Being human with our students

by Lynn Carpenter, lecturer and advisor for the University of Michigan Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

I consider myself to be very fortunate and very privileged to have a job I love, to work with wonderful people, and to be able to teach some absolutely amazing young people who really are the future. I have been in the academic field for over 20 years now and yet I still learn new things from my students, almost every day. When I am teaching, I tell stories as we go through material. My hopes are that this will help my students to remember the material as well as be more engaged in the course. This week I am absolutely humbled to learn of a true story about one of my students.  In a personal statement that she has written for graduate school, she shared some information with me about her background and what she went through when she was here. I have to say, I am so humbled to learn what she has endured and what it means for her to be here that I wanted to share it with all of you.

This student (we will call her “Sarah”) comes from a traditional old-fashioned immigrant family. I became her advisor when she first came to Michigan about four years ago.  At our first meeting I knew Sarah was very bright, very kind, and an all-around impressive individual. I sensed that she would be a phenomenal student and during her first year I was right. She performed very well, and she was among the top of her class. Then her second year kicked in. Sarah became distant from me, her grades slid, and I didn’t know what to do to help her. When I tried to make contact with her, she would pop in for a quick chat as I requested. However, during our talks I could never figure out (or get the information out) regarding what was bothering her and what was happening with her. 

Over the next two years I became more and more worried about Sarah’s progress. I learned that she even petitioned to drop a semester (and was denied – a HUGE mistake by the university in my opinion). She was forced to trudge through and keep going, even while on academic probation. I knew this was not her “normal” and that something was really wrong.  However, I was at a loss of how to help her. Because I had many other students to advise, I eventually lost touch with her and I realize now that never should have happened. I am ashamed now for not supporting her more. This became evident when I read her personal statement. I know now what was going on, and that she is truly just as amazing (actually much more so) than I thought she could be.

You see, Sarah was going through some VERY rough personal challenges. Yes, we all have our personal challenges; however this was so much worse than I could ever imagine. Sarah’s family was challenging her and her independence. They recently immigrated from another country and Sarah was raised to do as she was told (her words, not mine). For example, her family first became angry with her when she chose to live in the dorm. However, she had received a scholarship and she wanted to take advantage of it and truly be a college student. Despite their anger, she chose to forge ahead and move out. 

As time went on, she was soon required to come home every weekend and help to take care of her family. In turn this really made it difficult for her to study and finish her homework. She kept fighting and doing her best, though her grades began to slide. Over time her family decided it was time for her to give up school and get married (an arranged marriage). She did her homework and learned that her soon-to-be husband was abusive and cruel. After chatting with him she learned that he was going to demand that she drop out of school and give up her dreams to become a doctor. She refused the marriage, defied tradition, and kept fighting. Her parents then struck back. They demoralized her, abused her, and even threatened to “cut her eyes out” if she did not start to obey. I defy any of us (who have lived in a privileged home) to go through this and still attend class and try to function at school.

In response to all of this, as you would expect Sarah’s mental health deteriorated (face it, who’s wouldn’t) and she then tried to commit suicide. Fortunately, she had a wonderful friend who saw her start to slide both mentally and physically. Once she recognized this, her friend stepped in and took Sarah to a psychiatrist. Sarah was put on medication and she started to slowly function and find her purpose again. During her last two semesters she began to get back to her old self and her grades drastically improved. All of this was going on, and even though I am her advisor I had no idea. I am so angry with myself for not offering more help or trying to make myself more available.

Then, just as Sarah’s life was improving, her best friend who helped her when she needed it most, committed suicide. Her only family, the one person who was there when she needed her, was gone. Rather than wallowing in self-pity or giving up, Sarah used this as an opportunity to focus and turn that energy towards school. Once again, her grades continued to improve. Sarah is, by definition, a true example of resilience and someone who deserves our praise and respect.

So you might ask yourself why I’m telling this story when I am keeping her identity anonymous? I am telling you this because, as a faculty member, I really think we need to get better at being a human. We need to remember what our students may be going through, and that it is our job to support them and help them learn to navigate in academia. Regardless of political affiliation, regardless of family history, regardless of cultural history we need to help them. If our students are failing, we should reach out to them and check in on them. Most of all, we need to do our best to pay attention to them and their behavior. If we notice a drastic change in their behavior, we should try and help them by reaching out more. There is NOTHING in this university that we teach that is worth more than their very survival. Everyone has their struggles that the rest of the world knows nothing about. As faculty, we should assume the best in our students and try to do our best by them. Basically, we need to become better at being a human.

*The identity of this student has been hidden for her protection.  She has given us publication permission in hopes of inspiring other students who may be going through something similar.

Update 5/21/21: I just learned this morning that “Sarah” was accepted to her first choice graduate school!