The convergence of the COVID-19 international pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement, occurring over the spring, and now summer, have demonstrated that the spectrum of needs in Maslow’s hierarchy still apply. Both phenomena highlight the universal fact that self-actualization cannot be reached until the basic needs of physical well-being and safety are achieved. The goal that every college or university has for students is self-actualization, that each student will reach their fullest potential. As we approach the fall term with all manner of plans for social distancing, perhaps even distance learning, what else do we need to keep in mind? Few of us ever imagined the need to think about student well-being in light of a pandemic, where the entire structure of outreach and support services, even students’ own social support networks have been so severely disrupted; all of this couched within an outcry of people of color for equality and inclusion. However, here we are. So, the question becomes, what do we need to keep in mind about student needs as we do so?
First, with regard to basic physiological needs, even before these past several months, the number of students with demonstrable, acute need was and remains astounding but the degree of need we can anticipate this fall is frightening. Our Institutional Advancement office at William Paterson University created an emergency relief fund, through the generous contributions of alumni, our own staff and faculty, and foundations. We had over one thousand applications (about 15% of our undergraduate population) for non-tuition-related needs (viz., to help with rent, groceries, utility and internet bills, etc.). Surely, the problem before the pandemic with meeting basic life-expenses, and the subjective stress this causes, which contributed to some students' difficulties with persistence, will mount to near catastrophic levels this fall.
Secondly, recent public deaths of African Americans have shined a blinding light on inequities in the justice system. African American students experience a compounded effect when they face discrimination on college campuses and then witness violence on social media against others who look like them. In fact, African Americans are exposed to racial trauma more than any other racial/ethnic group, which has been shown to have psychological effects such as hypervigilance to avoidance, as well as physiological effects such as headaches and heart palpitations. There is a need to help Black students have a sense of belonging and safety on college campuses nationwide.
Both these occurrences speak to the importance of student well-being, in its many dimensions, for student success. The student well-being literature has focused on psychological or subjective well-being (e.g., autonomy, competence, and relatedness). This has occurred in light of the documented increase in students’ perceived stress and mental health issues (viz., depression and anxiety). In recent years, there has been greater recognition that many students are food and housing insecure. Racial disparities also exist with COVID-19, with the New York Times highlighting that the contraction rate for African Americans is three times higher than other groups. Due to more basic physiological needs, these students are chronically at risk. The circumstances we currently face bring these psychological and physiological needs together in a way we have not encountered as plainly before. We contend that despite the enormous challenges students (and we) face, there is also unique opportunity presented by this confluence.
Concepts of student well-being that have been prevalent in higher education have tended to focus on health promotion and mindfulness. However, the idea of well-being exceeds health defined by the disease model (the absence of disease). Considering Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, well-being suggests a combination of physical, psychological, and spiritual flourishing. As such, in the era of COVID-19 and BLM, proper health education, while vital, will not by itself be enough to enable student well-being. A complementary view of well-being, stemming from the sociological literature, advocates for expanding the more psychological considerations to the school and community environment, as well as to social relationships, economics, and political power. For all students, especially African Americans, a sociological approach that integrates community and school resources can be most effective. The connections for students between their university life and home has become quite transparent during this crisis. Given the extreme level of need many students are experiencing, universities alone will not be able to meet that need, despite enhanced and modified on-campus support services. Partnering with community resources (e.g., community food banks) will be more important than ever and each of us will need to be engaged with this effort of connecting with students and actively empathizing with their concerns.
Well-being must be re-defined when living conditions change; something we are radically seeing with the sociopolitical unrest in the country as well as COVID-19. The present two-pronged revolution serves as a perfect catalyst for implementing the spectrum of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The major challenge we face as university educators, regardless of the role we play (faculty or staff), is how to properly acknowledge and address these multiple barriers students face. How do we help students find the resilience and grit within themselves and the resources without, to enroll (or re-enroll) in school, and then feel engaged and focused on their studies? How will we facilitate what Roy Schafer called an “atmosphere of safety”?
The only certainty is that we cannot carry on business as usual and pretend that this fall semester will be like any other we have known. It must be all hands-on deck for students to help them begin college, transition back in, persist, and succeed. It will be crucial, whatever role we play, that we engage students, demonstrate concern for their “being”, ask them how and what they are doing, and what they need from us to feel respected as a valuable member of the college or university, and society. Besides having their basic needs met, students need human encounters and demonstrated concern more than ever. Academic success, retention, and student well-being have become even more complicated and related, especially due to the new challenges we face. As Maslow (1962) said over fifty years ago, “growth can emerge only from safety” (p. 51). By meeting these more basic needs, students may be able to grow, develop, and realize their higher-level needs for self-fulfillment through higher education.
