Helping students create healthy boundaries

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Every year I meet with students who are exhausted, frustrated, angry, and suffering because they are taking care of another student. While we encourage students to engage in up-stander behavior, students should not feel they are responsible for the ongoing health and well-being of another student. Of course, we want students to look out for each other and help each other avoid dangerous situations; but taking 24/7 shifts to be with another student indefinitely, feeling the need to use their cell phone to track another student’s location, frequently leaving class to respond to another student’s emergency, regularly staying up all night or missing study time to care for another student, and regularly checking in with another student via text or other means to be sure the other student is ok, are unhealthy behaviors.

As educators, many of us also have caretaking tendencies. There is so much need in the world, it is tempting to give our time, energy, and expertise to the point of exhaustion. I often draw on my own experiences when helping students learn to establish boundaries. For some caretaking students, this is their first exposure to creating boundaries.

These are some tips I share with students who are struggling to care for their friends and have healthy boundaries.

  1. Set limits  – Many students I meet with are uncomfortable setting limits. They tell me, “I can’t tell her no.” “I have to be available.” I give them examples of what limits sound like, and ask them if they think they would be able to say these things to their friend. For example, “I have to study tonight and will be turning my phone off from 5 p.m.-10 p.m.” or “If you call me and tell me you are going to harm yourself, I will call campus police because I care about you and don’t want you to hurt yourself.” I also remind students that when they set limits, they need to follow through. And, I reassure students that limits can be set in a loving and compassionate way. For example, “I really care about you and am concerned, but I’m not a trained professional. And, if you feel like harming yourself, you need to call the Hotline.”
  2. Identify referrals and resources – Students are often concerned that if they aren’t available, their friend will be left alone and without help. I help students identify other resources and sources of support they can provide so they don’t feel solely responsible for another student. I encourage students to tell their friend to call the Hotline, a parent or family member, or 911 if their friend needs help.
  3. Be aware of your feelings – Students who are caretaking often feel angry and resentful. Sometimes they are ashamed of their anger and express that it feels selfish to feel angry when their friend needs them. However, anger can be an important signal that our boundaries are being violated. I encourage students to notice when they feel angry, resentful, or uncomfortable, and consider whether that might be a time to establish a boundary.
  4. Be direct – It can be challenging for some students to be direct, especially students who are raised in collectivistic or high-context cultures. In collectivistic cultures, communication tends to be indirect and a high value is placed on avoiding conflict. When the situation involves two students from different cultural backgrounds, it can be important to talk about communication styles and help them practice being direct.
  5. Focus on your purpose – I remind students that they are attending university for a purpose. By ignoring their own need to study, sleep, exercise, and attend class, they are making choices which take them away from their purpose.
  6. Identify what is in your control – I encourage students to make a list of what is within their control – when they eat, sleep, study; how often they check their phone; who they spend time with; whether or not they go to class. Then, I ask them to make a list of what is beyond their control – whether their friend takes his/her medication; if their friend decides to drink alcohol or take drugs; whether their friend gets angry; ultimately, other people’s choices. Finally, I encourage students to focus on the things within their control and let go of those things which are beyond their control.
  7. Self-care – When students are caretaking, they tend to neglect caring for themselves.  This can take different forms – giving up sleep, study time, exercise. It is critical that caretakers realize they must take care of themselves before they can take care of others. Taking care of another person with a mental health issue can also lead the caretaker to experience psychological distress as well. I encourage students to maintain regular exercise routines, eat healthy, schedule study time, and try relaxation techniques like meditation and mindfulness to remain healthy and academically successful.
  8. Name your guilt – This is one of the hardest parts of setting boundaries. There is usually a fear that by not being available, not checking in, and/or not responding, one is being selfish or even takes the risk of not being there to prevent a tragedy. This is a valid concern, and it deserves acknowledgement. There is a real reason why the student is concerned about his/her friend. However, guilt should not prevent a students from focusing on their own needs, self-care, and purpose, and I try to help students find the balance between caring for themselves and others.
  9. Seek counseling – I often refer students to Counseling Services. I explain it can be helpful to have someone to talk to who doesn’t have an agenda. While a student might have friends and family who can be supportive, a counselor can help a student determine what is in the student’s best interest, help the student better understand the relationship, and help the student set healthy boundaries. Sometimes I meet students who are enmeshed. They are involved in a relationship or friendship where boundaries seem impossible. It is especially important in these situations that students have opportunities to speak to a licensed professional therapist.

