They create the  trends and then may be the last to jump on the train.  So while the world has changed in term of the workplace and career paths and the financing of education and even who goes to college, the faculty in these institutions have not necessarily caught up. So they may not appreciate the vocational focus and anxiety that students and their families are now bringing to the academy. Part of it is driven by the vocational uncertainty that is now part of the work landscape in ways it was not in the past.

It used to be that if Uncle Joe was hired by IBM  in 1955, he worked there until retirement—maybe moving up along the way—and then got his gold watch after 50 years and went home to play golf. Now when somebody graduates  from college it is likely that they will have as many as 15 jobs and several careers, maybe even one after retirement and maybe a period of unemployment.

My own story is a bit like that. I graduated with a degree from Bryn Mawr in Political Science. I first taught middle school for a year. After that I landed a job in advertising, went on to a position in corporate public affairs and then marketing.  I spent 15 years advancing in the corporate world in jobs I had never envisioned in college.  A pretty typical scenario. Then in my late 30s I switched totally. I took a job at NYU, earned my doctorate there and have been a professor, senior administrator and dean at 4 different schools and  am now consultant and author.

People move around even more now and into fields that did not exist years ago—like social media marketing – hard to believe but 10 years ago there was no facebook or twitter.

How did Ken Chenault, history major, get to be CEO of American Express? Or Gerald Levin, former head of Time Warner, get there as a Religion major. Jamie Dimon CEO at JP Morgan Chase was a Psychology major. Carly Fiorina studied philosophy and medieval history.  The folks in power positions typically have liberal arts degrees and varied majors.  Even college presidents come from diverse majors– Princeton President Shirley Tilghman is a biologist and Brown’s Ruth Simmons did comparative lit—but they all use the same skill sets.

Both faculty and families—key influencers for students,  don’t necessarily understand that people change jobs and careers over the 50 or so years that most people work. If they did not go to college families may not get the translation of skills like critical thinking to the skills that lead to career advancement.  But because the work that faculty do is in the academy they may not appreciate the ways in which the skills they teach translate to the external workplace. And they have not until now been challenged to defend what and how they teach relative to student (and family) vocational aspirations and needs.

Families and students do not realize that employers do not expect students– other than those at entry level in fields like medical data entry–to come in with specific job knowledge. Those hiring at the entry level of the management ranks don’t expect graduates to know  how to do particular processes in a particular firm or field. They do want to know that a potential employee is smart and teachable (good GPA) and can learn the processes and procedures of that firm or industry and of new jobs as one moves up.  They also want to know that a candidate has basic skills like communications, critical thinking, research, problem-solving,  human relations, and organizational/ time management. Those are the skill sets of a liberal arts degree in a well rounded college program.

Some faculty may  understand these things but may not have shared it explicitly.  But today faculty have to be the change agents – different kinds of professors for a different kind of student in different kind of world.

They will have to be the ones who understand that students today need to know how to relate education to work and how to justify the price tag for a philosophy major in a world where college comes at a higher price than it ever has.  They will have to explain that knowing dates and data have merit but that knowing how to find information and analyze that data and write and present a stellar report are going to be the critical skills for getting ahead.

The bottom line is that we will need the teachers who make college relevant– the ones  who will have students know why they are paying for the experience, the ones  who will liberate them to enjoy the learning because they will see that it has some purpose  relative to their vocational aspirations regardless of the discipline.

Here are three strategies to consider for faculty to become the teachers students need now—especially those students who are first generation to go to college at all.

  • First.  Teaching  vocationally  — explaining how skills get applied in  the workplace. It is important to engage students in experiential, applied  and community based learning opportunities to show how disciplines are  applied in the  “real world”.  Students today learn differently.  They learn online, they have shorter  attention spans and so the pure lecture format is not always the best. One  course I taught did not come together until the students had to go into  the community to do projects that helped them see for themselves how the  disparities of social class really functioned beyond the texts I had  assigned.  This  is especially useful for adult learners  who can relate better to experiential learning.  And adult learners or returning students  is a growing number – maybe the majority of students now entering college.

Part of teaching vocationally is to be interdisciplinary and to use teams. Collaboration  with colleagues in different  departments  to team teach is exciting.  Take an example—Civil Rights. What if that were team taught by professors from Economics, History, English and Art.  How cool would that be for a student.  It is how the real workplace functions— in teams of people coming from many different perspectives. Students should be given team based projects where they bring their own diversity of skill and experience to problem-solving on an assignment and they should see this as a workplace simulation.

Teaching vocationally also means using technology  to build technology  skills among students. Students use technology every day.  Those skills can be pushed  in the work assigned. Employers not only check to see if students have an online presence on facebook or linkedin (a clean one) but also how adept they are at using varied forms of social media like tumblr, or doodles to schedule meetings, or powerpoint, or video conferencing, or researching on lexus/nexus  or using excel and other tools as a baseline for employment.

