By Tia Brown McNair and Ashley Finley
“No one rises to low expectations.” Many educators have probably heard this quote at some point in their professional career. The saying challenges us as educators to set the bar high for our students, and for ourselves; to seek excellence as a standard, not as a fortunate surprise. It challenges us not to engage in deficit-minded thinking when we interact with students, because our words and our actions send a powerful message that can quickly become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Educators must be a source of encouragement, inspiration, and motivation for all students—the academically prepared and underprepared. That is why it is so troubling when educators use words that negatively label students—words like “hopeless,” “unmotivated,” “disengaged,” “uneducated.” Even if we sometimes use these words reflexively or unintentionally, we have a responsibility to challenge those who describe our students in this manner and more fully commit ourselves not just to the academic success of some students but to every student enrolled in college.
Often, when I am introducing myself to a group, I start by letting the audience know that I am the mother of a four-year old son, and that reality makes me an optimist and a realist (for those of you who don’t know me, I am African American, which may shed some light on that statement). I make this opening remark not to elicit praise, sympathy, or empathy, but to state a fact about my lived experience, and my optimism and skepticism about what will be my son’s lived experience. What usually occurs after I make this announcement is several audience members—often other African American mothers—nod their heads in knowing agreement. They often are the first people to speak to me when the opportunity presents itself. I find this camaraderie refreshing, but I also find myself more focused on the members of the audience who may not understand why being a mother of an African American son makes me both an optimist and a realist. Let me tell you why.
My optimism stems from my current role as the senior director for student success at the Association of American Colleges and Universities, where I regularly engage in conversations with my like-minded peers about making excellence inclusive in higher education, and the need for equity in learning at all levels. These conversations tend to reaffirm my belief that “we” in higher education are poised for significant change focused on issues of diversity, inclusion, and equity—all leading to new definitions of student success. We often share with the larger community campus examples and information from our member institutions about how educators are asking difficult questions that are the foundation for sustainable change. For example, how do we introduce first-generation, low-income, and/or underrepresented students to the cultures of the academy? How can we alter those cultures to make them more inclusive and responsive to difference? How do we effectively engage traditionally underrepresented students in high-impact practices? How do we create equitable pathways for student success? These questions are at the heart of our conversations for making excellence inclusive, and illustrate the optimism I share with my colleagues about the future. I have no doubt that my son will attend educational institutions that have engaged in these types of discussions and created environments of inclusion, not exclusion. On that level, I am optimistic.