Addressing racial trauma presents another untraveled path for educational staff. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network recommends that educators create a “brave” environment in which emotionally charged discussions about the historical and present impact of racism can be facilitated which requires risk on the part of school systems. Now more than ever, just when face-to-face engagement seems fraught with new dangers, we need to engage and energize our students regarding the pursuit of their education, while being careful not to separate educational goals from personal well-being. An integrative approach that connects pedagogical efforts with student well-being is necessary if students are to succeed and thrive. Helping them find a way out of the economic constraints they may be oppressed by and to see a way to overcome the despair they may feel regarding their future prospects, will be critical. Higher education may play a valuable role in this, if we dare to engage students in the ways they need us to.
Thank you for reading! We are interested in your thoughts, comment below.
In light of national events in reaction to the murder of George Floyd, I wanted to share something I wrote for Mental Health Education Group in August 2019:
By Dr. LaShauna Dean, LPC, ACS, NCC, MAC
Mental Health Education Press Advisory Council & Guest Blogger
Last summer I was asked to train all of the employees at my university in diversity and inclusion, which got me thinking: what is the most important information I need our employees to know? Immediately, I knew that I wanted to talk about the subtle, more covert forms of racism, oppression, and discrimination faced by those who have minority identities (e.g. religious, sexual, gender, and racial minorities as well as those with various ability levels). Our society has come a long way from the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s during which people of color, primarily African Americans, marched and protested for equal rights and treatment. However, we are now facing unprecedented covert divisiveness that threatens the very fabric of diversity in this country. So how do we address an enemy that is hard to identify, call out, and stop…the answer lies in understanding our unconscious bias.
Let’s look at an example of covert divisiveness from current events happening in media. Recently, President Trump told four women of various minority identities to “go back” to the countries they came from. At its base that statement is steeped in bias, primarily the bias that those women of color are not true Americans and should not have input into the politics of America. The truth is that three of the four women were born in this country, therefore are true Americans. So why would he make that comment? The answer can be found in a concept popularized by leading psychologist, Derald Sue, called microaggressions. Microaggressions are “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color” (Sue et al., 2007). The statements that President Trump made were not overtly racist, but they definitely shine a spotlight on his bias; the bias that only White Americans are true Americans, and everyone else is other.
Sue et al. (2007) further explained microaggressions typically fall into three types: microassault, microinsult, and microinvalidation. Microassaults are very similar to overt forms of racism and are “explicit racial derogation characterized primarily by a verbal or nonverbal attack meant to hurt the intended victim through name-calling, avoidant behavior, or purposeful discriminatory actions” (Sue et al., 2007, p. 274). Microinsults are less obvious and very subtle slights usually committed unintentionally by the aggressor. Lastly, microinvalidations are “communications that exclude, negate, or nullify the psychological thoughts, feelings, or experiential reality of a person of color”, which seemed to be President Trump’s goal in making those comments about the four congresswomen (Sue et al., 2007, p. 274). Therein lies the danger of microaggressions, those statements did not have to be blatantly racist in order to achieve their goal: discrediting the political contributions of women of color who seek to change the balance of power traditionally held by White men. Overtime, comments like those made by Trump will plant seeds of doubt into the minds of people with similar biases about what a true American looks like, hence the insidiousness.
As I currently train over 600 employees about microaggressions, several themes have arisen from our conversations:
1. If you are not from a marginalized group, microaggressions can seem like political-correctness overkill. Here’s a video that highlights how people from the dominant as well as one minority group feels about microaggressions: https://youtu.be/QFSkLZzjx0w?t=6. In the video, a news anchor can be heard discrediting and invalidating the experience of microaggressions. On a deeper level, she is saying “your experience with racial inequities do not matter, get over it” which is a message many people of color and individuals from other minority status groups hear often. I’ve been told, “listen, slavery happened over 400 years ago, when are your people going to get over it”. That comment really affected me on the emotional level through the pain and hurt I felt and on the cognitive level through the dissonance I felt being Black in this country. What the person didn’t acknowledge and hence invalidated in that statement, is the constant strife and discrimination African Americans face daily which all leads back to slavery; so how could we possibly just get over it as it still affects us today. In reality, these everyday occurrences may, on the surface, appear quite harmless, trivial or described as “small slights,” but research indicates they have a powerful impact upon the psychological well-being of marginalized groups, and affect their standard of living by creating inequities in education, employment, and health care.