These conversations can be difficult. Sometimes students get angry with me or express that they simply cannot establish boundaries. But many times, students come back and thank me for helping them. Being a caretaker is often unsustainable, and inevitably a student either establishes boundaries or has to give up being a caretaker due to exhaustion or frustration.

Serving students who are experiencing homelessness, food insecurity, and financial crisis

I recently presented the workshop “Serving students who are experiencing homelessness, food insecurity, and financial crisis”  at the California College Personnel Association’s Annual Institute. There were many participants (standing room only), which reflects the increased interest in these topics among student affairs professionals. Many of us are looking for models, methods, and best practices to serve our most vulnerable students.

Background

The research supports that college students face major financial challenges. Food insecurity is common among college students, and food insecure students are often housing insecure. Food and housing insecurity negatively affects students’ education. Students who are struggling to meet basic needs experience more stress, frequently work more which results in greater part-time enrollment, experience lower GPAs, and often extend their expected date of graduation.

According to the UC Global Food Initiative survey, 19 percent of UC students indicated they had “very low” food security, which the USDA defines as experiencing reduced food intake at times due to limited resources. An additional 23 percent were characterized as having “low” food security, defined by the USDA as reduced quality, variety or desirability of diet, with little or no indication of reduced food intake.

College and University Food Bank Alliance report states drew on a survey of almost 3,800 students at 34 community and 4-year colleges across 12 states – the broadest sample to date – the authors found that 22 percent of respondents have the very lowest levels of food insecurity, and 13 percent of students at community colleges are homeless.

Models/Ideas

An increasing number of campuses have the following types of services:

  • CalFresh Outreach coordinators who work with local Department Social Services to enroll students by prequalifying students on campus
  • Emergency grants for students with unexpected expenses which could negatively impact their academics, such as medical bills and car repairs
  • Emergency housing, which could include on campus options and/or hotel vouchers
  • Meal vouchers/cards, veggie bucks, or other dollars that can be used to get food on campus
  • Dining app that tells students when leftover food is available at campus events
  • Food pantry, as well as pop-up food pantries and food “shelves,” often includes toilettries
  • EBT card readers on campus to allow students to use CalFresh benefits
  • Food Bank distribution on campus

Best Practices

Every institution has unique needs, strengths, and weaknesses. One of the challenges of implementing these programs is determining which best meet the needs of the students in your institution AND align with the resources available. Here are some best practices that can be applied to any institution:

  • Share resources – A great place to start is by joining the College and University Food Bank Alliance (http://www.cufba.org)
  • Document need – Whether you have existing services or nothing in place, you can being by surveying students, conducing focus groups, and gathering institutional data, to determine what students need and want
  • Partner with local agencies – every campus has different town-gown relationships, but nature partners include faith-based organizations, the Food Bank, local non-profits, and Department of Social Services
  • Identify engaged faculty – faculty are often interested in grants, research, and service-learning. Find ways to incorporate these into your basic needs programs and services. Reach out to various departments which may have overlapping interests, such as nutrition and sociology
  • Create a working group – stakeholders may include student leaders, Financial Aid, Dean of Students, Campus Health and Well-Being, Athletics, Campus Dining, and Housing

Resources

Creating Big Magic in Student Affairs: A Book Review

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I recently read Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Big Magic and a few interesting things happened to me. First, many passages resonated with me and I kept coming back to the book. Next, I found myself sharing her message with other people. And then, I started creating. Since reading the book, I have tapped into my creativity in multiple ways. I have written blog posts, created comedy scripts, produced projects at work, painted my house, and it goes on. So I thought I would  share her message with a few more people that I love in Student Affairs, and I offered a workshop on “Creating Big Magic in Student Affairs” at our division-wide staff development day.

What is Big Magic? Think of a time when you created or finished something…and thought, “That is gooooooooood.” It may have been an assignment you completed in school or a picture you drew. Maybe it was something you built or a food you cooked. Another way to describe Big Magic is that while you were doing something you felt it flow easily from you. Gilbert describes it like being on a conveyer belt in an airport…you are being propelled. The time passes quickly. Or you are in the zone.

Big Magic is about tapping into our creativity. EVERYONE IS CREATIVE. Creativity is important because it’s the way we show our unique selves to the world. We need it to be our true and authentic selves. YOUR CREATIVITY DOES NOT HAVE TO BE REVOLUTIONARY OR SERVE A PURPOSE. According to Gilbert, there are no “creative” and “non-creative” people. There are just people who use their creativity and those who don’t.

