Article: Stymied on the cusp of college

A look at what happens to the 10 to 15 percent of college-bound students annually who do not end up starting college in the fall.

During the summer before college, students must complete complex tasks often unrelated to the academic skills and abilities that earned them college admission in the first place. These tasks include verifying income information on financial-aid applications, evaluating supplementary-loan applications, reviewing health-insurance options, and scrambling to cover the costs of attendance not paid for by financial aid. Students from college-educated families have parents, if not private consultants, who help them complete these tasks. Low-income and first-generation students, on the other hand, more often must navigate these hurdles on their own.

Stymied on the cusp of college, from the Chronicle for Higher Education (10/6/14)

He is so desperate, I am so blessed.

He is so desperate, I am so blessed. 

I found myself saying this to myself today after a series of coaching appointments with clients facing deep struggles in their paths toward finding meaningful work. Or any work at all… sigh.

Days like today weigh heavily on my spirit. Seeing the very real barriers – internal or external – that complicate the job search process can break my heart. Especially when I look at how blessed I am in my own life and my professional path.

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I struggle the most when the barriers individuals are struggling to overcome are the result of structural or systemic oppression. Where language, access to health care, disability, mental health status, cultural differences, or poor self-advocacy skills create huge roadblocks that overcome even the last glimmers of resilience.  I feel helpless.

I worry I am not doing enough, and on the really tough days:

Am I causing more harm than good? 

Considering my own blessings in contrast to those who are sincerely struggling to sustain daily living can leave me feeling guilty. When I was first exploring my identity as a white person I thought a lot about the guilt I felt being born part of the privileged dominant group in my country. I also think about the ways I can use my privilege to fight systemic oppression.

As I have grown in my field, I also think more about the ways my own privilege can get in the way for clients I serve who are from underrepresented groups. I know I find myself in the “buffer zone,” as social justice educator, writer, and activist, Paul Kivel, describes:

“If most people receive minimal levels of care and those who die do so in hospitals, at home, in rest homes, or in prisons, it is less likely that people will add up the total impact of the concentration of wealth. So there are many jobs for people to take care of those at the bottom of the pyramid: nurses, attendants, social workers, teachers, youth workers, child care workers, counselors—poorly paid jobs that are primarily done by women and that provide minimal services to those in need.

“Taking care of those in need is valuable and honorable work, and most people do it with generosity and good intentions. But in our society, it is also unsupported, low-paid, exploitative work. It serves to mask the inadequate distribution of jobs, food, and housing, and to hide the full impact of the concentration of wealth” (Source here).

It may be honorable work. It may be valuable work. I may dedicate my whole heart to supporting those I meet with. In turn I hope that I am supporting a vibrant and equitable community. However on days  like today I feel so overwhelmed trying to parcel out all the pieces at play. The struggle to do my part of  the work towards social justice can feel overwhelming, especially when I struggle to even sort out what “right action” looks like in the moment.

I feel called to serve, to support, and to empower. The idea that the very act of trying to help can get in the way and perpetuate all kinds of inequality — it just feels too big. Too daunting. It makes me feel so small, so unsure of what my next right choice should be.

Comfort comes in faithfully believing that I am doing my best to put my heart to the work, praying for grace, and as Rainer Maria Rilke reminds us, living the questions:

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” – Rainer Maria Rilke

Attending to wellness.

Graduate school has taught me about tired. Emotionally tired. Physically tired. Intellectually tired. Spiritually tired. Mentally spent.

The good news is that there are resources out there to help disrupt the exhaustion and lead us on a journey towards being in more sustainable service to others.

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Work-life balance

When I worked in the corporate world we talked about “work-life balance” often. In 2008 I left my corporate job to respond to the call I felt to work in higher education. I walked away from a lot in making that decision. I distinctly remember a coworker saying to me that she thought I was lucky to get out before I was making so much money that I could not walk away. (In my mind, that was already the case! Leaving so much on the table  felt crazy).

