When It Don’t Come Easy

Tuesday May 26, 2015

I spoke about “going places and doing things” in one of my previous posts. It’s good to get out and about, in the world, your community, or your neighborhood. One thing that inevitably happens when you travel abroad – is that you hit a bit of a wall at some point in your trip. The tenor of this post may sound more subdued, but learning is learning, even when its hard.

As I drove in to work this morning with Jerome, I felt more foreign than I have since arriving. The traffic patterns, the people and faces, the bikes, the lack of the kind of coffee I want when I want it…even nature betrayed me. The trees and grasses looked different, and unfamiliar to me. I was taxed trying to follow what Dutch words I could on the radio, and I wanted to be back with familiar people, sights, and sounds. This is the cost of traveling, particularly abroad. I imagine that our students feel like this after they have started college. The language is different, the people, the expectations, the rules. And despite their preparation via orientation, websites, and talking to folks – they still feel like strangers. I also prepared for my trip here. For over a year! Even still, I find myself well into my trip – feeling lost and alone. What gets me through it is the love, counsel and support of others, connecting with my routines, being resilient and knowing that it will pass. I wonder how I can apply this same process of coping to our new students. Those first three – six weeks is so critical to student success for the entire semester. We need to empathize more with what our students are experiencing – put ourselves in their shoes to discover new insights into their lives. And we need to ask them – then ask them again – then ask them again, until we get better at helping our students feel that the college environment is familiar to them. Success can then flow from familiarity and belonging.

That passed for me, and I found my joy again at work (that didn’t take long did it). Arriving at the Sports College in Amersfoort I was able to meet with the students in Jerome’s mentor group. Each teacher here has a group of students with whom they mentor throughout the year. These teachers meet with their students as a group and 1-1 once a week. Talk about student support! I met with two of the students afterwards and heard from them about why they were there, what they hoped to do in life, how much they felt supported (or not) by the college, and just generally about their lives and journey to Sports College. I was going to talk more about the stories they shared, but decided not to, for their privacy. Let’s just say this group of students (in this cohort/class/etc.) are really going through some things outside of school. Again, without going into detail, this is some heavy stuff that would tax the most capable and well-adjusted person. But many of these students are not capable and not well-adjusted. Of course they will be, that’s why they are in school, but the journey is a long one. Jerome and I agreed that here and in the U.S., the “stuff” that is going on in our students’ lives have everything to do with how successful they are or are not in school. I believe some in my circle at Oakton think that being a student is the end all be all of our student’s purpose – yes they are students, but it is not all they are. I also think we forget just how important  those things are that happen outside of classes. I am not talking about co-curricular and extra-curricular activities – I’m talking about life. To complicate this fact, is that within a community college space (and in the ROC here), and increasingly in four-year spaces, students have a very utilitarian view of higher education. They are going to school to learn something, that they can then apply in very visible and rewarding ways afterwards. Do we engage students understanding this reality? Are we fighting to make them want to value education for education’s sake as in days of old, or at our elite universities? I know what we say, but do our policies reflect that? Do the courses students take and the teaching in the classroom reflect that? Do we have this conversation with our students on a regular basis? These are the questions I want to press upon my colleagues. There are no right answers, just different ones. And these questions deserve our attention on both a personal and institutional level.

While there are many students struggling, there are many students thriving. I had the opportunity to sit in on an English class (where they are learning to speak English that is), and students were giving presentations that day. They were of course nervous with a native speaker in the room, but they were fantastic. I had a chance to learn about their work experiences in their internships, while also providing feedback about their presentations and English. It was good to be in the classroom again in that way – and to interact with the students in that way. Later I traveled to the Tech and Bouw & Interieur (Building and Interior) Colleges.

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Colleagues from the U.S.
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Built by students

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Here they do a number of things, electrical, plumbing, concrete, woodworking, automotive, flooring, upholstery; basically anything in and out of buildings. Once again, I saw students on state of the art equipment doing real work, learning their craft. It is fascinating to watch this system of vocational education at work – and these students are quite young. They enter their ROC experience at 16/17, when many of our students are finishing high school still. It’s too early – as I expressed in an earlier post – but we don’t get it right either in the U.S. And many of these students seem so focused and mature for their ages. None more than those I met at the Horeca & Travel College (Hospitality and Travel).

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Much like our culinary schools, these are the cooks, facilities managers, and hospitality experts. We were greeted by a level 4 student, who served a the facility manager for his lower level peers. He was 19. After touring the grounds and meeting with the ROC Academy (which is their faculty professional development center or teaching and learning center in four-year spaces), we had a world-class dinner in the restaurant. The food was prepared by students, served by students, and the manager was a student. He was 17 – and he was good. Each student has this potential when coached, trained, and trusted. I love to see it in action – much like I love to see our students taking on leadership roles and student work experiences at our campus.

Dr. Angela Neal, Volunteer State Community College, and our Student Manager
Dr. Angela Neal, Volunteer State Community College, and our Student Manager

I’ll end this post with some fun shots from my holiday on Monday March 25 – which was also Memorial Day in the U.S. I visited Den Haag (The Hague), which is the political seat of power for the Netherlands. I went with Sandra (my host), and her brother-in-law who works for the government and is very knowledgeable about the city Though Amsterdam is the capital, Den Haag is where the parliament, prime minister, ministries and justices do their work.

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Ministry of Education
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Parliament Building
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U.S. Embassy (not so hot huh lol)
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Me and Sandra (she’s so photogenic!)
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Embassy of Pakistan (now that’s an embassy lol)
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Peace Palace

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There is also a great little attraction known as Madurodam, which is basically a model village of all the major attractions across the country! It is one of the coolest things I’ve seen. Such amazing detail and attention to the many wonders of this place. Enjoy!

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