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Ask This!

Going to College?

by LAURA FINLEY

Students heading off to college for the first time or even to a new campus as a transfer are always full of questions. As an academic adviser at my university, I am happy to answer whatever a student or parent who accompanies their son or daughter might ask.  Most of the questions I have been asked, however, are related to the pathway to graduation and career opportunities thereafter.

While surely these are important areas for consideration, I believe that both students and their parents might benefit from asking a different set of questions that better gets at the real goal of higher education: to transform young people into people who can create a better world. To that end, I offer the following five potential questions that students and/or their parents should ask when they meet with academic advisers, university admissions staff, orientation leaders, or others with whom new students interact in their first few days. I briefly unpack each here, although surely many other extension questions can be appropriate as well.

1.    What is the classroom experience actually like? Will professors work hard to reach learners of all sorts?

This is essential, since we all know that people learn in many different ways. Since most of the education in the U.S (from K-12 through college) privileges verbal learners who can listen and take notes from which they study, this question is particularly important for those who require different teaching modes.

2.    Does advising focus only on coursework and timely graduation?

Some might ask, but what else would it emphasize? The answer is: A lot! If faculty members are the advisers, these sessions can be an important one-on-one mentoring session in which career and life tips are shared. Good advisers can help students understand not only how to prepare for their careers but also how to use the skills and knowledge they are obtaining to better their communities.

3.    Are there opportunities for students to interact with faculty and staff outside of the classroom?

Students can and should be offered opportunities to engage in campus and community service in which their professors are involved, as well as in research projects. These experiences not only add to students’ knowledge base but they also enhance their confidence and leadership skills.

4.    Is the campus safe?

Colleges and universities are responsible for creating safe educational spaces for students. This includes minimizing the risk that students will be harmed by some of the most common crimes occurring on campuses, like sexual assault and dating violence, but also that classrooms and other environments will be safe for students to express their beliefs and ideas without suffering emotional or physical danger. Is there any written campus civil discourse set of standards? Do professors protect that safe educational environment even when uncomfortable conversations are encouraged (for example, would a student be allowed to use a racial, gender, sexual, religious, or other identity slur)?

5.    Does the college or university celebrate the achievements of ALL students?

As a former collegiate athlete, I surely benefitted from the privilege many colleges and universities afford to student-athletes in terms of accolades. But much research has shown that the best educational climates are those in which different skills and knowledges are not only acknowledged but applauded. That means that colleges and universities must be equally excited, and share that excitement, when the Ethics Bowl Team, the Model UN, or other clubs, organizations, or students achieve at high levels.

I believe that advisers should be able to respond to each of the above. If not, it says a lot about the institution.  In sum, students, and the parents or others who support them, deserve an education that will not only teach but transform. It is my hope that perhaps this line of inquiry can help people determine whether a specific college or university is the best place for that to occur.

Laura Finley, Ph.D., teaches in the Barry University Department of Sociology & Criminology and is syndicated by PeaceVoice.