One of my Introduction to English students, who has recently been released from juvenile hall, sits in my office this afternoon tapping her fingers vigorously on her notebook, and tells me about the difficulties she encounters being a first-time college student this semester.
“I just don’t even know what I’m doing at all.” She says distressed, looking anxiously around my office.
Fatima is a first generation college student, who had never thought about attending college much before, and had a troublesome track-record in high school. She recently received her GED while incarcerated, and is now looking to further her education.
I asked her to talk about some of the issues that she specifically felt were challenging to her, and she shared a list of roadblocks that she felt were preventing her success. The first of which I found particularly interesting. She had to write a short paragraph for her Ethnic Studies class where she evaluated herself as a college student. I thought this sounded like a pretty straightforward assignment, and one that would be great for a student who is underprepared academically. I was contemplating the metacognitive awareness connections she would gain from such a task.
“What are you finding challenging about the assignment?” I asked her.
“I don’t know, I guess I don’t really know what that means. What it means to be a college student. How do I rate myself? What is a college student? I hope that’s not a dumb question.”
Her response has had me thinking all day. What she really seems to be struggling with is not the inability to start writing a paragraph (though that may be a component), but more importantly, her current personal identity is not linked to academia. She does not have a sense of self in college.
The creation of an academic identity for at-risk, basic skill students in community colleges can be a crucial step in facilitating access into higher education. When a population of marginalized students has been placed on the outskirts of the educational community, their entryway will be the organization and definition of themselves as being academic beings. Fatima needs to start creating an academic identity and this will help her analyze the issues she is having as a student and seek solutions.
Professors longing to see all their students succeed, but unable to make necessary system-wide structural changes, must find ways to combat the achievement gap. C. Cooper (2002) has reported that there are five key bridges to students’ pathways to college, and all five share the theme of identity. At-risk students, students who belong to a group that is statistically below the average college completion rate, must form identities as college students if they are to complete their college education. The relationship between identity development and academic achievement is one in which researchers and educators alike have a stake. Identity achievement has been argued to be essential to academic success.
What possible ways can this academic identity be created and fostered? Introducing Identity discusses the multiple uses of technology socially and educationally. When discussing social networking, Beckham says, “It appears to be used primarily as a means of reinforcing local networks among peers.” One possible avenue for helping a student who is creating their academic sense of self could be through digital media, like Facebook, where a cohort of students, in say, her English class, can collaborate and interact, reinforcing a connection with peers who are in academia. This could be an especially useful tool for students like Fatima who have no friends or family who are enrolled or who have attended college. This can create a more personal, and perhaps more easily accessible space for networking with fellow college students, thus understanding and feeling like one herself.