Meeting students where they are

I met with my regularly scheduled appointments.  Each time I meet with these students I come away with questions on how to better serve them and how they are functioning at the university, in general.  The International Office connected these particular students because they are having a difficult time with their classes.  Some of them were almost kicked out of the university for not passing enough credits.  However, working with them on particular writing assignments is not always what I’m asked about when they come to meet with me.  This week George (not his real name) brought a friend along to his appointment.  They both had questions about basic study skills.   The questions weren’t just “how do I study?” No, rather these questions were along the lines of “I get up at 3am to study.  Then I go to class and I’m falling asleep but when I lay down to sleep I’m wide awake.  What should I do?”  My first thought was one of “This isn’t what I’m here for.  I’m not an expert on this.”  But how can I deny them some sort of help when they are trying and reaching out?

Then I recalled so much of what I’ve learned about what it means to be the first in your family to attend university. They are here without a personal safety-net.  The type of support many of us take for granted.  If you aren’t the first in your family (village) to attend university, if you run into a snag you can call home and one of your parents or even an older sibling can help you work through the issue.  Even if they don’t have the answer they know enough about how a university functions and the systems in place they can direct you how best to find the help you need.  These particular students do not have that resource and bring with them a different set of disadvantages than the South African students.  I don’t want to say worse because to each student their set of disadvantages are their own personal struggle and I do not like getting into “my suffering is worse than yours” arguments.  Since I’m coming from the outside I also do not want to put qualifiers because it can get too close to judgement for my liking.

While they lack a personal safety-net of family or community, they are here as a group.  They help support each other through the difficulties they have had getting assimilated into South Africa’s university system.  Each time I work with George and the other Nigerian students I always have it in the back of my mind how limited my time is here.  Empowering them with off-line tools for improving their academic writing because they do not have internet at home and computer labs are difficult to access here on campus.  Often when I was at the Write Place and working with English 190 students I would give students links to online resources, it became second nature.  I especially like giving students links to EngVid videos because then students can easily watch it over at their own pace to better understand the topic.  George told me that he has tried to watch the links I sent him in the library but that sometimes the computers in the library are too slow to view them properly.

So, we had a conversation about study habits.

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