Precedent is the Enemy of Equity

As a senior leader within the community college sector of higher education, I am constantly challenged by the notion of creating a “precedent” when trying to serve students. Our students are very different from one another. They each have unique challenges, backgrounds, levels of preparation, barriers, and goals. Creating solutions for them to be successful is not possible with a one-size-fits-all approach. I believe during this pandemic, we are all in a place where we need to be reminded that what worked before, may not work now. In fact, there is no “before.” Perhaps this is a chance for us to re-think how we serve students our students, all of whom are really struggling in unique and unprecedented ways.

Let me first note that this is not my preferred mode of operating. This is a learned behavior and perspective. For my personality assessment nuts out there, I am an ESTJ; Consistency is in my Top 5 strengths; in work environments I behave in the Dominance and Conscientiousness sectors of the DiSC. I’m also a Taurus for my Zodiac fans out there. In other words, I prefer a world built on rules, logic, order, convention, and certainty. Precedent used to be my favorite word. I used to want to practice law, and am still fascinated by legalese and interested in law in all its forms. The problem is, I do not work in a courtroom, I work in a college.

Higher education is an environment where policies, processes, and practices are created from a framework built on equality (sameness). Some of us in higher education are most comfortable in that environment (I’m looking at you Registrars, Financial Aid, and Business Office folks). This is why we are faced with the problem of creating or not creating a precedent when trying to serve our students. Complicating this is the fact that policies and guidance from external forces (e.g., state/federal laws, Department of Education, grant agencies, accrediting bodies), compel us to treat students the same, or at the minimum expect sameness in our approach to serving students.

I tend to try and use a better approach. One that continues to emerge as a powerful practice in higher education: equity. An equity lens calls us to make decisions for a specific student, based on their specific needs. When viewed from an equity lens, you can quickly come to see that what works for one student may not necessarily work for another. Even when the student and/or the situation are similar. Extended time on a test (formal accommodation or not), may be appropriate for one student in a particular situation, with a particular test, than for another. Forgiving a financial balance for one student with particular circumstances may make sense for one student, and not for another. Giving a particular disciplinary sanction to one student, and a different one to another student, even for the same infraction, might be appropriate given the unique circumstances of the student. In a world in which we look at each student and their situation as unique, the notion of precedent loses its relevance and its power.

This is easier said than done. Anything worth doing is easier said than done (think about that for a minute!) So I offer the following for my fellow educators – be it in the classroom or office – to adopt an equity approach to meeting student needs:

1. Commitment

This is not easy. You have to start with a belief that this is better, and adopt principles and philosophies to guide your decision making. That is the first step. Read up on equity mindedness, and get a real grasp of what it means. Dr. Estrella Bensimon at the Center for Urban Education at the University of Southern California does excellent work. I have learned a lot from her and her team.

2. Creativity

Think outside the box. I know its cliche, but what did you do to serve students during the last pandemic? What accommodations did you make last time students couldn’t come to campus? Exactly – old solutions and precedent won’t help you here. I find talking to and with other colleagues a great practice. Also read…a lot. Credible sources like the Chronicle of Higher Education and other higher education based publications. You’ll be surprised what they are doing at some obscure college in another part of the country!

3. Intentionality

To do this right you need to prepare before a decision needs to be made. Know your students. If you are part of the teaching faculty you should have a good sense of the barriers, challenges, and circumstances of your students. You also need to do your work to make sure you are not making decisions out of a desire to be a savior to students, or because you just “see yourself in them.” This is where your unconscious biases will get you in trouble. Do your work in this area.

4. Documentation

When you make a decision, explain it. Make sure the student and others who were part of the process know why it was made. Be specific, write it down, and file it. This will help you when you do peek back to know why solution A was applied to student A and not student B.

5. Time

As I said before, this is not fast work. It doesn’t have to take forever, but equity minded practices by definition take more time and intentionality (see #3).

6. Collaboration

Talk with your supervisor, direct reports, colleagues, and others about supporting your student and making decisions. There may be solutions right in front of you that you simply haven’t considered. It also models an important practice that others should be doing.

7. Compassion

You have to care. You have to empathize. You have to see the student and their uniqueness like you have a vested interest in their success. If this was your son, or mother, or best friend, wouldn’t you want care applied to the solution, as opposed to a cold and dated policy?

8. Strategic Thinking

Keep the big picture in mind. What is your real goal as an institution of higher education? Is that balance really unforgivable, if doing so guarantees the student will be finishing up their degree next semester? Also, aren’t they going to pay more back into the college than what their balance is? Is the time spent trying to fight keeping with precedent worth it? There are opportunity costs to every decision, so don’t be so narrow as to not see the big picture outside of your particular role at the institution. If you are a senior level person reading this, give permission and provide cover for your teams to apply equity minded solutions.

