Almost a year ago, 10 Canadian postsecondary students were named 3M National Student Fellows, awarded by the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education and 3M Canada. The annual award honours up to 10 university and college students who have shown outstanding leadership in their lives and at school. The 2014 cohort chose, as a capstone project, to write a series to start a discussion on “the importance of adapting postsecondary [education] to the needs of learners in the 21st century.”
University Affairs was delighted to be asked by these student leaders to act as the forum to present their views to the broader postsecondary community. The opinion pieces, each by a 3M student fellow, will run in this space between February and April 2015.
One’s undergraduate years are a period of transitions: from secondary education to postsecondary, from a hometown to a new college town, from dependence to independence and, ultimately, from adolescence to adulthood. While these transitions can present new perspectives and new opportunities for students, they also place students in vulnerable positions.
The normative undergraduate experience is essentially constructed as one big set of literal and figurative tests. Academically, a successful transition requires passing lengthy examinations (usually the primary, if not only, mode of assessment in first- and second-year classrooms) and other forms of assessment. Financially, a successful transition requires having or earning the necessary funds to pay for tuition, textbooks, room, board and other essentials. Socially, a successful transition often requires meeting new people while developing one’s moral values, sexuality, identity, and sense of self. All these “tests” occur against a trying backdrop of colossal lecture-halls, despondent instructors, ever-increasing tuition fees, dilapidated student housing, underfunded student services, and discrimination based on sex, gender, race, ability, class or other social positions. Students learn early on that the promises of transformation and opportunity contained within university viewbooks are rather possibilities to be earned by privilege and circumstance.
The stakes of this vulnerable dynamic are undeniably high: academic disengagement, homesickness, mental illness, student poverty, underage alcoholism and rape culture are abhorrently prominent among undergraduates on today’s campuses. These adversities have spawned a number memes about undergraduate experience, such as the “starving student,” the “freshman fifteen,” the “student ghetto,” and the predatory “frat boy.” What surprises me is the remarkable longevity of these memes and the adversities they point to.
In conversations with family, friends, mentors and mentees, I’ve learned that the undergraduate experience has always been, and continues to this day to be, marked by these challenges. Instead of critically questioning the origins of these memes, students, parents, instructors and administrators alike dismiss them as mere “rites of passage,” meaning ceremonies or rituals that initiate a person’s transition from one societal status to another. By dismissing such adversities as “rites of passage,” we remain complicit with the unjust treatment of undergraduates by obscuring the material and ideological causes that underpin the adversities I’ve referred to. We project a false myth that rationalizes these adversities as natural, necessary and sanctified components of Western society’s bildungsroman narrative. We enable provincial policymakers to reduce funding for postsecondary education, which in turn pressures university administrators to increase class sizes and tuition fees. We enable landlords and property managers to overcrowd and fail to maintain student housing. We fail to teach our young men about the ethics of consent and we tell our young women that their own sexuality and personal safety is less important than men’s sexual desires. The undergraduate campus, thus mythologized and normalized, becomes a microcosm in which the discriminative attitudes and ideologies of society at large are distilled, propagated and reinforced.
The undergraduate experience needs a paradigm shift. If we are to confront the “big issues” of the 21st century – and they are numerous – we must maximize the intellectual and creative potential of today’s students by treating them as the valuable members of society that they are. First, we must transform the language we use to speak of the undergraduate experience. Instead of reiterating undergraduate “rites of passage,” I propose that we develop undergraduate “rights of passage.” Recognizing that undergraduate education is a period of transition and vulnerability, it is the responsibility of parents, instructors, administrators and community members to support, commend and empower undergraduates through affirmative discourses that recognize the dignity, capability and potential of all students irrespective of their sex, gender, sexual orientation, race, and physical or mental ability; students too must employ such affirmative discourses about themselves and each other. Although many university course unions, student unions, and provincial and federal student alliances have enshrined certain legal rights for students in legislation, such rights remain at odds with the destructive attitudes and ideologies propagated within common parlance. By altering the way we speak about undergraduate education in everyday language, by emphasizing assistance over assessment, we can undermine the adversities that plague today’s campuses and empower a new generation of intellectuals, citizens, and human beings to realize a better future.
This is the fourth installment of our series Student Voices written by the 10 Canadian postsecondary students who were named 2014 3M National Student Fellows, awarded by the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education and 3M Canada.