  • Second,  partner with  other college offices –career office, counseling services, even the library.  Faculty can help students to take  advantage of the resources they may not on their own. They  can encourage students to go to events   (often under-attended regardless of how much pizza we serve) where high  profile individuals or alumni will be speaking. This is a networking  opportunity for students. Sometimes  faculty can take the class or make it  part of an assignment.  I used to  make one class session meet in the library prior to assigning final  papers.  Professors can direct a  student to the writing center.  Professors should ask the Career or  Alumni office for a list of alumni who majored in their field and what they have done with their degrees so they can answer the “what to do with  this major question” with real stories.
  • Finally,  we have to make fewer assumptions about  what students know. For example, we cannot assume they know what a      syllabus is. Students may come from backgrounds where asking questions or  asking for help is not valued. So it is important to spare them the pain of having to confess that they don’t know and anticipate the things they may not know. That is one of the things I do in my book, I CAN Finish College. I give the answers to questions students may not even know to  ask. We need to let students know they can come to a professor. One friend  of mine was a graduate student in sociology and still did not know what a  variable was and fortunately the professor was very wise and realized from  the glazed expression on my friend’s face that she was in trouble and  invited her to come meet with her. My friend went on to earn a doctorate and  head a division of a major federal agency. But the key is to take the onus  from the student and spare  them the embarrassment. Further it gets them into the habit of asking questions and seeking collaborators which is what the smartest leaders do in the  workplace.

The term vocation is often a dirty word in higher education.  But  we won’t really  help our students today unless we can connect school work with job work, especially now that the public considers jobs to be the rationale for education.  It is essential that  faculty take up the challenge to make college  vocationally relevant and clear to students who will mostly be working outside the academy.

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And We Wonder Why Black Males struggle….

By Marcia Y. Cantarella, PhD, Author of I CAN Finish College: The Overcome Any Obstacle and Get Your Degree Guide

Not surprisingly I found myself in the midst of a discussion yesterday on the tragic shooting of Trayvon Martin—an unarmed young black male. As far as anyone seems to know now his crime was being black and wearing a hoodie while walking.

What struck me though, was that the conversation was among a very special group. One had a friend who was close to Trayvon and felt a personal tie to the tragedy. The others included a student recently admitted to Yale’s doctoral program in biochemistry, a candidate to FMU’s doctoral program in history, a Leon Cooperman Scholar in Economics, a McNair Scholar and others of similar accomplishments. These were the Black men of the Hunter College (CUNY) Black Male Initiative.

Stunning was the thought that any one of these extraordinary young men could have been Trayvon—wearing a hoodie and walking home. Over my career in higher education I have had the honor of knowing so many like them. Some now doctors—both medical and PhD’s, some corporate executives like my own son,  some now fathers and husbands, but all truly talented. However, when I was likely to have first encountered them they were in their late teens or young adulthood. They wore baggy pants or sweats and sometimes hoodies. Their brilliance and capacity was not visible from any external measure.

What is the emblem that these young men—far from thuggish—have to wear to signify to all that they are benign, non-threatening, maybe really smart and thoughtful and kind.

Claude Steele the scholar who identified the phenomenon of stereotype threat  and  author of Whistling Vivaldi writes of the story that lead to the title of the book—a young Black scholar’s need to signal to the world that he is not a rapper, but a cultured person meaning no harm.  So he whistled Vivaldi when walking down streets where white women might shy away or older persons might move a bit faster in the other direction.

What must it take from these young men’s very souls to know that they are so despised for no reason that they must find ways, like whistling Vivaldi,  to tell the world that they are just like everyone else, trying to work hard  and get ahead. Do we wonder given just the micro-insults and micro-inequities why these men might not be depressed? Might they not be also just a little bit angry—but socialized to not act on that anger, so it becomes directed inward. Is the hoodie itself a reflection of a desire to hide—to become invisible? It is hard to succeed when you think the world thinks so little of you that you deserve to die just for walking home in your hoodie  with a soda and a box of candy.

My heart ached yesterday for my smart and brave young men. May they stay safe.

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Winning the Economic Equity War One Book at a Time

 

By Marcia Y. Cantarella, PhD, Author, I CAN Finish College: The Overcome Any Obstacle and Get Your Degree Guide

Reading has been on my  brain of late. Not that it is anything new.  I am a voracious reader and have always been. As a child I was one of those obnoxious kids who won the summer library reading competition year after year. On the other hand it masked my huge shyness. I could hide in a book and not interact with others. Fortunately, I got over that. I can talk to folks and curling up with a good mystery is still fun but not the center of my life. But what has been like breathing for me is clearly not for far too many. And it is that which has been occupying my thinking.

But as a child I was read to from infancy. And my grandkids are now reading books in the 3rd generation. Sendak’s A Hole is To Dig was a favorite for me, my son and my granddaughter.  Two of my grandkids are in a school district where from toddlerhood they were able to take out packets of 10 books each with a goal of reading 1000 by first grade. One made it to 600. That of  course means that her parents had to read them 1800 times and we can all pretty much recite “When You Give a Mouse a Cookie.” She is reading Harry Potter at 2nd grade.

