Competency C: Impact of Identity, Culture, and Systems on Students’ Experiences

Throughout the CSSA program in almost every course, we’ve talked about how the interaction between student identities and cultures and the institutional and societal system can impact students’ development and growth, their perspectives and worldview, and their experiences of college. From examining my own cultural perspectives in AHE 599, CSSA First Year Transition, to looking at incoming students in AHE 599, First Year Student Programs and Philosophies, to theorizing about students in AHE 552, Student Development Theory I and II, the CSSA program has prepared me to understand this impact. I know, however, that I will be learning about student identity, cultural heritage, and institutional and societal systems for the rest of my life, as true understanding of the entire topic may never be possible. It is within my reach to walk down the path of understanding in these two years and to continue to grow with each student interaction, each learning opportunity, and each relationship I build with someone who identifies differently than me.

In the classroom and outside of the classroom, I learn about these issues from the experiences of people, whether those are my colleagues and cohort members, my instructors, or the students with whom I interact. Early on in my advising practice in Career Services, I met with a male senior of Samoan heritage from Hawaii. I learned an incredible amount about his worldview derived from his cultural background during our hour-long interviewing practice appointment. I wrote extensively about this interaction in a paper for TCE 530, Fundamentals of Counseling, which can be found here: Multicultural Counseling Competencies. In AHE 552, Student Development Theory I, several of my cohort members shared insights about their own racial identity development as we discussed the racial identity development theories of Cross (1991), Helms (1995), Ferdman and Gallegos (2001), Kim (2001), and Horse (2001). In AHE 520, Multicultural Issues in Higher Education, we spent each week teaching each other about a different aspect of identity that could impact our students’ experiences in college, including religion, socio-economic status, age, and gender. AHE 599, Disability Issues, allowed me to focus on one aspect of identity for an entire term, with the experiences of students with disabilities illuminated by doing my own research as well as hearing from those in the class who identified as having a disability. In WS 535, Feminist Teaching and Learning, several students shared the ways in which their socio-economic status negatively impacted their undergraduate careers. Again and again, I’ve been presented with others’ and my own identities and cultures bumping up against the institution and the society, discrimination and oppression emerging as the result.

As I learn from others about difference, including identity, culture, and systemic discrimination, I am aware of the danger in asking an individual to educate me about a group to which that individual belongs. I am only interested in learning about that individual’s experience, not generalizing the experience to all who share that identity. It is also a danger to ask those with cultural and identity differences from myself to educate me, because it is my responsibility to educate myself. Only in relationship, in friendship, can this practice be a fruitful way of celebrating diversity and difference and sharing with others.

There are many reasons why students don’t succeed in college. But it seems that systemic racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, religious oppression, and other discrimination against subordinated identities and cultures is definitely one of these reasons. In higher education, we have the opportunity to overturn these “isms”, to actively change the system that prevents students from thriving, to encourage and increase the confidence of students who may have received messages throughout their lives that they are not capable. This task is our job, our responsibility, and our burden. Because it’s hard. It’s hard to work against an institution, a society, of privilege, where those in power are of the dominant culture, the dominant race, the dominant class, and the dominant worldview. I look forward to taking on the challenge. I take it on each day. But I always doubt that one person can truly make a real difference. I’m reminded that I will never know the ways I impact the students I serve. Those students may do incredible things, and maybe I contributed in some way to those achievements. In this way, I wonder at the power of interactions between people and of meaningful relationships.

4 Responses to “Competency C: Impact of Identity, Culture, and Systems on Students’ Experiences”

  1. Melissa Yamamoto says:

    I would like expand upon your last paragraph. What are some specific things you can do as a Student Affairs professional to “overturn these “isms”, to actively change the system that prevents students from thriving, to encourage and increase the confidence of students who may have received messages throughout their lives that they are not capable?”

    • I think, looking at the macro level, we should be continuously scanning our institutions for policies or procedures that discriminate against certain groups, examining our programs for discriminatory content, scrutinizing our events for accessibility and inclusivity. And if we see something that could be discriminatory or exclude certain groups or individuals, we need to say something, we need to do something about it. Whether that means changing language on a survey or canceling an event because we realize there is no way for a student with mobility limitations to participate, we must bring these issues to everyone’s attention and take action.
      Looking at the micro level to the individual student, it is important to have difficult conversations with students about oppression, discrimination, privilege, and power to enable them to continue those conversations with others, to “pay those forward”, and to encourage more and more people to work actively against discrimination and oppression in their various communities and institutions. When students are aware of the systems, they can more readily see where they fit into those systems and how they contribute to the perpetuation of imbalance. The more aware they are, the more likely they will be to take action.

  2. Melissa Yamamoto says:

    I think you are right that we need to be constantly looking at the macro level to determine if we’ve placed any barriers in the way. At the same time, it is sometimes difficult to do when you don’t know what you don’t know. I think it’s important that we continue to increase our own awareness, not matter how painful that may be, so that we can continue to be more effective. When you know better, you do better.

  3. Anne Lapour says:

    It was nice reading your paper again; it certainly speaks to the myriad ways a student’s cultural background comes into play during the college experience.

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