What I Wish I Had Known About Students’ Well-being: A Former Faculty Member’s Perspective

Diego (not his real name) came into my office, unannounced and outside of my office hours, to ask me a series of questions that I had already answered in the syllabus. Every professor has experienced this more than once. Despite my mild annoyance, I answered all of Diego’s questions. Then, the real reason for his visit revealed itself: did I have a spare copy of the $80 textbook he could borrow for the term? I did. (Note: It was an older edition of the textbook, if any publisher sales rep comes asking!) I told him to keep the spare, and I never thought further about the exchange. Until now.

In my previous roles as a Teaching Associate and a Visiting Assistant Professor, I generally assumed that my students were doing well. Nothing I had seen in the classroom would lead me to believe otherwise. Reflecting on Diego’s case, I knew that an $80 textbook could be pricey for students. Even so, most students seemed to figure it out or find ways around the cost by using the library copy or renting. I held an implicit assumption that if students were genuinely facing difficulties, they would simply ask for help—as Diego did.

Today, I’m revising those assumptions in light of COVID-19 and as part of my current role at Student-Centered Design, where I get the opportunity to speak and listen to students about their experiences (notably without the role of determining their grades).   

Here are two things I wish I had known:

1. Students probably won’t ask faculty for help, even though faculty comprise their main point of contact with the college.

In the classroom, students are always aware that their performance is being evaluated. Some students are so aware of this fact that they take care to strike a good impression beyond just the first day of class. To that effect, there is a range of students who may hesitate to ask for help—academic or otherwise—to avoid appearing vulnerable or underprepared. Some may feel ashamed of needing help and would prefer to hide their needs. Others may believe that their professors cannot relate to them as students because of their gender, socio-economic background, or race–so it’s not worth approaching their professors at all.

One example of this occurred when I served as a Teaching Assistant (TA) in graduate school. A student who wasn’t in my discussion sections came to me for assistance instead of her TA. The student said that she approached me because I was the only female TA for that class; she felt like I would be better positioned to help and understand her dilemma.

Because students may be reluctant to ask their professors for assistance, faculty are inclined to make the same assumption I did—that their students don’t need help unless they ask for it.

2. Accessing available resources is not straightforward.

It can be more cumbersome for students to take advantage of resources than we realize. Small policies can easily overcomplicate a students’ ability to access a resource. Some examples might include: caps on the number of times a student can visit or use a resource, requirements to disclose financial details, or a “one box per car” policy for collecting food pantry items—requiring students to have a car while simultaneously eliminating the possibility for carpooling.

Even if lack of awareness and other limitations or policy restrictions aren’t issues, students may fear being judged by staff or feel overwhelmed by the need to document their need to receive the benefit.  

For example, one student told me that when accessing the college food pantry, they felt as though they were being judged for using it: “I felt pressured to over-compensate [and explain] for the volunteer to stop being rude to me.”

Sara Goldrick-Rab at The Hope Center has referred to this as students needing to “perform their poverty.” In these situations, students anticipate a negative experience or an overly burdensome process that compounds feelings of hopelessness or unworthiness. The sum of these bad experiences ultimately undermines the value of that resource for students, making resources inaccessible in practice, and closing opportunities to foster a culture of care and support.

Here’s What I’m Learning:

I’m learning that questioning our assumptions about how students are doing and listening to them when they communicate challenges can be an essential first step in setting students up for success. COVID-19 has made clear that when it comes to student well-being, the status quo isn’t working–especially for marginalized students. COVID-19 has also made it clear that there are opportunities for being flexible and creative when it comes to developing solutions to the challenges students face.

By embracing and integrating resource and benefits access work into long-term strategic priorities now, colleges (and I argue, faculty) can be instrumental in ensuring students can enroll, stay enrolled, and accomplish their goals. The effects of COVID-19 on students will persist far beyond this year, and developing a proactive culture of needs assessment is a smart institutional thing to do and a best practice for fostering student well-being.