Some people think creativity is self-indulgent. For some of us it was shut down when we were children. But, if we don’t express our creativity, it can result in resentment, grief and heartbreak. Brene Brown’s research shows 85% of people remembered an event in school that was so shaming that it changed how they thought about themselves for the rest of their lives, and 50% of those shaming events were around creativity, i.e. told they can’t sing, you’re a bad artist, your writing is terrible.

Here are the six principles I took away from Gilbert’s book:

  1. Acknowledge fear but don’t let it drive you. Gilbert says fear and creativity are like conjoined twins. This is why we cannot kill off, deny or avoid fear. Instead, we need to thank it for doing its job (which is to keep us alive) but then recognize that creativity is not (99% of the time) going to kill us. We must make space for fear – Gilbert describes going on a road trip with creativity and fear. Both are invited on the trip, but fear is not allowed to drive. Our fear can manifest itself in excuses, guilt (mom guilt), procrastination, and perfectionism. And it can prevent us from taking the leap towards creativity. IT DOESN’T MATTER IF IT HAS BEEN DONE BEFORE. YOU DON’T NEED PERMISSION TO BE CREATIVE.
  2. Be open to ideas. IDEAS ARE LOOKING FOR HOSTS. That which we are seeking is seeking us. When we are relaxed enough to notice and receive clues, information, and connections, then ideas will come to us. When we let our defenses down and ease our anxiety, creativity will come to us. When we are open, we can receive the physical and emotional signals of inspiration (chills on your arm, hair standing up on your neck, feeling like you’re falling in love). When you’re about to have a big idea, there will be coincidences, signs, everything will remind you of the idea, you may wake up in the middle of the night thinking about it (like I did with my comedy script).
  3. Become partners with your idea. When an idea finds us (because it is chasing us, we are not chasing our ideas), we have the choice to join up with it or let it go. Our creative inspiration can also be called our GENIUS. Gilbert makes the distinction between HAVING A GENIUS VS. BEING A GENIUS. Gilbert describes how the Greeks and Romans both believed in an eternal spirit of creativity – like a house elf from Harry Potter, who lives inside your house and sometimes assists you. The Romans called this your “genius.”
  4. Work hard. This may seem self explanatory, but when it comes to creativity working hard is also about being creative even when you don’t feel inspired. Gilbert emphasizes that our inspiration doesn’t owe us anything. She doesn’t romanticizing quitting your day job and running off to open a night club or kayak shack. She says if we decide to take a leap of faith it should be for the ride not the landing, because we can never guarantee the landing. She also says every creative endeavor has the bits we don’t enjoy. So if you want to pursue something you must choose a pursuit that you enjoy so much that you’re willing to put up with the unpleasant parts. She asks, what do you want to do? What would you do even if you failed? What do you want to do because doing nothing is unacceptable? We must also be patient and compassionate with ourselves when we engage in creative work. People don’t stop being creative because of lack of discipline or willpower. They often stop because of disappointment or judgement. Getting back to work requires forgiving ourselves and having empathy for ourselves.
  5. Be courageous. Gilbert says, “Your life is short and rare and amazing and miraculous, and you want to do really interesting things and make really interesting things while you’re still here. That’s what we all want for ourselves.” She says, “You have hidden treasures in you – everyone does – and bringing those treasures to light takes work and faith and focus and courage and hours of devotion.” I strongly believe that statement. Many years ago I created a presentation on time management. The whole reason I created it was because my mom was diagnosed with kidney failure. I wanted to make the most of my time with my family from that day forwarded, and I then I wanted to share that message with everyone. Because life is precious. And we don’t have time to wait.
  6. Channel your inner trickster. SUFFERING IS NOT A PREREQUISITE. Elizabeth talks about the martyr vs. the trickster. There are many artists and writers who are martyrs. In academia there are many martyrs who feel we must suffer and labor, putting in miserably long hours to get published or tenured. Maybe some of us feel like martyrs in our jobs in Student Affairs. The trickster is the opposite of the martyr.

In conclusion, these are the major themes of her book:

  • Everyone is creative
  • Your creativity does not have to be revolutionary or serve a purpose
  • It doesn’t matter if it has been done before
  • You don’t need permission to be creative
  • Ideas are looking for hosts
  • Having a genius vs. being a genius
  • Suffering is not a prerequisite

Try this activity to tap into your creativity:

Fold a piece of paper into four squares.

