Can “Grit” Alone Fuel College Persistence During COVID-19?

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By Dominique McKoy, Associate Director of the To&Through Project

For more than a decade, the concept of increasing “grit” — perseverance in the face of challenges — has served as a driving theory behind improving the college graduation rates of first-generation, low-income (FGLI) students of color. This prevailing belief argues that educators can teach grit to FGLI students, who in turn will better navigate the systemic challenges they face on white-dominant college campuses. However, for FGLI students from Chicago and across the country, 2020 has stretched the limits of “grit” to its breaking point.

We know that low income students of color and their families are more likely to be directly affected by the devastation of COVID-19 and systemic racial injustice. For perspective, in Chicago, where Black and Latinx residents make up 59% of the population, they account for over 75% of all recorded COVID-19 related deaths. The employment rate for Cook County’s low-wage workers has decreased 35% since the beginning of the pandemic. We live in a city where 90% of documented instances of police use of force involve Chicagoans of color.

As college success advocates in this moment, we must consider whether asking our students to persevere more is truly a credible or responsible strategy.

This spring, the To&Through Project launched the Experts by Experience podcast in an effort to provide a platform for Chicago Public School (CPS) graduates to discuss how COVID-19 and systemic racism are impacting their post-secondary journeys. In each episode, our experts — Black and Latinx college students — reflected on their personal successes, the challenges exacerbated by the pandemic, and their needs as FGLI students.

Our conversations provided perspective on how higher education institutions, college success organizations, and practitioners can better respond to the evolving needs of current FGLI students. Through our conversations, three key learnings emerged for FGLI student advocates working to build more inclusive experiences on college campuses.

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While many of our guests were appreciative of their institutions’ attempts to support students during this tumultuous spring, they detailed the challenge of sorting through the vast amount of information and outreach extended to students in need. As they navigated the flood of emails detailing rapidly changing policy decisions in response to the pandemic, many turned to student support networks for information. For our guests, these social networks proved to be the most trusted and efficient method for remaining informed about available institutional resources.

Since the early days of the pandemic, college students have leveraged social media and virtual campus platforms to organize their own responses to the disruptions of COVID-19. At the University of Chicago, students established UChicago Mutual Aid, a collective founded upon the principle of “people taking care of one another,” to connect students in need with those who had the ability to assist. Chicago Latinx Scholars, a student-led online community founded in 2016 by our guest Guillermo, a 2020 graduate of Stanford University, turned their focus to connecting members to national resources that could support their persistence through college. Across the country, students have organized, cultivated communities, and offered one another a lifeline when they’ve needed it most.

These student support networks provide us with an opportunity to learn how students approach and prioritize grassroots efforts for mutual support. Opportunities exist to explore how we as a college success community can leverage these student networks to spread awareness, disseminate aid, and ensure institutional efforts reach those most in need. To the extent that we are aware of these communities, we can help further their impact.

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In Episode 4, our co-host Yessica Vargas, a FGLI student at the University of Chicago, highlighted Dr. Melissa Osborne’s work around the concept of the “double bind,” describing the persistent “push” and “pull” that FGLI students and students of color experience as they learn to navigate predominantly white and wealthy spaces without losing touch with, or support from, the communities they come from. Navigating this double bind openly and in community with other FGLI students of color provided our guests with the social, emotional, and academic support to continue on the path to graduation.

The murder of George Floyd has forced a reflective moment for college campuses across the country as they consider their responsibility to create inclusive campus experiences for students of color. When we asked our guests what supports were helping them persist, again and again they pointed to the unique and important benefits of communities built around shared identity. They highlighted cultural centers, community groups, and identity-focused programs programs that allowed them to build connections among students with shared backgrounds and develop relationships they would depend on in their daily progression through college. This proved especially true for the students of color attending predominantly white institutions, or “PWIs.”

