Belonging and retention: it’s not rocket science

A recent article in the Chronicle offers what may be a needed reminder about the importance of advising and the role it plays in fostering a sense of belonging for students. Aaron Basko, who previously worked at Salisbury University and is now assistant assistant vice president for enrollment management at the University of Lynchburg, wonders whether we have gotten student success “completely backward.” In our efforts to apply “complex technocratic approaches” to the problem of student retention, Basko writes, we forget to consider what makes students stay.

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The Push and Pull of Vocation in The Chair

This fall, NetVUE hosted a virtual roundtable discussion about the theme of vocation in the Netflix series, The Chair. Kirsten Oh, professor of practical theology at Azusa Pacific University, offered these comments about the main character’s Korean American identity and the experience of women of color in academia.

Old Main on the campus of Washington and Jefferson College, where much of The Chair was filmed. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

This invitation gave me the opportunity to binge-watch the series again with an eye toward family systems and its influence on vocation as presented in The Chair’s main character, Professor Ji-Yoon Kim, played by Sandra Oh. (And to answer the question that may be on some minds, NO, unfortunately, we are not related).

My initial viewing of the first few minutes of The Chair sent me to a space of euphoria. With Vivaldi’s “Gloria in D-Major,” The Chair begins with a bravado that proclaims a sense of arrival. And to have a Korean-Canadian who happens to share the same last name as me play the leading role of an American female professor—I felt represented. This, of course, is a widely shared sentiment among many Asian American female professors. To have our identity, belonging, and purpose showcased on a public screen is at once a surprising and astounding experience. In her friend and the embroiled colleague Bill Dobson’s words, Professor Kim indeed “ascended the ranks of her profession, the corner office, the publications, and so on.”

Yet, soon after, Gloria fades and she attempts to sit on a broken desk chair. I distinctly remember thinking, “Oh no ($%&#),” this probably foreshadows that her stint as a chair will flop and will be short-lived. And spoiler alert, her role as chair belies the academic system some of us who straddle the intersectional identities as women and persons of color face, that is the glass ceiling at both the teaching and leadership positions in departments, and within the institutions as well. In reviewing the series with a vocational lens there are at least these two movements that “push and pull” the various vocational contexts.

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Idealized Versions of Vocation

One of my favorite texts, written more than fifty years ago, is The Shape of Content (1957) by Ben Shahn (1898-1969), a Lithuanian-born American artist and a lecturer at Harvard University.  Originally presented as the annual Norton Lectures, The Shape of Content begins with this sentence: “I have come to Harvard with some very serious doubts as to whether I ought to be here at all. I am a painter; I am not a lecturer about art nor a scholar of art. It is my (calling) to paint pictures, not to talk about them.”

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The gift of intervention

In my senior year of high school I received a gift that brought transformative opportunities to my life as time went by. Senior year marked the beginning of my third year living in the United States after immigrating from Mexico at age 15. If being an adolescent can be confusing and stressful by itself, being transplanted from a place of comfort to an unknown, new environment complicated my sense of self even more. Like many immigrants experiencing culture shock, I felt like an outsider early on; like many newcomers, I tried to be seen and be listened to by others the best I could. To me this meant trying to excel socially, athletically, and academically. Lacking self-confidence and having to continue to work on my English language skills, I didn’t do too well in the first category. Instead, I tried to play sports and to focus on my studies. In my first try at sports sophomore year, I didn’t make it through the first try-out day for the soccer JV team. As a junior, I barely made the JV basketball team. To this day, I think the only reason I made the team was because the coach was also my History teacher. My good grades in his class more so than my athletic abilities had to have awoken his compassion to let me be on the team.  

Pueblo High School in Tucson, AZ

Senior year was a different story. With nothing to lose, I tried out for the tennis team. In those days, Pueblo High School on the South Side of Tucson was an underperforming school. Only a handful of students in each class had hopes of attending college, me being one of them. In my senior year, the school needed new tennis coaches for the boys’ and girls’ teams. That same year, two Pueblo High alumni who had been student-athletes in the early 1970s returned home after finishing their respective medical residencies. Their commitment to community not only gave them the vision to someday open a community health clinic, which one of them did years later, but to volunteer together as coaches of the tennis teams at their old high school. The dedication to community and education was the gift my teammates and I received from our coaches, Dr. Frank Gomez and Dr. Cecilia Rosales.  

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The Power of Proximity

Learning from Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy

Last fall, on an overnight retreat with sophomore student participants in SOPHIA (Sophomore Initiative at Assumption), a year-long program on vocational exploration that I direct at my university, one of our first group activities was a conversation on community-building themes. With everyone sitting around a circle, I asked students to share their ideas on the meaning of belonging. Almost all the students shared their thoughts with the larger group. Some agreed that belonging is finding comfort within a group of people who share similar interests and values. Others emphasized the importance of feeling safe and welcomed in a particular place.

After some time, Hieu, the quietest student in the group, politely raised her hand and asked to speak. She said: “Belonging does not just mean to be welcomed into a group, it means to be listened to by others inside a group” (my emphasis). Hieu is a first-generation college student who grew up in Vietnam and immigrated to the United States seven years ago. Her wise interpretation of belonging has stuck with me, especially after the death of George Floyd in May.

SOPHIA Program Fall Retreat 2019. Canonicus Camp, Exeter, Rhode Island

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