As someone who has spent most of their professional background in the field of community engagement the way I define this work when asked what I do is collaboration. Collaboration is predicated on a mutually beneficial relationship between stakeholders, honoring co-creation and bringing the experiences, knowledge, and expertise of all stakeholders into the space to be equally shared and valued.
As someone who additionally has worked and is dedicated to student success I see similarities between these two worlds. Parallels exist in terms of philosophies and approaches, for when I think about student success this is a comprehensive, holistic approach, bringing together various individuals and departments at the institution to support students through everything from academic challenges to a fight with their roommate. Collaboration would thus find not only academic professionals but student affairs professionals, or any other staff members at the institution who have an interest in supporting students, working in conjunction together.
As we think about our student population today, and in thinking about the “Real College” students who attend our institutions, it behooves institutions to think about processes and policies students go through in order to access support resources on campus. Often this process requires students to self-disclose information about their identities, their lived experiences, or other aspects of their lives that often have been traumatic. Analogous to this self-disclosure in community engagement is the idea of “damage-centered” research. Damage-centered research according to Tuck (2009) invites communities to speak but from a place of the margins, to “only speak your pain” (hooks, 1990, p. 152). Pain narratives are seen as enticing to scholars and researchers, drawing us in with their stories (Tuck & Yang, 2014). Furthermore theories of change operating under this framework position the individual and/or community as deficit and subsequently powerless to enact change themselves (Tuck & Yang, 2014). Reframing “damage-centered” research does not mean the trauma and oppression individuals and communities have undergone is forgotten or brushed aside (Tuck & Yang, 2014) but rather “positions the knowing derived from such experiences as wise” (Tuck & Yang, 2014, p. 231).
Extending Tuck’s argument of “damage-centered” research to systems of support that postsecondary education currently operates from, there are parallels to students self-disclosing lived experiences in order to receive support. Phrases such as “perform their poverty” or the more bluntly described “poverty porn” detail how this process for students often requires them to provide extensive descriptions or documentation to “prove” why they are requesting these services.
My dissertation research focused on the population of students in higher education with experience in the foster care system, and this theme of self-disclosure was a significant finding in my data. As part of my recommendations for institutions to holistically support these students I discuss the implications of institutions re-traumatizing students through this process. Documenting trauma can itself be a traumatizing experience and can be one way postsecondary education becomes complicit in retraumatizing students. How postsecondary education chooses to have students self-disclose, as well as how this self-disclosure is received by faculty and staff, is critical. In order to support lived experiences of students it may be unavoidable to have students self-disclose lived experiences, such as their involvement in the foster care system or trauma or abuse they have encountered. However, it is imperative for faculty and staff to openly understand, acknowledge, and own the possibility of postsecondary education recreating trauma for students through self-disclosure. Possessing the self-awareness and comprehension of this disclosure potentially retraumatizing students will allow faculty and staff to help mitigate or minimize traumatization from happening. The adage “Do no harm” is applicable here.
As our society continues to deal with the ramifications of the Covid-19 pandemic, opportunities for institutions to change and adapt are also present. As student affairs professionals it is vital for us to stop and reflect on how we are assisting students in accessing services or even in advising conversations. It is additionally important for us as professionals to think about and reframe how our responses to these instances of self-disclosure should be articulated through an asset-based lens.
Author: Meggan Lloyd, Ph.D. (she/her) is a Coordinator at Carnegie Mellon University and focuses on supporting and advising students in civic engagement programming. Meggan recently completed her doctoral degree in community engagement from Point Park University. Her dissertation and current research projects center students in higher education who have lived experience of the foster care system.