Yessenia, a fourth-year student at Dominican University, described how the connections she made through her campus’ Undocumented Immigrant Alliance provided her with reassuring faces that she could depend on throughout campus to help her develop a sense of belonging early in her college career. Jameelah, a 2020 graduate at the University of Illinois, shared that her campus website helped her get connected with the university’s Black House, which she credited with providing her with the emotional support and mentorship she needed to graduate.

While not all of our guests shared the experience of finding cultural communities on campus, all made it clear that investments made — or not made — in support of helping FGLI students build a sense of community sent a clear message regarding whether the university understood how burdensome the double bind can be. Our guests were clear: dedicated spaces on campus and intentional programming that allow them to develop a sense of belonging matter exponentially more than any of the solidarity statements they read this summer.

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As our guests noted, an institution’s priorities are made evident by their response to a crisis. FGLI student communities have been paying close attention to the institutional responses of their schools these past few months and are continuing to monitor how these responses are evolving. Some of our guests described professors who adjusted their course work in accordance with the pandemic transition and provided flexibility around finals that corresponded with the demonstrations and civil unrest surrounding the murder of George Floyd. While they appreciated the empathy demonstrated by their professors, they also highlighted the dangers of relying on the good will of individual educators in place of institutional policy. In many classes, business continued as usual, creating nerve-wracking moments of frustration. Our guests questioned why so few of their universities’ solidarity statements were accompanied with programming and policy updates that represented a change.

While all college students are experiencing this pandemic, as our conversations demonstrated, not all students are experiencing it equally. All students may likely feel some social isolation, but the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on their communities placed additional strain on the mental health of many of our guests. They described difficulty concentrating, increased anxiety, and at times, a sense that the academic expectations placed on them by their universities did not always mirror their reality. As our co-host Yessica put it “I don’t have the privilege to put my academics first.”

FGLI students we spoke with were not asking for a handout, but rather an acknowledgement of the extraordinary circumstances and the unique impacts this pandemic has had on their experience.

Students will remember how their institutions responded and we as college advocates need to as well.

As we think about college counseling in the post-pandemic landscape, an opportunity exists to elevate institutions that retain their FGLI students throughout these crises. We must also continue to prioritize the lived experiences of FGLI students on all campuses serving CPS students and leverage these learnings in the guidance we provide to future FGLI students.

As this pandemic continues, colleges across the country face difficult decisions as they reimagine what campus life will look like beyond 2020. This moment provides us with the opportunity to examine how we can create conditions for FGLI students most deeply impacted by this pandemic to thrive on their chosen post-secondary pathways. Most importantly, it provides us with a chance to think critically about their role in helping guide the decisions that will most directly impact their own journeys to and through college. The question that remains is: When we will make the time to listen?

We are grateful to those students who, with a spirit of courage and vulnerability, shared these key insights in an effort to improve our understanding of their experiences through the Experts by Experience podcast:

Co-host and co-producer Yessica Vargas, University of Chicago; George Washington High School
Yahriel, Fisk University; Legal Prep Academy
Kiara, Malcolm X College; King College Prep
Yoselin, Harold Washington College; Little Village High School
Jameelah, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; Hope High School
Miciah, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; Air Force Academy
Quintin , Eastern Illinois University; Chicago Academy
Elijah, Illinois State University; Air Force Academy
Elliott, Purdue University; Air Force Academy
Sherelin, Roosevelt University; Juarez High School
Yessenia, Dominican University; Back of the Yards College Prep
Carmen, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; Noble Johnson College Prep
LaShawndra, Albion College; Noble Johnson College Prep

The Experts by Experience podcast is a series of discussions with college students from Chicago who are navigating the current rupture in their educational journeys. Through our monthly discussions with students, we aimed to shed light on the impact of the COVID-19 crisis and fight against racial injustice on young Chicagoans who are pursuing higher education. These discussions provide opportunities for students to share their insights on how educators, policymakers, and college success practitioners can best support them through this new normal. The series also highlights the innovative ways that students themselves are adjusting in real time to rapidly evolving conditions. Listen to the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or Soundcloud.

The To&Through Project aims to increase high school & post-secondary completion for under-resourced students of color in Chicago & around the country.

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