Student affairs professionals inhabit a unique place in postsecondary institutions. It is a place that provides many opportunities to engage creatively with students and journey with them through their postsecondary careers.
It is also a place that operates within structures unavoidably influenced by colonial legacies and oppressive power dynamics. These structures shape how we define and support academic and personal development, co-curricular opportunities, and services. As student affairs professionals, how do we find opportunities in our work to challenge oppressive institutional systems? In the context of working in co-curricular spaces, it can be helpful to think about and look for moments of possibility in which students are able to reclaim spaces, centre their ways of knowing, their identities and experiences in all their complexities, and create ways of being in community that counter oppressive hierarchies.
It is also helpful to remember that student affairs professionals are not necessarily inventing or creating anything new – because resistance to oppression is always there. Fred Moten and Stefano Harney in their 2004 work, University and the Undercommons, point out that spaces of resistance or ruptures within institutional systems already exist and advise readers to look for them to work with and/or support the work being done. The undercommons can be thought of as a social space of refuge for those being forced out or pushed to the margins of universities. Just as the undercommons is the social space of relations with, between, or against the university, student affairs can also be thought of as a social realm that can intersect with the undercommons. So, what can it look like to work within these ruptures where concepts of belonging and thriving can be radically re-imagined?
In multi-year collaborations with multiple student groups, the work I have engaged in addresses issues of abuse, sexual violence, mental health, misogyny, racism and Islamophobia. Our collaborations began with a series of conversations about how to build spaces where students can come together and tackle difficult conversations about identity, trauma of colonial histories and conflict. These spaces were quite precarious and filled with difficult realizations of the challenges, divides and current politics within students’ own communities.
Some more specific examples include when I worked with groups from South Asian communities where students sought to explore healing on their own terms as women of colour. The students sought to reclaim their strength and resilience while addressing oppression within patriarchal societies. Interestingly, they did not look to Western notions of liberation but drew strength from their traditions, spiritualities, lessons from aunties, and other sources from which they were defining their own liberatory terms. They knew what they were saying and what they needed. The challenge was getting others to understand.
Another collaboration I was involved in was focused on addressing Islamophobia; however, as we talked and planned over the course of a year, a richer discussion emerged. Students articulated that they wanted to be in a space where they could be more than a victim of racism. In addition to challenging racism and Islamophobia, they wanted to challenge narratives that othered them even in well-intentioned EDI discourses in which communities are portrayed in particular ways, such as victims or marginalized, because of lack of inclusion. These students stated that they are so much more than that narrative, and the levels of violence they faced are about so much more than the lack of inclusion. These discussions and planning of events shifted the focus to the collective strength rooted in histories and cultures of student communities in addition to addressing different types of racism.
The various collaborations were open spaces for all students to attend. However, terms, cultural concepts, silences, and emotions were often left unexplained and untranslated. I found this profound, as I realized that many times, programs focused on diversity are structured in ways to translate experiences and make them digestible for the white gaze. As an example, a student outside of the community attended an anti-Islamophobia event as an ally and debriefed with me afterwards, expressing her confusion at why students used humour when talking about racism. During this event, the students of colour and from the Muslim community had taken control of their narrative and humour is often used as a form of resistance to various types of phobias and racism. I realized, through the student’s questions, that it was rare for white students to find themselves in spaces where their narratives weren’t centered, dominant, or where the experience of the other wasn’t translated for the white gaze.
Reflecting on these experiences, several key considerations emerge for student affairs professionals to consider in their programming:
- Building relationships versus producing work: Given the neoliberal landscape of higher education, there is pressure to produce tangible outcomes within tight timeframes. However, meaningful relationship-building and trust-building take time, often lacking immediate, quantifiable results. Finding a balance between these two demands is essential to meeting student needs and holding space for transformative moments.
- Amplifying versus institutionalizing spaces: Striking a balance between amplifying student voices and preserving the authenticity of these spaces is a delicate challenge. How do we avoid unintentional co-optation of spaces when we’re invited into the undercommons, while also ensuring these conversations continue to influence institutional change? How do we use our roles and resources to amplify what is being learned and created in the undercommons? Answering these questions can help us realize our roles and actions we can take to support students.
- Transparency: Transparency in defining the scope of support offered to students is crucial. Clear communication about institutional boundaries, resource constraints and time limitations help manage expectations and build trust. Being transparent is about acknowledging who is leading the work and how, as professionals, we are meeting students where they are and supporting them.
- Letting go of being the expert: Oftentimes, professionals approach students with workshops and other offerings as leaders and experts. While there’s no dispute about the expertise professionals have curated over time, it is important to step back from that role when co-creating and partnering with students. It is humbling to learn from students and discover more about oneself and the possibilities within student affairs when working alongside them.
- Unknowable spaces: Co-created spaces with marginalized students hold deep, unspoken lessons and acknowledge realities that the majority cannot fully grasp. It is important to acknowledge that we cannot know everything, even as resources are committed to supporting these spaces of learning. It can become important to also think about how to justify committing resources to programs and events while resisting the institutional pressure to know, capture, measure and assess everything, even the unknowable.
Working in student affairs offers unique and creative opportunities to connect with and support underrepresented and marginalized students. However, we need to be willing to step out of what we know or what is comfortable to truly work alongside students and co-create transformative moments.