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It’s a Different World: From the Trailer Park to the Ivory Tower

August 18, 2019 Amanda Morales Assistant Director for Resident Assistant Selection and Training

My earliest memory regarding the concept of college was watching a show called It’s A Different World. Sprawled out on the floor in the living room of my family’s single-wide trailer in rural South Carolina, I learned about college for the first time through the eyes of Dwayne Wayne, Ron, Denise, Jalessa, Mr. Gaines, Whitley, and everyone else who attended or worked at Hillman College.

I think what first intrigued me about the show was the theme song, belted out by Aretha Franklin. In one version of the opening credits, the action starts by panning over students partaking in all kinds of activities; laughing, marching, studying, playing sports, stepping and more. It showed a place where people were learning and happy.  “It’s a different world (ooh ooh), than where you come from, yes, it is now, yeah!”

My world, produced by dirt roads, generational poverty, lack of healthcare, limited educational access, and childhood memories that could have been taken out of Southern Gothic novels, was drastically unlike the one portrayed on the show. Their world fascinated me. My world, well… was different.

The biggest thing that drew me to the show—and the idea of college—was that everyone there seemed to care about school and thought that getting a good education was important. Serving as my respite, school was a place where teachers were kind, meals were good, books were everywhere, friends were made, and roaches were limited. My teachers taught me that there was a vast world outside of my one-stoplight town. I also learned that, if I did well, I could go to a college like Hillman and get out of said one-stoplight town.

Move-in day at college was a momentous and terrifying experience. Stacked with the high expectations of my family as the first person to go to college was also the fear of failure. Before I ever entered a classroom, I was convinced that, because of who I was and where I was from, I stood no chance. How could trailer park trash compete with classmates whose parents (and grandparents and everyone else in their family) had attended college and landed jobs with insurance and retirement plans? Classmates who bought their books without having to wait on refund checks. Classmates with more than a week’s worth of clothes. Classmates who didn’t bring their extended family (aka the many roaches that found their way into the few bags and boxes I’d packed) on move-in day. Classmates who walked around campus with confidence in where they were, what they were doing, and how they were doing it.

The Ivory Tower, as it turned out, was a beast to be reckoned with. It was vastly different from the tv show that initially inspired my journey there. Every other semester I changed my major. I actually had to study to get good grades (who knew?). Everything was expensive. An eating disorder and dealing with past hurts impacted my work. There was a period during college when, looking back, I struggled long and hard with binge drinking. I waited too long to check out the counseling center and didn’t find out I could get food stamps until my senior year. Fear-based procrastination and imposter syndrome kicked my entire ass. I ended up temporarily quitting at one point. Not because of grades or anything. I just didn’t believe in myself. I was also physically exhausted from four jobs and a full load of classes.

Somehow, at the same time, I thrived in college. When I returned to college after a hiatus of waitressing and cleaning toilets to save money to go back, I limited myself to two or three jobs. I became a RA and student leader in various campus organizations. Though barely, sometimes, I always kept my GPA above a 3.0. I traveled and learned and partied and made some of the best friends I’ve ever known. I even messed around and was voted homecoming queen (still don’t understand that one). Honestly, though, I was more proud of my four-year streak as the women’s ping pong intramural champion, a pastime I’d taken up while working the desk at our university center. Prouder still that I finally walked across the stage and celebrated with my family over a KFC meal deal, my Momma crying a little every so often.

I ended up going to grad school and pursuing a career in higher ed. Like so many in the field, I became inspired by the people that worked on campus who helped and supported me along my way. My work study supervisors who taught me to play ping pong, create mail merges, make copies for professors and other work studyish tasks. The ladies in the caf who always let me in after I had used up all my meals for the week. My bosses in housing—an amazing set of folks that I learned so much from. Everyone in the English and History departments (they were my people, lol). My advisors who put up with my inability to make up my mind. The janitors who looked out when I needed toilet paper or a cigarette or a friendly person to talk/cry to. Campus Police for holding me accountable that one time. The counseling center. My Dean of Students… without whom the trajectory of my life might not have spun this way. She saw in me a light I never knew I had and created opportunities I didn’t know I needed to be successful in a field I knew little about. These people—and so many more—were key in helping me succeed and graduate.

