Supporting struggling students

Since finals are either here or fast approaching in many universities and colleges, I would like to encourage everyone to keep an open communication with your professor, if you are a student, and with your students, if you are professor. As for the latter, I would also like to encourage faculty to be proactive in identifying when a student is in a very stressful situation, be willing to have an open and potentially difficult conversation, and seek the appropriate resources for this student. It is critical to be sympathetic and try to be supportive, especially if you were the one he or she trusted and sought help from. When a student comes to us for help or just to vent, while it may put us in a very uncomfortable situation and helping them sometimes presents a great challenge, it gives us a huge opportunity to ensure that they stay on their academic trajectory. Transforming the lives of individuals in academia means many times being in uncomfortable situations and putting ourselves out there as well as speaking up for others who do not have a voice or whose voice has been silenced by prejudices, shame, or a system that has failed them. Sometimes we as professors or individuals who have been raised in a very individualistic culture are afraid to have our students come to us with personal struggles in fear of crossing boundaries and want to send them off immediately to someone else or staff or student resource office. Many times, when we do this we find out the student never followed our advice because they were too ashamed to go to someone else just to be ignored again or be half-heard and be dispatched to someone else. We, without realizing it, have aggravated the situation and contributed to the failing system that let the student down in the first place. Many times these students are first generation and low income students who are foreign to higher education or are students who parents have put such high expectations on them that they are afraid to seek help and appear weak. In either case, they are terrified and feel lost and disenfranchised. Sending these students off to someone else before having a good understanding of their situation can be detrimental to them even if they go see the person we recommended because, without a sufficient understanding of the situation, rather than getting the proper help they need, they might get reassured that they are alone, no one cares, or they don’t belong. In such a case, they might ultimately give up without being given a chance to bounce back. Thus once we are in this situation where a student reaches out to us for help or in desperation, we have to be brave and do our best to hear them, inquire more, and seek out resources for them even if after hearing them we might be devastated by their realities. We can be that link between the student making it successfully or completely dropping out and even though it is tough we must help them and not turn our backs on them.

We as a country are witnessing a huge rise in education cost and therefore and increasing number of homeless students who are struggling to make ends meet. For many of us this is something that we just hear in the news and worry about for few seconds, as it is likely foreign to us. For others it may be something we see every day but it may not hit us until we have this difficult situation in front of us and feel powerless. This was the experience I had last week and I must say I broke inside as the student, embarrassed and with teary eyes, recounted her situation and answered my questions. After hearing her story, I had a knot in my throat and was at the verge of breaking periodically for the next set of days.

She had been missing many classes and had quite a few assignments missing. She came to talk to me because she wanted to know if she still had a chance to pass my class even with a D. When I asked her why she had missed so many classes similar to what she did last semester in another class I had her, she broke down and was embarrassed to say anything. (However last semester she never came to see me or talk with me even though I sent her a few emails). As she tried to stop crying and say something but could not get a word out or stop crying, I could tell that she was ashamed and didn’t really want to talk. Eventually she told me that it was because she couldn’t sleep at night and that she had been going through a very tough time for the last year or so.  In inquiring more information, I learned that she was and had been sleeping in the school library and staying there until it closed and then she would wander off into the streets until the library opened up again early in the day. Apparently, her parents are divorced and don’t get along. Her dad, who had been supporting her, kicked her out of his house because he was very upset at her mother and said that he did not want to support her anymore since she was over 18. She said “after talking with my mom one day, he came in and said you are an adult and can support yourself so I need you to move out tomorrow because I cannot support you anymore and don’t want to”.  Her mother lives 50 miles away and she has no car or way of getting to school if she lives with her mother. She said she had some money when this happened but it was either pay her tuition or pay an apartment so she picked the former.  As a first generation low income student she had a full scholarship and was living in the dorms her first two years. But after her first year she found out that to graduate as an engineer she would need to take an extra year of classes and since she only had a scholarship for 4 years (and neither her nor her parents had the money to pay for this extra year) she decided to double up and take an overload with many difficult math and engineering courses. She did terrible and lost her scholarship and then had to work to pay her tuition and live with her dad. But since her two younger siblings had full scholarships for college she has felt like a failure and a burden to her parents and thus did not ask her dad to allow her stay or question his decision. She said, “I just packed my backpack and put my clothes in plastic bags and left.”

Her two younger siblings are in the same university, both have scholarships, and live in the dorms. She stayed with them before sporadically and only for a few days at a time but both of them cannot really help her anymore as they both have multiple roommates. Her brother who has five roommates allows her to keep her clothes in his dorm and take a shower once per week. She said “my mom tells me to ask my siblings to let me stay with them in their dorms but she does not understand that this is not possible and that they will get in trouble.” She understands that it’s difficult for her siblings to help her and does not want to bother them or worry her mom. Her situation and the lack of sleep has caused her to be in and out of many jobs and has been without a job for the last few weeks. She said that this situation has her very depressed and with anxiety, “I am embarrassed to walk into class and be around my classmates because I don’t want them to know my situation.’’ When I asked her, what was she going to do during the week of finals and if I could help her and she reply “please just tell me I have a chance. I don’t need your help, I just a chance. I have let everyone in my life down and I don’t want to let you down again. I dropped 2 classes and I plan to put most of my effort in this class. The library is open 24 hours during final exams, so I don’t have to wander in the street and will be able to sleep and get my studying done”.

She has not been doing good in the last two years. However, from my perspective as her professor, she seems to do relative well in the exams for someone who’s not attending class or turning in most of her assignments. Last time I had her in class, she did incredibly well on the final exam even though she did not attend many classes. Therefore, I know she has a lot of potential and is very bright.

While I had a knot in my throat and had to hold back from crying, after I fully understood her situation, I got this urge to bring her to my home but was afraid of not following proper protocol. I know what it is to be extremely poor and I know what it is to struggle to get an education. Thus it really hurt me to see that my student was going through this. I was clueless on what to do other than to give her verbal encouragement. Once she left I felt so powerless yet I knew I had to do whatever I could to get her the proper support and help. It was late and most university offices were closed by the time she left my office, so I reached out to many people via email. Asking them to please point me to the correct university mechanism that can help this student or if they could do something to help her to please let me know. To my surprise the Dean of Student Affairs and the student service staff immediately responded and I was up until 1 AM exchanging emails with this Dean who sent her staff to meet my student at the library and provide immediate assistance. The Dean’s last email that day said “Dr. Camacho thank you very much for reaching out to us and connecting us with your student. She has had her immediate needs taken care of and will spend the next couple of days completely focusing on your class. I will meet with her tomorrow and discuss the next steps and support.” The next day in the morning at 10 AM I received an email update from this Dean and she said “We will provide housing for next semester and have a plan to ensure she graduates next semester successfully.”

A few days later, she walked into my classroom to take my exam and, while she still had the same clothes, she had a smile and said thank you as she handed me her exam. With a huge weight off her shoulders, I could tell that she had been able to study efficiently for the final and impressed me even more than the last time she took a final exam from me!

One final note: the possible exception to this rule of listening carefully before sending the student anywhere is likely regarding sexual assault. At our university, as soon as a student begins to tell us about any such allegations, we are mandated to end the conversation and walk the student over to the Dean of Student Affairs to make sure due process is done.

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