In the end, we must be courageous in providing support and help to students in a way that serves them and their unique situation. We can’t just throw precedent out, nor should we. We can look to the past as a factor in determining solutions, but it cannot be our only factor. It is not even the most important factor. We also cannot assume that the decision we are making will automatically apply to the next student. That student gets an equity minded analysis as well. While policies, procedures, and practices provide boundaries, they should not limit your choices in doing what is best for students. Choose equity.

Dr. Anthony

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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Ritual, Innovation, and Change

Friday May 22 and Saturday May 23

Blogging at the end of the night is impossible when my nights end late, which they did on both Friday and Saturday. Friday ended with these now regular chat with Sandra and Jerome over some wine and light snacks. I’m in love with the rituals this family keeps, and am taking notes as I think about how to be a better host. Rituals, like traditions, create a sense of belonging and purpose. A lesson for all of us is the power in daily routines to help us center ourselves, reflect, and prepare for the next day. With a child of my own I’ve learned to appreciate the power of routines. It is vital for her health and well-being. Of course once we get older we seem to drop our routines, and because we are so “busy” we accept the chaos that comes with everyday. I am going to think about my routines more at home and work – which ones are healthy and which ones should I ditch. Oh, and I saw a hedgehog! A real life, in the “flesh” hedgehog. I told my hosts that I’ve never seen one outside of a zoo – and never thought about why. But as it was crawling around their back porch I looked them up on the internet and found out they are not indigenous to the U.S. So there you have it – a hedgehog.

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A hedgehog – on the back porch!

I did have an opportunity to sit with two more staff members at the ROC Sports College in Amersfoort. One of those men was Bas (Sebastian), who was the Director of the college. He is equivalent to a Dean in the U.S., and he is responsible for reporting to the Chairman of the ROC and managing the affairs of the college. He actually started the Sports College almost 10 years ago, along with others I’ve met, including Jerome, of whom Bas speaks very highly. I learned more about the higher education system, and with each meeting I learn something new, gain clarity, and lose some as well! Understanding all of this takes time, and will take more time even after this exchange to get my head around. Bas and others started the college, so I began to think about how at Oakton we have some who have started the college 46 years ago still exerting influence in the college. There are others who have been there a really long time. I think how hard it is to change something that you’ve been so immersed in since the beginning. Part of my interest in doing this exchange is to examine how higher ed is administered, how the organizations are structured, who leaders are and how they lead, and how change is managed. When asked about how change is perceived and managed here, Bas commented that they were excited about change. At least within the Sports College change is welcome as a new opportunity from what I can tell, and because of the involvement of the teachers and others in the execution of change, there seems to be buy-in early in the process.

I mentioned in a previous post about the involvement and care of the teachers. After speaking with the Director, it seems that the teachers’ involvement is encouraged and insisted upon from the highest level of the organization. The teachers and other staff are the decision makers. Yes, the Director gives the larger goal to achieve, but all the details of how that will happen flows up from the rank and file. In fact, the Director said “my dilemma in leadership is to not interfere with how the team achieves its goals.” There is an inherent and well-earned trust among this team, one that lacks in some of the spaces where I work. I believe I can do better to develop trust in those around me, and also trust the people around me more. This trust-building process takes time. Time that we often sacrifice in the name of efficiency and “getting things done,” while in fact our ability to get things done is compromised by our lack of relationship building. I tell my students this all the time – but alas, I don’t always practice it.

There is an “Invocation and Education” team that I have to find a way to model at Oakton. It is something I have thought about a lot in terms of how we institutionalize creative problem solving using the talent within our division. This team is designed to do that for the Sports College. New ideas and ways to approach problems are discussed in this group, and the ideas can be generated from his group as well. At the end of the day you have well vetted ideas and solutions that can be attempted. I need to learn more about this team as I think how to apply the concept back home. I hope to see more people take ownership in the affairs of the College at all levels. I think that is missing – it’s my role as an institutional leader to create space for that culture to emerge.

Saturday was my triumphant return to Amsterdam! Very good day. Lots of walking and lots of sight-seeing (unstructured),

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the Amsterdam Dungeon,

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a canal tour,

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and some good drinks at Irish pubs and a steakhouse. The pictures say more than I can say – but it was a great day. Today is my day off – I won’t blog tomorrow about today as I’m mostly going to be at the house until dinner tonight with the family.

