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Advocating for Students: More than Just the Numbers

This guest post is from Karen Henderson, NCTE’s Higher Education  policy analyst from Montana. 

Karen 2014This entry is in response to the question, “How do you advocate for students?” My colleagues and I advocate for students daily, in dozens of ways, and often the results of students’ work and our advocacy get lost among the noise of daily life.

Last fall, I had the privilege of representing my college as an officer of the faculty senate at the November Board of Regents meeting in Bozeman. This included a Wednesday night dinner with the other officers of state college and university senates. Traditionally, at that meeting, members determine the topic to be presented at the “Breakfast with the Regents” meeting the next morning, a time when faculty and regents mingle and visit in an informal venue. We decided to focus on success stories of students, those stories that the regents might not otherwise hear.

I spent a restless night thinking about which student’s story I should tell; it wasn’t a lack of stories that caused me sleeplessness but a plethora of stories to choose from. I wanted to do justice to so many students whose stories of success belied the incredible challenges they experienced as they worked toward degree completion. Finally, I settled on three students, two whom I would mention briefly, and a third whom I would focus attention upon.

At breakfast the next morning, I sat at a table with one of the regents, a couple of administrators from the universities, and a couple of faculty colleagues. I felt nervous about speaking in front of such an esteemed audience, even if my story would be one of several. I looked around the ornate room and marveled at the fact that I found myself returned to my alma mater, not as the nontraditional, awkward student I once was, but as a member of faculty, an officer of my senate. My own story might have been inspirational too, but instead, when my turn came, I spoke about Annella, TK, and Tom.

“I want to tell you about Annella,” I said. “She’s in her 80s and is seeking an associate’s degree from Helena College. I met her when she was in the honors seminar that I teach, and I’ve had her in class twice more since then. I also serve as her academic advisor, and friend. She is a wonderful, motivated, curious intellectual who strives to continue learning even at her advanced age. She is determined to graduate.

“I could also tell you about TK, a proud, Native American woman. She graduated with a degree in diesel technology last May. Aside from the fact that she’s a female who studied in a heavily male-dominated profession, she is also an addict in recovery, a convicted felon who was determined to change her future, for her sake and for that of her family. After graduation, she got a job in her field and she continues to work and raise her family as a high-functioning member of society.

“I could have told you about those women, but instead I chose to tell you about Tom. I met Tom a couple years ago, in developmental writing. That is a below-college-level writing course. About that time, Helena College signed an articulation agreement with the University of Montana’s Davidson Honors College, and I was inviting students to apply to the Pathway. Tom was the first student to apply, and the selection committee was unanimous in its decision to welcome Tom into the Pathway. Since that time, Tom has completed the honors seminar, bio-psychology and college biology for honors credits, and he will complete organic chemistry for honors in the spring, before he graduates and transfers to the university’s Davidson Honors College, where he plans to study chemistry. By the way, Tom was in my developmental writing class because he took an alternate route to college: he was a graduate of Access to Success, the alternative high school that shares space on our campus, but now he is completing a rigorous honors curriculum and in the fall, he will go . . . .”

At this point, I became a little emotional and lost my composure. I took a breath and completed my thought, “to the Davidson Honors College in Missoula.”

I fell into my chair, inelegantly, as a somber silence settled for a moment before the room erupted with applause. I knew, in that moment, that I had accomplished my goal: I had given names and human form to three of the thousands of students who are usually represented as numbers and statistics, and I helped every person in that room remember why it was that he or she first got involved in education.

Karen L. Henderson was a nontraditional college student who began her college education at Montana State University at the age of 41. Today, she teaches writing (developmental, college writing, creative writing) and honors seminar at Helena College University of Montana. She considers herself an indefatigable champion of the underdog.