2. In responding to microaggressions, the person aggressed against is often left to deal with several conflicting emotions. They are questioning, “did that just happen because I’m black… or gay…or Muslim?”. While at the same time battling feelings of hurt and anger and generally not knowing how to respond. In the moment in which a microaggression takes place, the victim is often left speechless therefore does not offer any response except a startled expression. This does damage in two ways: one, it leaves the microaggressor clueless about the slight they just committed; and two, it leaves the victim with a feeling of helplessness or missed opportunity to speak up for themselves and their culture. Leaving the microaggressor clueless or unaware of the bias in their statement is really concerning as it is a missed opportunity to bring awareness to their comment and the bias underneath it and stops that opportunity to hopefully prevent future occurrences.
3. The power of being a bystander or witness to a microaggression is REAL. As previously mentioned in the points above, the victim of a microaggression is often left at a loss of words in the moment. However, a bystander who witnesses the microaggression has a unique opportunity to not only challenge the microaggression itself but also validate the experiential reality of the victim. Just imagine being on the receiving end of daily or weekly microaggressions and how exhausting it must feel to constantly hear lightly veiled attacks on an aspect of your identity. Overtime, those attacks can do real damage. A study done by Nadal (2012) found “… that people of color who encounter greater amounts of racial microaggressions are likely to exhibit a number of mental health issues, such as depression or negative affect as well as physical health issues such as pain or fatigue” (para. 5). Additionally, microaggressions were associated with greater anxiety and binge-drinking episodes in college students of color (Blume, Lovato, Thyken, & Denny, 2012). Your power to advocate and bear witness to a victim of a microaggression is essential. As a bystander, we are in a better position to challenge the microaggression without the negative emotions skewing the message we are attempting to send. So, speak out if you witness a microaggression and validate the person on the receiving end!
4. People don’t know how to address or speak out against a microaggression. Many of the participants in my trainings expressed their reluctance to address a microaggression for several reasons: not knowing exactly what to say, being fearful of retribution especially if there was a power differential, and lastly, being overwhelmed with thoughts and emotions in the moment that causes a defensive response to emerge. Luckily, Kenny (2014) provided concrete guidance on how to address microaggressions in ways that can lead to meaningful conversations. You can use any of the five strategies below to address a microaggression:
INQUIRE: Ask the speaker to elaborate. “Can you elaborate on your point?”
REFLECT: Mirror what the speaker is saying which can illuminate the unconscious bias. “So it sounds like you think…”
REFRAME: Create a different way for the person to look at the situation. “Have you ever thought about it like this..."
REDIRECT: Shift the focus to a different person or topic. “Let’s shift the focus to…”
REVISIT: Re-addressing the microaggressions even if the moment has passed. “I want to go back to something that was brought up…”
A professor of mine used to always ask, “what’s the so what factor?” For me, the so what factor is how can we reduce the dynamics that seek to divide us in this country? One way is to acknowledge that we all have implicit bias that may affect our interactions with others on a daily basis. It is important for us to not only accept those biases but be open to exploring them so that we can challenge and unpack them. If racism and discrimination is moving towards becoming more covert, we have to be willing to call it out of its hiding places. We cannot turn a blind eye and allow our bias to become invasive and divisive to the point where we have no empathy for the experiences of marginalized groups. My hope is that by bringing awareness to the concept of microaggressions, I can start the process of introspection desperately needed by so many in this country.
Thank you for reading,
Blume, A. W., Lovato, L. V., Thyken, B. N., & Denny, N. (2012). The relationship of microaggressions with alcohol use and anxiety among ethnic minority college students in a historically White institution. Cultural Diversity & Ethnic Minority Psychology, 18(1), 45-54.
Kenney, G. (2014). Interrupting Microaggressions. College of the Holy Cross, Diversity Leadership & Education. Retrieved 5from https://www.holycross.edu/sites/default/files/files/centerforteaching/interrupting_microaggressions_january2014.pdf.
Nadal, K. L. (2012). Trayvon, T. S. When racial biases and microaggressions kill. Communique. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/pi/oema/resources/communique/2012/07/microaggressions.aspx
Sue, D. W., Capodilupo, C. M., Torino, G. C., Bucceri, J. M., Holder, A. M. B., Nadal, K., & Esqulin , M. (2007). Racial microaggressions in everyday life: Implications for clinical practice. American Psychologist, 62, 271-286.
Sue, D. W. & Sue, D. (2012). Counseling the culturally diverse: Theory and practice (6th ed.). New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.