Student Success: Words of Wisdom

The ways in which colleges and universities support student achievement in colleges and universities are very much contextual -- sensitive to the needs of their students, and hopefully to those from underprivileged backgrounds. On day three of the Salzburg Global Seminar on "Students at the margins and the institutions that serve them," we were joined by Pu Hong (Vice President of QuJing Normal University) from China, Zena Richards (Project Manager at University of Witwatersrand) from South Africa and Michael Sorrell (President of Paul Quinn College) from the United States to discuss and highlight the various initiatives to improve the sustainability and the development of support systems for underrepresented students. Here, we want to share some words of wisdom derived from this discussion.

Know your students. In developing effective methods in supporting students, we commonly might ask everyone at the table: What do you need to succeed? Richards, from South Africa, believes in reframing the question: "How do minority students ask for what they don't know?" Far too often when we ask students what they need, we disregard the circumstances that have shaped their journey in college. We cannot assume that improving student access to college is the panacea for success, as underprivileged students may enter college without any knowledge of (or the ability to acquire) the resources -- scholarships, activities, clubs, events and services -- that can strengthen their engagement to campus and improve their likelihood for college completion. In order to provide services that provide meaningful support and change for underrepresented students, staff and administrators must make minimal assumptions and a consciousness effort to assess and understand what students know -- what they come in with -- and what they don't know, or what they might need.

Encourage students to dream. "We want to adjust their dream scope because in reality they have not been taught to dream," states Sorrell, from the United States. When working in the capacity of supporting students, college and university staff and faculty must encourage them to see themselves beyond their current circumstances; students must have something to aspire for, goals that will push them forward when they find themselves at the lowest point in their life. For the past few years, Paul Quinn College has witnessed significant success under the tutelage of President Sorrell. Much of this success can be attributed to the opportunities he provides his students to imagine themselves as leaders and entrepreneurs. When students are offered the opportunities -- for instance, conduct research or complete an internship at fortune 500 company -- those experiences will enable them to imagine the possibilities for their future and the future of their families.

Teach students to be self-sufficient. Many times when we think of providing students with resources, we have the tendency of leaning on financial aid. Financial resources are certainly critical for underprivileged students in completing their degree in a timely manner, but we must also prepare all students for success in life after college. According to Hong, "Giving students money shows how poor they are. Work study is better because it shows how capable they are." Because students from underprivileged backgrounds may not be exposed to the opportunities that cultivate upwardly mobile success, it is imperative to provide them with services and programs that can address their immediate, as well as their long-term needs -- skills and perspectives.

In closing, individuals working with students should: 1) push against assumptions, 2) think highly of your students and encourage them to do the same, and 3) support their achievement by preparing them for the future. In doing so, college and universities can develop an effective climate where students can thrive and realize the benefits of their college education.