When I walked away from that world, I thought I was walking towards something just as much as I was walking away. I was saying yes to caring for myself and others in a way that felt more aligned with my values and my gifts. I was trying my best to honor who I thought I was meant to be. I still believe in that promise, but I would not say I have figured out the “caring for myself” piece yet.

In higher education we don’t talk about balance much. I liken it to more of a nonprofit culture. We choose to be here because we are committed to our work as educators and we give every ounce of ourselves to our students. In a lot of ways this is the expectation. I work harder, with more heart, and for less money.

Let me be clear here. I have no regrets. I will just say that I am still trying to figure out what wellness looks like for me. Fortunately, working in higher education we have models we use to help students build these skills and we can apply them in our own lives as well.

Using the Wellness Wheel as a guide 

During my internship at the University of Washington I came across their version of a “wellness wheel” which I offer below:

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“Attending” to wellness

Like so many women in helping professions, and others, I know I need to attend to my wellness. I get that it starts with attending to self-care. What does it even mean to “attend to one’s wellness” anyway? Let’s go to the dictionary:

attending  present participle of at·tend (Verb)

Verb
  1. Be present at (an event, meeting, or function).
  2. Go regularly to: “all children are required to attend school”.

– Definition from dictionary.com

Attending to my wellness? Being “present” to my wellness? I’m haphazard at best. I certainly do not “go regularly to” my wellness. My problem is that I do not realize I need to attend to my self-care until I am past my breaking point.

Attending in all dimensions

Little by little I am working towards honoring all seven wellness dimensions in my life:

  • Emotional
  • Intellectual
  • Physical
  • Social
  • Environmental
  • Financial
  • Spiritual

There are other forms of wellness I might add if I were feeling ambitious: generational wellness, or community wellness come to mind and I hope to write on these more through this blog.

TIME FOR ACTION: What to do? 

After trying and failing to get the wellness piece figured out, I have realized two things so far:

  1. First, I must accept incremental change and believe it has the power to create waves of change over time.
  2. Second, I need a plan. 

Now I will admit, I have drafted a wellness plan and then failed to follow my plan. It is more the norm for me. But even the act of making a plan helps me to open my eyes to what wellness could look like in my life. It helps guide me in knowing what is right action – for me, for my cause, for my future ability to support others through my calling.

Creating a self-care plan 

If you are like me, and you struggle to even know what “wellness” might look like, I invite you to check out the Self-Care Starter Kit offered by the University of Buffalo School of Social Work. This helped me assess my own situation and build skills in understanding how to apply the various dimensions of self-care in my own life.

As I mentioned, I have not yet arrived with my wellness. However, I talk openly with others about how I am trying to attend to my wellness, even when it is hard. I have the awareness now to realize when I am out of alignment and giving too much of myself to my work, home life, and personal relationships. I am working hard to un-learn the socialization I received around what it means to be a woman who wants to help others in this country. I am beginning to see a middle way where I do not have to give up my whole self in order to be of service to others.

Nothing is harder for me than taking care of myself… which is why having a plan makes so much sense! Just like being tired perpetuates itself, I am learning that making good self-care choices builds momentum over time. This is what it means to “attend” to oneself. It is about being present to my wellness and going regularly to my wellness. It is checking in with myself frequently to assess how I am doing. It is fighting the way I am socialized to ignore my own voice calling out for time, for space, for exercise, for fresh air and sunshine and whole foods and idleness.

Attending is a practice

It is in the act of attending to wellness that the magic happens. Writing up a plan is important. But change happens through small, painful stumbles that begin with good intentions. It happens slowly. It happens each time I choose to hear that small voice inside me instead of silencing her.

Without a plan it is much easier to succumb to the status quo. So while I may feel like a phony for having to revisit the process of creating wellness plans and then watching myself fail miserably at them, this process is actually a way for me to practice attending to myself. Like with any change, it hurts… even when when it is change our very bones are calling out for!