Tiny Cups and Orange Lights

Tuesday May 19, 2015
Big shout out to a critical colleague of mine at Oakton @DrGracia. She encouraged me more than she knows via Twitter. It’s tough to write daily – but I’m going to go, go, go. Thanks GNA:)
Tuesday was a good day. A long day, but one with more firsts and a great deal of learning. When I used to teach a student leadership course at the University of Louisville, there was a particular lesson about sustaining relationships that I really enjoyed teaching. In that section we would talk about the importance of “going places and doing things.” If you want to make an impact, if you want to clarify your values, if you want to create and sustain new relationships, you must go places and do things. Sounds simple, right? Well it is. I am fortunate to be able to go places far away and do things that require resources, but it wasn’t always that way. So hopefully this post, and all my posts, will allow you to go places and do things vicariously through me, while you also do your own thing.
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The smallest and simplest things entertain and amaze me when traveling abroad. They help me put into perspective things I take for granted, and challenges me to think differently about what I do and don’t do, and why I do it. The ultimate hope is that I am a better person, educator, parent, and person because of all this perspective-taking. And then some things are just hilarious. Take for instance the size of the cups here in Holland. Mind you I am used to drinking 20 oz of coffee to start each day, and then I arrive here and see these baby cups that look like I should be using them with my daughter at a pretend tea party. Jerome always joked back in the states that our cups were huge, even the small ones. Well now I see why. Or take how I saw a traffic light that to me is yellow, so I commented “yellow light!” since I literally hadn’t seen one since I’ve been here – to which Jerome erupts in laughter and says in his Aruba/Dutch accent which is so endearing, “no man, that’s orange!” Of course we argue for 15 minutes about how the other is wrong, and the way the other does it in their country is crazy. This of course is all in jest, and we laugh at how some people are unable to overcome things even more banal than this in the real world. And so we laugh, and appreciate each other, and realize our differences are what make us the same in the end.
I continue to engage my Dutch colleagues in discussions about race, racism, and the challenges we face in the U.S. They are exposed to many of the same biased and incomplete media images that we are. I was happy when a colleague said to me “I didn’t even think about that, and I’m glad we talked” in reference to why “it” [race] still matters so much in the U.S. I was able to get reacquainted with the higher education system of Holland, which differs in many ways from the U.S. Most notable is how “layered” the system is, in that there are many choices after primary school that can lead students on many different paths towards post-secondary education. It also seems that the way the schools are funded, everyone has an equal chance at a number of tracks, and where they go largely depends on their own talent in school and/or their effort. It’s the closest thing to a meritocratic education system as it gets. Seems simple enough, but in fact I am confident there are problems and disparities that show up. In the U.S. the “meritocracy” doesn’t exist because students are not experiencing primary education the same way. There are vast disparities in resources and outcomes for lower-income people. That apparently is not the case in the Holland system because of the funding structure of the schools. Even so I learned where our system has values and faults, and so did Jerome. I am most affirmed in my belief that we (globally it seems) still rush our students to know what they want to do, well before they are able to understand who they want to be.That’s a dangerous practice.
I am coming to understand that what the Dutch call efficiency is not merely getting things done faster, but getting things done better. I don’t think the end goal is simply to move fast, I think its to move with purpose – and things that don’t seem purposeful distract from their goals; in this case teaching the students. It wasn’t very “efficient” for us to drive out to a gym (which had a bar by the way – yes can I have another) for Jerome to asses a students work in organizing a basketball tournament. But the experiential “learning in action, learning is doing” model at the Sports College, recognizes that its the best way to assess whether the students really get it. It was amazing to watch – not only that the student was demonstrating his skills and what he learned, but it also benefited the community members with which he worked.

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Student organized basketball tournament

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Student organized basketball tournament

It’s not necessarily efficient to have so many shared, flexible spaces. Yes it saves on space, but it robs people of the privacy that we in US spaces crave. We would argue that it causes distractions, and lessens our ability to “get work done.” But what I observed was a lot of work getting done – better work, collaborative work, open work, and social work. It’s the kind of work that keeps you coming back, and silently holds you accountable to both showing up, getting things done, and learning to respect and honor the work that others are doing. I am reminded of the Hive that my colleague GNA started at Oakton – and I think how that creates that space if only for a short time each week.

