I left work earlier than usual and ran into a colleague of mine, Eddie Banks-Crosson, Syracuse University's Director of Fraternity & Sorority Affairs, and two students I advise stepping out of a car carrying shopping bags. This planned shopping trip was meant to teach these two Latino students the subtleties of buying a suit and dress shoes.
It made me reflect on the first time I wore a suit as a young adult. I was embarrassed I didn't own one. I had always generally relied on my family to help with matters of clothing but in this case, I was on my own. I ended up borrowing one from a friend who was much slimmer and I had to make the best of an awkward situation. Eddie's good gesture speaks to a larger issue that many of us, as staff of color, face -- having to be more than just an adviser to our students.
This is not to say that SU students of color do not have resources. Programs like Student Supportive Services (SSS), CSTEP, and LSAMP provide academic support services for those that qualify. The Office of Multicultural Affairs (OMA) has academic and mentoring programs targeted to specific students as well as programs geared towards celebratory months (i.e. Black History Month). With all this, students of color seemingly have plenty of support. However, despite the incredible things these offices do, they are small in comparison to the need. Studies have shown that Latino students tend not to do well in predominantly white institutions due to the culture shock they feel when unable to connect to a familiar or familial culture. By making academic counseling the only focus we have strayed away from offering the interpersonal interactions that most students in that population thrive upon.
There is no secret in our industry that the number of staff of color is not keeping with the rapid number of students of color being admitted into universities. Despite the rise in admission, Latino retention rates continue to dip compared to other student populations. Some point to a link between the low retention rate of Latino students and the lack of Latino faculty and staff to mentor them. When it comes to guidance outside the classroom, these students are left with a sparse amount of staff to identify with.
Of course, the few Latino administrators available to make personal connections with Latino students create a dynamic group of staff always willing to donate the extra amount of time, making them more like "super-administrators." For example, I advise five student groups: La LUCHA, Los Colores, Lambda Sigma Upsilon, Sigma Beta Rho and co-advise (with Eddie) NALFO. This doesn't count the 20+ students that work for me. By no means do I feel that this experience is unique to just me but it goes to show the level of comfort students have with us versus the limited amount of us to choose from. This is why people like Eddie and other African American staff play a huge role in mentoring Latinos as well.
This makes me reflect on a time when there was no OMA. That office was created in 1996 -- the year I graduated. I never qualified for any other programs mentioned above because my father "earned too much income" since he worked overtime for Con Edison. I wandered my 4.5 years at SU with no guidance, so if I can help it, I will try to not let other students go through the same experience.
Unfortunately, I know what is like to almost not graduate. I know how it feels to be bored with classes and distracted by outside forces like girls and family. I know the type of loneliness felt when you're the only person of color in a class filled with white students and the pressure of having to speak for your race. In my case, it seemed I was speaking for both Blacks and Latinos, another point of anxiety that added to my stress as a student. I went through so much without anyone to go and not knowing if there was someone that I could talk to. In other words, we really need more Latinos employed in the field of Higher Education to make our Latino students feel as if they are part of a family -- a support system they can look forward to.
There's no wonder why two students can ask someone like Eddie for lessons in dressing professionally. This is the part of the job we, as staff of color, that isn't on paper -- providing students with the discipline of authority and the comfort of family.