In the first square, answer the following questions: What do you love to create? What are you curious about? How do you express yourself? What kind of maker are you? What’s worth doing even if you fail?

In the second square,  name any fears or barriers (or guilt) that may keep you from pursuing this interest. Acknowledge them. Thank them and invite them along for the ride but tell them they will not be driving.

In the third square, answer the following questions: What does curiosity want you to do? What would it say to you?

In the fourth square, name one small idea you have for creating what you want to create. Give yourself a deadline.

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Why Diversity Matters

Diversity is a representation of racial and ethnic identity, age, cultural identity, religious and spiritual identity, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, physical and mental ability, nationality, social and economic status, and political and ideological perspectives.* Diversity in higher education is important in order for our institutions to reflect our changing demographics, to increase access to higher education for greater numbers of students, and to prepare all students to contribute to a global society. However, the highest purpose of diversity in our institutions is related to our civic mission.

The civic mission of higher education speaks to the content in the curricular and co-curricular experience that challenges students to think about their role and responsibilities in society. Historically, education was seen as the key to creating the informed citizenry required for active democracy. Institutions were founded in part with a civic focus to cultivate future leaders to be civically engaged citizens.  Presently, diversity, namely interactions among different groups, is essential to fostering the academic and social growth necessary to promote civic engagement.

Research supports that diversity creates the best possible learning conditions for all students – majority and minority students. Diversity creates conditions critical to identity construction and cognitive growth  which are essential to achieving educational and civic outcomes. The success of our communities and country depends on citizens who can engage in civic innovation, address issues of public concern, and promote the quality of life in our communities through political and nonpolitical processes.

The link between diversity and learning outcomes is well-established. Research shows that students who experienced the most racial and ethnic diversity in classroom settings and in informal interactions with peers showed the greatest engagement in active thinking processes, growth in intellectual engagement and motivation, and growth in intellectual and academic skills. Research also supports that students educated in diverse classrooms learn to think in deeper and more complex ways, and are better prepared to become active participants in a pluralistic, democratic society (Gurin, Day, Hurtado, and Gurin, 2001).

Diversity improves the learning experience and contributes to the central goals of the university. However, students must have meaningful intergroup interactions. An increase in diversity may improve the probability that these interactions will occur, but this is not enough to create a significant difference in a student’s learning experience. In order to see significant benefits from diversity, there must be an increased quality and quantity of intergroup interactions.

College is a time and place for students to explore their identities as well as their relationship to the sociopolitical world. When students enter into diverse environments, they can either attempt to retreat to the familiar or seek new information. By seeking new information, they enter a state of disequilibrium – a temporary state where one must either develop a new schema or modify an existing schema. Developmental theorists explain that creating disequilibrium is key to promoting cognitive growth. Situations that create disequilibrium can include encounters with people who are unfamiliar to them or people who challenge them to act or think in new ways. Navigating these situations increases one’s sense of identity and their understanding of the social world.

As an educator, I have witnessed the cognitive changes that occur when students experience interactions with people who have had different life experiences and when students are confronted with the limitation of their point of view. In these interactions, they must do difficult cognitive and emotional work to understand how other people think and feel. These experiences encouraged critical thinking, helped students learn to communicate effectively with people of varied backgrounds, and prepared students to become good citizens in an increasingly complex, pluralistic society.

In 2006, I founded the Alternative Breaks program at Cal Poly, which has taken students to New Orleans, New York, Jamaica, and United Arab Emirates. I witnessed these students transformed by their experiences doing service in communities different from their own. The differences in culture, language, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and more, created opportunities for reflection and cognitive growth that changed these students in short periods.

Now, more than ever, universities must prepare students to contribute to society. Students need an understanding of diversity and social responsibility to be knowledgeable and ethical leaders. For these reasons and more, it is important to cultivate a campus community that represents and celebrates diversity. We need reflective spaces, intentional interactions, and formal and informal opportunities for students to engage in frequent, high-quality intergroup interactions.

* adapted from Standards of Professional Practice for Chief Diversity Officers.

Gurin, P., Dey, E., Hurtado, S., & Gurin, G.  (2002) Diversity and Higher Education: Theory and Impact on Educational Outcomes, Harvard Educational Review, 72 (3), 330-366.