November 21, 2016
If graduate programs in higher education and student affairs really wanted students to reflect, I’d highly recommend a cross-country road trip. (I want to recognize that there’s serious economic and citizenship privilege in that statement). After completing an ACUHO-I Internship in the Pacific Northwest, I drove the entire way back to UConn, stopping to visit my parents and continuing along the rest of the way to Connecticut. During my solo drive I had the space to reflect (while still safely operating a motor vehicle) about my experience over the summer, and on my experiences over the last few years within higher education.
I became stuck on the history and context of the institutions at which I have worked. I often find myself thinking solely in a contemporary context in my work, and have tried to be intentional about understanding more about how regional and institutional history shape our current practices. I tried to be intentional about incorporating this socio-historic understanding in my search for a summer internship. I ended up at Willamette University, “the oldest university in the West.” During my interview last winter, I specifically asked how their history shaped the institution today and was told that it plays out in the motto, “not unto ourselves alone are we born.”
After spending a summer in Oregon, I realized how directly the history of Willamette and the Pacific Northwest in general shaped the realities of the work today. Ideals of American Exceptionalism and Individual Liberty run wild in the region, and as a personal note, I think its most recent iteration can be found with the Portland Hipster. Lost in that narrative however, was the ugly history of the west and its implications for today (check out The Atlantic article, The Racist History of Portland, the Whitest City in America). Practitioners at Willamette were upfront with this history and willing to engage in conversations around the realities in their work today, especially in creating access to their institution.
In my time at the University of Minnesota, the legacy of race and racism on campus continues to play out with modern student activism. Recent actions taken by activists are grounded in a deep narrative of the university, specifically calling the events of the 1960’s. In 2015 a group of activists took over the President’s Office. This action was nearly parallel to the infamous Morrill Hall Takeover in 1969. During the first Morrill Hall takeover students received institutional agreement on three demands that have had long-lasting impact on campus climate today. Without an awareness of this history, student affairs professionals and higher education administrators may fail to see the historic and systemic depth of these actions.
As I finish out my final year at UConn, I continue to seek a more complex and nuanced understanding of the context of my work. Through practicum experience and research with a campus-community partnership, my understanding of both the history and current climate around social justice within Connecticut continues to grow and inform my practice.
As I contemplate that the next stage of my career, I am continually reminded of a lesson from my undergraduate Leadership Minor: CONTEXT MATTERS. At my next institution, I know I will have to spend some quality time in the archives with some history books to build this understanding, but now it is imperative to understand the experiences of our students today.
If you are curious about some of the stories I alluded to check out the links below:
University of Minnesota- Morrill Hall Takeover
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Garret is a second-year Master's student in the University of Connecticut Higher Education and Student Affairs Program. His areas of interest are in college student civic and moral development, civic engagement, and service-learning.
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