By Mark Kuczewski
University and college administrations have shown laudable leadership since the election in offering support to their students who feel under threat. The strongest and most explicit statements have been in regard to undocumented students who have benefited from the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. As the almost 800,000 persons of DACA status could be sent back “into the shadows” by the next president, numerous universities have made statements elaborating the steps they will take to protect these students and supply them with legal and social support services. [1,2]
Furthermore, many other students including persons of color and students from the Muslim and Jewish faith traditions also are encountering increased interpersonal hostility and they fear potential discriminatory policies such as the rumored “Muslim registry.” As a result, many universities and colleges have done a variety of things to support them including offering discussion forums and creating “safe spaces” where students can express their concerns without debate. But many educators wish to know what they personally can do to help. Let me offer a few suggestions…
First, continue to speak the truth about fairness and social justice, especially in terms of your discipline and the experience of you and your students. – Many opinion leaders are blaming “identity politics” for the alienation of rural whites and their embrace of intolerance. As a result, some academics are tempted to de-emphasize race and other identities in their teaching and scholarship. But as academics, our job is to propagate truth and “color blind” scholarship is, at best, a half-truth. For instance, racial and ethnic disparities in health care are well documented and will not disappear because they are politically unfashionable. The experiences of people of color are also data and deserve respect. I once heard an African-American medical student counsel peers to drape their white coats over their cars’ headrests as “it helps when the police pull you over.” It made clear to me that our African-American and Euro-American students exit our campus onto the same street but inhabit different worlds with different experiences and stressors. Furthermore, the recent campaign and election seems to have led to increased numbers of overt expressions of hostility toward people of color.  Our job was to speak truth in our teaching and scholarship before the election and it seems even more important and urgent to do our job now.
Second, self-educate – While many educators have good instincts regarding issues of social justice, diversity, and inclusion, many of us do not know much in the way of specifics regarding policies that directly impact our students. For instance, while universities are currently attempting to rally support for continuing the protections of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) for undocumented students, knowledge of this program and how it works is not widely known among educators. This kind of deficit limits one’s ability to assess the impact of the changing policy environment on our students. We must gain greater knowledge of such specifics and come to understand the historical contexts, the specific situations, and the policy proposals that impact our students of color and communities that are being vilified and stigmatized.
Third, verbalize your concerns, be encouraging, and accompany. –- Shortly after the election, one of our students of DACA status stopped in my office to ask if “something happened” beyond the election that she didn’t know about because some of her peers were looking at her as if she had died. It is much better to simply ask a student how she is doing and how the current climate has affected her. And when students express their fears, be an agent of hope but don’t peddle false optimism. The challenges that confront our students and our nation are worrisome. To be falsely optimistic is to invalidate our students’ experience. Nevertheless, we must remain hopeful even if solutions are not obvious in the short-term. They have made it this far because they are determined and resilient. Let them know that you believe that these characteristics will continue to serve them well and that you will be with them along the way. Do not give in to the temptation to look away because you cannot fix your students’ problems. Your students may well feel alone currently and that is one thing you can do something about now. And, if you continue to be supportive and dialog on an ongoing basis, you will find additional ways to help in the future.
In short, as an academic and educator, you can help by doing what you do and being who you are. Now is not the time to become shy, self-doubting, or fearful about your work and its truths. And by focusing on truth, furthering your own understanding, and connecting directly with your students, you can become an even better version of you. And more than anything else, that’s what your students need right now: You.
Mark G. Kuczewski, PhD, is the Fr. Michael I. English, S.J., Professor of Medical Ethics. He chairs the Department of Medical Education and directs the Neiswanger Institute for Bioethics at the Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine.
- Elizabeth Redden, “What’s in a name? University presidents articulate specific commitments to support undocumented immigrant students, but in many cases eschew the term – “sanctuary campus” – preferred by activists.” Inside Higher Ed, December 2, 2016. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/12/02/outlining-commitments-undocumented-immigrant-students-some-presidents-avoid-term
- Statement of AJCU Presidents on Undocumented Students. November 30, 2016. http://www.ajcunet.edu/press-releases-blog/2016/11/30/statement-of-ajcu-presidents-november-2016
- Moriah Balingit,”Civil rights group documents nearly 900 hate incidents after presidential election.” Washington Post, November 29, 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/civil-rights-group-documents-nearly-900-hate-incidents-after-presidential-election/2016/11/29/de97e88a-b654-11e6-b8df-600bd9d38a02_story.html?utm_term=.86a8310f7899