I say all that to say this: college is hard. Not just for poor folks, either. I know it’s rough for a variety of reasons. For some, it is a completely different world from the one they lived in prior to move-in day. The work we do as student affairs practitioners is important. Yes, it can sometimes be daunting and thankless and lowkey doesn’t pay super well (in my experience). But, it’s damned important. It’s also fun, rewarding and meaningful most days. In each interaction we have with students there is an opportunity to be kind, supportive, and helpful. There’s a moment during which you can positively influence their growth and development. We never fully know what students are going through or what they have overcome in the past. What we do know is that we are in the position to enhance their future and challenge them to become a better version of themselves every day. 

Looking back on my time as a student and working in housing, I think that there are some key ways in which we can assist students who grew up in poverty (or any student, really). While none of the following is groundbreaking, I do have a few takeaways that I’d like to share with you:

  1. Be nice. Nothing turns a student off quicker than a bad attitude. You may have been asked the same question or dealt with the same issue a hundred times, but for the student you are helping may be facing the issue for the first time and in need of your help. Be nice, folks. It really makes a difference!
  2. But don’t be too nice. You can’t do everything for students, but you can challenge and support them (shout out to Sanford). Set firm expectations and push students to meet them.
  3. Advocate for your students. A-D-V-O-C-A-T-E, for those of you in the back. Stand up for them and work hard to create the best environment and experiences for them that you can.
  4. Celebrate their success. This is so important. Positive reinforcement and recognition go a long way in cultivating strong student success outcomes.  One of my students had a really hard class this past semester. She finally got an A on an assignment—that A is posted on my office door. Doesn’t matter if it’s large or small, meaningful, individualized recognition can go a long way!
  5. Offer students food if you can. Especially if you hear them say they are hungry. Those who don’t need it usually won’t take you up on it. Those who do will be thankful. If the bottom of Mazlow’s hierarchy isn’t being met they can’t climb the pyramid of success and self-actualization. You can also give students that you know that struggle a heads up whenever there is leftover food at events. There was one bad semester in school when I was literally starving myself to save money, living off bologna, ramen and bootleg cereal. Any and all free food was gratefully accepted.
  6. Work on really knowing how growing up in poverty affects students. Everything hits different when you grow up poor. Everything. Too much to go into here but check out Restricted Opportunity Theory or other theories on poverty. Those focused on poverty as a systemic issue are insightful as there are often many intersecting issues that create and promote poverty.
  7. Create opportunities for student growth. Figure out the types of experiences your students need and how your office/department/division can provide that experience. Is your desk worker a marketing major? Do you need a revitalized marketing campaign for your office? Two birds, one stone. If you can, provide money, room and/or board in exchange for their work.
  8. Push yourself. Stay up to date on higher ed and student trends. Take advantage of conferences, journals and whatever developmental opportunities to become a better professional.  Not only will you enhance your own knowledge and skills, but you’ll also be setting a good example for your students.
  9. Be vulnerable with your students. Connect with them outside of the standard office-oriented interactions. You may be able to inspire them by being candid about your journey through college. Remember that boundaries are important though. They don’t need to know about… well, you know what they don’t need to hear. Use good judgement on this one, folks.
  10. Be nice to yourself. You can’t be 100% for everyone all the time. Some days you have it and some days you don’t. Physiologically we tend to dwell on the bad more than we celebrate the good as a survival technique to avoid negative experiences in the future. That can set you up for negative thought patterns which are no fun for anyone. Celebrate yourself and give yourself a break when needed. USE your vacation days!

Long story short—be a good support system for your students. They need you. We need you. The Trailer Park, the Ivory Tower, and everything in between needs you.

PS--On a final note, I encourage you to find and hug a res life pro. As someone who has pretty much never lived off campus since freshman year, I want to state that while we love our work, we can get tired living where we work and working where we live. Sometimes we need a hug. Or a coffee. Or a shot. Or all of the above. Just depends on the day.

Thanks for reading!

Amanda Morales grew up in rural South Carolina. In her free time, she enjoys hanging out with family, traveling, fishing and reading. Amanda’s current research interests are in educational access/equity, poverty theory, and student leadership development. Morales obtained a BS in History from Francis Marion University and a MS in College Student Personnel Services from Arkansas State University. Sunsets, long hikes, deep conversations and anything fun are a few of her favorite things.