There are the statistics that say that a student reading below grade level at 3rd grade is far more likely to drop out of high school. So we know now who will be hanging out on the street, in jail, on welfare. It is the kid who at 5th grade reads at 2nd grade level. That strikes me as really short sighted and stupid.

There was an appalling (to me) story in the NY Times Education section on Cliff Notes videos which  totally massacre Shakespeare in every way in an attempt to be colloquially accessible to current students. So Lady Macbeth is exhorted to “Turn that frown upside down”. That is playing to a dumbing down rather than a raising up. It does not move the skills set forward. It is a form of defeatism or worse, a form of sabotage.

This week I heard several stories about students– young men especially– who will not read. They ask what is the point and why are there so many words and why does it take so long to get to the point.

Then there are the kids who have no books at home, no library they can get to easily and for whom television is their only entertainment. In the game of life who is likely to win.

Employers tell us that communications skills are essential– the ability to write presentations, reports, speeches, memos all move work forward, make sales, advance careers. A student getting to college is likely to have to read hundreds of pages a week. (Not anymore the 700 or so that we were expected to read back in the day when I was an undergrad at Bryn Mawr and walked to school barefoot up hill in the snow both ways.) College students should be writing 10, 15, 20 page papers with ease. A powerpoint is not the same as a well structured, well supported thoughtful prose argument. Not to say that being able to condense material and present it well are not valuable skills. They are essential. But even a powerpoint has to begin somewhere and that is likely to be the written word, a report summarized, research produced, texts of some sort that have been digested and interpreted. That is to say that someone had to do some reading.

In a recent panel discussion among college alumni about how their majors affected their stellar and diverse careers, all noted that the biggest asset (from two English majors, one Classics major, one economics major) was the work they did reading and writing. Being able to absorb and process lots of information was the product of voluminous reading. Being able to communicate cogently in writing had been essential to their advancement to law partner, head of a state dept of health, HR Director, and Assistant Director of Education for a state government. Everyone of them was grateful for their language skills born of reading and writing.

My son, an advertising executive, uses books all the time to reflect on management theory, consumer behavior, trends in the marketplace, and interesting ideas floating around in Malcolm Gladwell’s brain.  But he did not love reading until college when he discovered the tomes of Tom Clancy and devoured them regardless of their heft.

Just hanging out with colleagues or watching movies and television involves some degree of awareness of literary canon. I note all the time quips on TV that reference works of great literature that should be common to all educated students. If you miss it then you have missed part of the entertainment. You are not an insider, in on the witty joke. Not being an insider can be death to a career. In management ranks it would be assumed that you have a glancing awareness of the New York Times and/ or the Wall St. Journal. Maybe to hitch it up a notch you might reference the New Yorker or the Economist. You are assumed to be a reader.

But perhaps more important than the vocational which  is at the forefront of everyone’s mind, is the sheer human power of opening the mind to the world of reading and writing. It is a space where you can connect with others literally and figuratively, find your own identity mirrored in the experiences of others across history, ethnicity, nationality or religion. A clear example is in the powerful new documentary called “Stories from an Undeclared War”. You may remember Erin Gruwell’s story from the Freedom Writers movies tarring Hilary Swank as Erin Gruwell. The documentary of this incredible story features Gruwell’s 150 at-risk students from Long Beach, California. The film follows their story from the first day of freshman year in 1994 to present day.

What Erin Gruwell did was help students to find their voices and then to connect in their humanity with Anne Frank, or victims from Sarajevo, appreciate literature as a vehicle to understand and engage experience and give credence to their own feelings and their own power.

So if those who are low income are not taught how to read–indeed why to read and value it then we have immediately cut off their access to a better life in every respect.. And I am not suggesting that everyone has to love the Brontes. Boys may prefer illustrated novels, or action heroes as my son did. Romance is fine, mystery or vampires are fine. Bless Harry Potter– or Tom Clancy or Twilight (all now also captured in film.) The best films are often wonderful books first. If you want to be a film maker you need to read. If you want to have a voice you have to be able to communicate and the best way to learn to write is to read.

I have been excited by work I have been doing. I just joined the board of the READ Alliance which connects pre- third graders and teen tutors. The teens are paid to teach adoring little ones to read and love it. The little kids are coming up to grade level so that they can achieve this make or break skill. The teens reinforce their own skills, make some money and maybe find a career.  The Eagle Academy for boys where I chair the advisory board is planning an event for this spring that will put two books in the hands of thousands of young men and have them exposed to lively discussions by authors and celebrities and others who love these texts.  I start every day by turning on my computer and by clicking on the child literacy link on the hunger site. (www.hungersite.org) I feel like I am putting a book in a child’s hand. If we lose the literacy war, we lose the education war, and then the economic equity war. We just lose. Didn’t Shakespeare say something about for want of a nail… Oh, you never read that one.

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