I am amazed by the amount of learning and growth that has occured since I wrote this paper. I was really struggling with Janet Helms’ Model of White Identity and now I completely understand what she was saying!
Student Development Autobiography #2
The events leading up to my move to Oregon, and the months of rigorous academic work for my graduate program, have provided what I hope will be an interesting snapshot of my present day development. While searching for relevant theories to apply to my graduate experience I found that most of the theories we have studied focus primarily on traditional undergraduate development. Having written about my undergraduate experiences in the previous autobiography I have found the process of reflection to be considerably more challenging for this assignment.
University of Illinois at Chicago
To paint a clear picture of why I am here in Oregon I feel it is necessary to look back at my time in Chicago as a student affairs professional at the University of Illinois at Chicago. My tenure at UIC lasted for more than 2 years. My task was a simple one, market and promotes the UIC Wellness Center’s services and programs. I soon became aware that the environment at UIC was becoming toxic for my professional development. I was involved in several campus committees, participated in intramurals, and was involved with planning a lot of campus events, but something was wrong. I felt like I was being marginalized. Maslow states that secrecy, censorship, dishonesty, and blocking of communications are all threats to basic needs. I definitely felt threatened. I do not wish to focus on the negative experiences of my previous job but I felt it was necessary to include a small bit of information as these were the grounds for my search for something else. I started searching for graduate programs and found that the OSU CSSA program seemed to be a good fit. Perhaps this need for something else could be assigned to one of Maslow’s “needs.” I could have been striving for self actualization at both conscious and unconscious levels. Part of me was looking ahead at my continued growth but there was still an undetermined future in Oregon. I feel it is necessary for me to include an aside to my transition from Chicago to Corvallis: I took the GRE and received poor marks. According to Astin, the GRE is significant as a post test of future graduate student performance. He is assuming that everyone takes the GRE immediately after they graduate from college. I do not feel that my GRE scores reflect my academic ability.
I arrived in Corvallis, Oregon at the end of August. It was lonely in Corvallis as I had left my peer groups and family behind in the Midwest. Fortunately I had the CSSA orientation to attend only a week after I arrived. Orientation was amazing. We were challenged, literally by the OSU Challenge Course. Our program leaders planned a 2 day orientation that created a priceless support structure to form. I read somewhere, perhaps in Chickering, that a cohort can become a family away from family. I whole heartedly agree with this.
Two weeks after my arrival in Corvallis, I began my graduate assistantship. My assistantship was the result of my telephone interview for acceptance into the CSSA program. The need for my technology/student affairs skills was very high. Everyone I met that first week said to me that they were glad I was here and that they needed me to “fix things.” Unlike my previous experiences at UIC, I felt that I mattered and that my skills were in high demand. My assistantship provided me with ample opportunities for professional growth. However, it soon became apparent that my role of “fixer of all things techie” would not be very fulfilling. I became marginalized because I mattered too much. I felt that I alone was responsible to make things better. Plus, I was not having any contact with students. Fortunately I was housed in the student orientation and retention office. Realizing my need for support, the staff in the student orientation and retention office encouraged me to volunteer for non-techie programs. I was able to participate in a campus preview event and several new student events. I was very appreciative of the fact that I was able to participate in a few campus rituals. Schlossberg would have approved! According to Chickering and Reisser, “signs of discomfort and upset are not necessarily negative” (1993, p. 479). They state that positive development and learning can occur when such difficulty arises. I would disagree. My early assistantship learning and development was retarded by a lack of support. It is ironic that it seems that you can matter too much which in turn causes marginalization. Jessica White states that, “the role of the techie can be a very isolating one in student affairs” (2004).
School started and I quickly became aware that being a graduate student was going to be challenging. Longwell-Grice states that “older, returning, non-traditional students” are more successful when they develop a “narrow focus on academics” (2003, p. 50). I think graduate students develop this focus out of a need to persist. I have not been able to involve myself in anything other than CSSA work and my assistantship. According to Astin, I will probably not persist due to low levels of involvement. Thankfully I was working at OSU for two weeks before school started. This allowed me to explore the campus and seek out forums for involvement. Although the rigor of my current situation dictates that I will have to have tunnel vision for the remainder of the fall term I am optimistic that I will be able to be more involved in the future academic terms. The challenge is time. Time is a finite commodity which determines the level of support that I can embrace.
To say that my personal life was affected by my decision to attend graduate school would be the largest understatement of my life. I quit a well paying job and moved over two thousand miles. This radical life change has forced me to reevaluate my own sense of self. I seem to have several dimensions of identity which I am dealing with. I am: white, heterosexual, a student, a professional, tall, a techie, and sensitive. Jones and McEwen’s model of multiple dimensions of identity looks like an atom. I feel that my “electrons” are spinning out of control. I find it very hard to focus on my studies while being a good professional at my assistantship. According to Widick et al, the demands of a new environment such as graduate school can cause a reexamination of one’s identity. I cannot help but agree with this as a real statement which personally is valid. One aspect of my identity which I am struggling with is the idea that as a white person, I have aspects of racism which are part of my being white. Helms states that white people must move towards an abandonment of their racist tendencies. I was completely flummoxed by this concept. I disagree with Helms because I have never thought of myself as a racist nor have I exhibited racist traits. If Helms were conducting a study which involved my entire family then, yes, racism would emerge as a core family identity dimension. Throughout my entire adult life my family has frustrated me with their uninformed biases. I have struggled with them and yet they seem to need me in their lives. Tinto talks of Native American students and the difficulties they sometimes face when they leave their families when they leave for college. I am part Cherokee but not enough that it is part of my identity so I guess Tinto’s generalization that educated white parents will reward a child for going off to school is incorrect. My parents have college degrees but do not understand why I would “leave them” for school. I appreciate my CSSA cohort family because they are the antithesis of my real family. According to Tinto, students need to interact with their peers to increase their persistence. I have both consciously and unconsciously utilized my cohort as a support structure and in some ways have fulfilled needs for friendship as described by Maslow. The cohort provides me with academic, social, and personal support. The CSSA cohort is, in my opinion, the catalysts for my persistence. They are the ultimate supporters of me.
I wrote in the first autobiography that I was utilizing graduate school as a means to further my need for self actualization. I think that statement is no longer valid. My “electrons” are pulling me in directions that I cannot see, for who can see their own developmental future? I can try to relate my development to the theories I have read but in the end it seems that no one knows what will happen.