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Flexible/shared office space

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Seating area/lounge space within the office

I also couldn’t tell who the “boss” was around the building. Yes people dressed the same, but it was more than that. There was a collegiality that pervaded the space, and I want to study that more as I speak with the formal leaders of the organization.
At the end of the night, me, Jerome and his partner Sandra continued a conversation that Jerome and I started in the car. We were talking about the efficacy of the social sciences, and how its impossible to know things with a certainty – and how dangerous it is to judge based on what we think we know about people. This is particularly relevant in our work as we are helping students to think through their own success, next steps, strengths, and talents in a way that is grounded in theory, but imperfect in practice. You understand people’s pedagogy when you spend time talking to them. I wonder how I can do that more with my colleagues at Oakton – to truly understand where their talents are and their challenges are as we try to do best by our students. Speaking of students…I love students – no matter where I go. I got to see the students in action, being taught, doing energizers, using their technology to create videos and present them at the end of the day. The students at the sports college are kinesthetic learners by nature, so sitting still and being quiet was a challenge to say the least. The instructors handled it with such patience and love.
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I was particularly taken with a student leader who is a Level 3/4 student, who is also one of the country’s top athletes in his sport (Cycling) and who I mistook as a teacher. He was so mature, poised, and helpful. Jason if you are reading this, thank you for being you, and doing it really well.

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Jason van Haaften

Other students were also very good to get to know, the clowns (and liars – you know who you are Jop) and the more serious ones. Each had their own style, energy, and sense of purpose. One student wanted to do more and be more partly because his dad said he should. He was so sure about what he wanted to do, at least it seemed that way. Just like our students in the U.S., they are just trying to figure it all out.

Personally I am doing well. I had the chance to visit a Pancake House for some Dutch pancakes for dinner. These are more akin to crepes in my opinion. We agreed they were somewhere between French crepes and American pancakes. I wasn’t a fan, neither was Jerome, but the service was excellent and the scenery was perfect.

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Dutch pancake

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When I prep myself for international travel I am reminded of the courses I taught and led to places in the Caribbean and Asia. I am reminded how powerful and effect the loss of routine can have on your mental and physical well-being. Not having your nightly cup of water; having to brush your teeth at odd times; nothing having your favorite food or access to your favorite music or “things.” Those things are what can set people off, much more than culture or country shock. I’m staying flexible in the face of my losses, and trying to stay present at all times. This is too important to let any loss overshadow the tremendous gains I’m experiencing.

Don’t Worry

I have this bit of advice to share for all you new graduates – and some of us older graduates too:

“Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”
~Matthew 6:34 NIV

dont_worry-177931Whether you are particularly religious or not, whether you are Christian or not, my hope is that you can see the wisdom in those words. I’m actually practicing doing this more myself. In higher education, particularly leadership education within higher ed, we always implore people to be present. Part of the reason people are not present is because they are distracted. And many people are distracted not by technology but by their own worry and stress about tomorrow. This scripture reminds us of two important facts. One, tomorrow will worry about itself. And two, there are too many troubles to deal with today to be worrying about tomorrow.

So as you start off in your new careers, particularly in higher ed, remember that balance starts with realizing that for today, focus on dealing with today. Today really needs you. The students in front of you, the meeting you’re in, the program you’re planning. Those are problems for today. And as I always say to those in my workplace – that other stuff…that’s a tomorrow problem.

Dr. Anthony

Evidence of Things Unseen

Colleges Campuses Are Full Of Subtle Racism And Sexism, Study Says.

First, way to go Missouri for trying to own your stuff and respond appropriately. This is a good read, and more evidence of problems across the academy. I don’t expect my colleagues who are part of the dominant culture (however that manifests in your space) to always understand, but you can try. This stuff is real, and has real impacts. I’m reading Whistling Vivaldi by Claude M. Steele now, pick it up – it’s a good one. It will also provide more evidence to the reality and impact of stereotype threat and how it affects us all.

It may be worth noting this line as an example: “I have to stop and think sometimes, ‘Are they being racist? Or, is that just how they act? Or, are they just not being friendly because they’re having a bad day?'” This is one of many Black/Brown taxes. It’s a tax others pay too depending on their many identities. While you’re asking that question, you’re not focusing on your studies, success, or other things we all think about and have to manage psychologically. This is why we have to do what we can, all of us, to create safe, accepting and welcoming spaces – particularly on college campuses.

Dr. Anthony

 

Solitude vs. Loneliness

Solitude vs. Loneliness

I don’t know this young scholar all that well, but social media has a way of blessing us at the most unexpected times. His words traveled across the ocean to fall on my heart at a time I really needed to read it. His words also reminded me of gifts from two of my favorite authors, bel hooks and Paulo Coelho. All of us wrestle with loneliness and solitude, and it can be hard to find your way in that moment. His blog post helped me to think through my loneliness and solitude in a time when those two fiends are regularly finding their way in my life.

Check out what Mark Anthony Torrez has to say about Feeling Blue in Barcelona.

Share with others who may need it, and I’m sure he won’t mind either.

Dr. Anthony