 

  • What might I need to give up in order to invite in more wellness in my life? What would that look like for me?
  • What might I lose in the process?
  • What signals does my body give me when I am approaching my limit? In what ways have I ignored them in the past?
  • What is one thing I can do today to start attending to my wellness? 

Audre Lorde quote and image from http://www.tumblr.com/tagged/audre+lord

“I left.” The times we walk away.

Why am I here? What am I called to do? What work is mine to do?

These questions regularly bounce through my mind. Today was no different. I spent the day at a conference that invited me to examine the role that race and equity play in my life. Naturally this has me thinking about connections to vocation and community. What am I called to do… and, within which community am I called to be? These are the big questions.

Community is never perfect, but I know that without it I am lost. I think we are all lost without a sense of community, at least in some shape or form. What it means to belong may look different for different folks, but at the end of the day, this belonging is necessary. This need to have a place rests at the very core of our being.

During the conference today, Paul Gorski, presented on Consumerism as Racial Injustice. Whew! A big topic. I had not really considered the way my consumer choices support racial injustice. Sure, I have considered how the foods I buy may or may not be sustainable, but I never thought about my purchases as being at all connected to racial injustice.

Considering the ways that small choices in my life, like the foods I eat, may perpetuate racial injustice was painful. It is difficult to think that by living my life, through my very basic actions, I am participating in a system of oppression that not only hurts people of color, but also hurts me. When I heard the presentation I was uncomfortable. I wanted to be anywhere but there. A few people left, but I stuck with it.

Later in the conference we had a debrief session with a guided facilitator and one of my fellow participants said that she was one of the people who had to get up and leave. She said she felt powerless to change things, and the problems seemed overwhelmingly big. I get it. I felt the same way. Thinking about how small I am and how hard it is for me to really impact my community can be painful. Yet I also realize that because I am a White woman, I have the choice about whether or not I want to sit with the discomfort I felt during that presentation. I have the privilege to be able to decide to what extent I am going to invite challenging topics into my life. Or not. When it hits a bit too close to home or begins to challenge me enough, I can say stop. I can retreat to my place of privilege and ease.

My ability to select when and to what extent I feel vulnerable in my life reflects a special power I hold as being a member of a privileged group. It is not a given for folks from other racial and ethnic groups. For many people, there is no choice to decide whether or not they “want to go there” today. Systemic oppression in our country is there all the time. It is daily, it is ever-present, and it is everywhere. I am lucky enough to be able to choose when and how I engage with systemic oppression in my life. Sometimes this power to decide saves me. If I had to let it all wash over me all the time it would overwhelm my spirit in ways I cannot imagine. Of course this is all too familiar for many folks.

During our small group debrief of the presentation we also talked about the ways White people typically follow and perpetuate the predominantly individualistic U.S. culture.  It is up to me to change these oppressive systems. have to be good at this work in order to engage. I should know how to do this work well. When we fall short in our minds, or when it feels too hard? I might choose to opt out. Oh my.

So then. How to find the way forward? Can I be healthy and happy AND do this work? What would such a life look like? Living from a place of guilt and shame is no way to live. I must move beyond this, but the path is not clear.

For me, the question comes down to asking myself, “What is mine to do?” What piece of this work can I take on? How can I do my part to build a more just society? Perhaps I can do only so much today, but maybe tomorrow I can do more. Or next week.

These questions lie at the heart of considering what I personally feel called to do. What is my sense of vocation? For me, a piece of it is in discovering my unique gifts and figuring out ways to apply them in the world to make it a more just place. A more sustainable world. A healthier community, not just for me, but for us all. It is not just a dream. I have a deep faith in believing a more equitable world is possible, and I feel confident that a piece of that work is mine to do. It may not be clear to me now, but there is a quiet voice I cannot ignore. 

What do you feel called to do? In what ways is this impacted by your sense of belonging? In what ways do you want to get up and leave? When would it be easier to walk away than to engage? What would it take for you to lean in to the discomfort instead of retreating?