By Rev. Eric Immel, S.J., Associate Dean for Student Success, Arrupe College of Loyola University Chicago
The day ran long, and the streetlight just outside my window shone brightly. As I made my way through my email inbox, I paused to rub my eyes. Then I opened them wide for a moment, feeling them bulge and tear up, like being hit in the face by a gust of wind. I shook my head, refocused on the screen, and went back to the keyboard. It wasn’t time to go home just yet.
Half an hour later, I packed Tupperware into my backpack, ripe with residue from last night’s turkey chili. I had just begun contemplating whether my late night in the office warranted an Uber home, when a student walked in and dropped onto the couch. She stretched out her legs, looked at me, and smiled.
“Hey, Dean Eric - you got a minute?” I smiled back. As if I had a choice.
I work at Arrupe College, a groundbreaking program at Loyola University Chicago that seeks to dramatically reimagine how we offer and execute Jesuit, liberal arts education. For one reason or another, our students weren’t able to start their college careers in what we might call the ‘traditional way’ of Jesuit higher education. They don’t live on campus and they don’t stay for four years.
Rather, Arrupe seeks to help young people build a bridge toward valuable avenues of greater success and opportunity; after completing an Associate’s degree, our students pursue either entrance into Bachelor’s degree programs or meaningful employment. I’ve been there now a year and a half, and in that time, I’ve learned that if my door is open, someone is coming in.
The student started slow, sharing a bit about her romantic relationship, her schoolwork, and the ways she was struggling in both. Then, I asked about her family. She told me about her grandmothers and how she’d walk between their houses as a little girl. She told me about how she got homesick, and thought about moving back to her old neighborhood. She knew it was better for her to live away from there; the distance gave her a chance to focus and take care of herself. But still, she felt a responsibility to her siblings, and she didn’t really know where the path she was walking - the learned path - was leading her. She was lost. Emotion welled up in her, and I slid a tissue box across my desk.
As her tears subsided, she took a deep breath, looked at me and said, “Eric - I’m sorry for being such a burden.”
What could have prompted such a statement from her? As a Jesuit who works too much, who has no partner or children, and who has the support of a healthy community, there is nothing keeping me from being in that exact moment with her, and there is little more important in my life. After opening up her broken heart before me and inviting me to take a look around with her, what would make her claim to be a bother, a burden, a waste of my time?
The answer is no secret: she feels like one. And not just to me, but to the whole educational world she lives in. I’m sure that, without meaning to, we have made her feel that way.
When she entered the pool of potential college students, she was immediately characterized as three things: first-generation, low income, student of color. And sadly, while these three characteristics are true ways to describe her on paper, they are rooted in the perspective of socialized consumers of traditional higher education who, as it stands, are not generally first-generation, low income, or students of color. And, to our mind, these characteristics create a deficit; her identity as a first-generation, low income student of color immediately creates a forced narrative by which she must rise up, face the tremendous adversity in her life, and persist no matter what.
And perhaps, in the pressure she feels to persist, she realizes how we see her and feels defeated. She realizes that when people talk about her, they talk about the problems she faces, and not the gifts she brings. All they see is a first-generation, low income, student of color.
What if we saw things differently? What if we saw her differently? What if, when she walked through our doors, we didn’t think of first-generation, low income, students of color as in deficit, but rather, as bearing tremendous wealth? What if we saw her experiences, her way of thinking, her way of communicating, her very way of being, as full of gifts and potential? Truly, what could be more in line with the Gospel of Jesus? To welcome people as they are and see them as a child of God, perfectly made and deserving of everything good the world can offer.
This way of thinking about students is, I believe, vital to our success at Arrupe College. I’m learning that the hard way as a second-generation, economically stable white man. I have made many, many mistakes in my thinking and approach with our students. In our schools, we will continue to make these mistakes and fail our students unless we have a dramatic change of heart and see each of them as abundantly blessed and worthy. I want to be better for her.
I don’t believe I have a choice. My deepest desire is for any student to walk into my office and know that they are not a burden. My hope is that she knows what I know: that she is a child of God, perfectly made and entitled to everything good the world can offer.