A Field Trip to the University of Missouri in the Aftermath

November 19, 2015

By Robert Elam, Felipe Martinez, and Teresa Steinkamp of The Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis.

On Nov. 18, members of our advising team spent the day at University of Missouri, visiting with many of the 85 students we are funding at that institution. The Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis provides financial support (interest-free loans and grants) and advising in financial, personal and academic matters. At present, we are directly funding a total of 600 students. “Mizzou” is our flagship public university, and was in recent weeks the epicenter of student protest of deep-seated systemic inequities in higher education. In the last year, the nation has seen Missouri “lead” in the perpetuation of fear and intimidation in Ferguson, in our treatment of immigrant students who are undocumented, and now in campus climate.  Our students face this every single day.

Racism on college campuses is personal. Students of color are held out as “examples” of shifting demographics (“pretty soon, the majority in our country will look like you”) or they are expected to represent all “their” people in class discussion. They are isolated among a small minority and often carry the additional burden of being economically disadvantaged.  Students describe experiences in rural parts of the state that are very real threats to their safety. They are disciplined or dismissed for defending themselves when no one else does. One of our students became homeless as a result of punitive disciplinary practices. 

Racism in higher education systems looks a bit different. It is frequently less overt, but appears in smiling administrators requiring “diversity training” but not creating a culture of belonging. It appears in financial aid policies that dramatically underfund students or bury them in debt. It’s a cold shoulder, an unwillingness to do more than the minimum (if that) to help a student in need. Often, racism masquerades as an open-market, buyer-beware, pull-yourself up by your boot straps attitude from those in charge. Yesterday, many of our students described an institution “dismissive” of their concerns.

Why does this matter? Students pay the price. Having taken a brave step to attend, they are at great risk when their experiences are like those of Mizzou students. They suffer threats of violence and emotional and mental distress beyond their peers. Decisions to transfer result in lost credits, longer time to degree completion, and increased debt. Perhaps most disconcerting is that when faced with these obstacles, some students quit altogether.   

In our advising, we must discuss these matters openly with our students. We advise students to:

  • Avoid locations that increase isolation because they are geographically remote or because they do not enroll many students of color.
  • Know that how you are treated in admissions is a preview of how you might expect to be treated on campus.  Admissions is “sales”, so if they are evasive or unkind it’s not a good sign.
  • Ask plenty of questions and expect complete and honest answers.
  • Inventory mental health services on campus and know how to get help.
  • Make sure there are student organizations identified for students of color and that the campus is amenable to creating new opportunities.
  • Prepare a careful financial plan to minimize economic challenges.
  • Be doubly careful about financial planning if the first college did not “fit” and they are transferring.  Before any decision, request a credit and degree audit and verify financial aid offers.
  • Know that they have a right not to be subjected to racial harassment and institutions have a legal responsibility to take action against it.

Finally, we stay in touch with our students and ask them to identify others who can also provide them emotional support, even long distance. Creating a community invested in their success, where they belong, will make a difference. Ideally, that community should be available on campus but can be reinforced by those of us back home. That is what the students at Mizzou had a right and a reason to expect from university leadership, and the same is true at all campuses.

The authors are from The Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis, where Elam works as Student Advisor, Martinez is Immigrant Student Advisor, and Steinkamp is Advising Director.

[Pictured above] Scholarship Foundation team headed to Mizzou, left to right: Maria Rebecchi, Robert Elam, Thurman Young, Teresa Steinkamp, and Ty Dowdy. Not pictured: Felipe Martinez.


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