Physical and Mental Health in Higher Education

I am going to talk about something that most graduate students and faculty members shy away from: health in graduate school. Staying both physically AND mentally healthy is imperative to our success both in graduate school and in life. And I stress the “and” above because it is not an “either/or” situation. In my opinion and in my experience, I am neither as happy nor as productive as I could be if I am not BOTH physically and mentally healthy.

But, it can be challenging to put in the effort to remain healthy. It is so easy to stop exercising because there is not enough time in the day. It is so easy to not cook dinner and eat fast food every day because who has time for cooking? It is so easy to not sleep enough, not socialize enough, not relax enough – all of which drastically affect our mental well-being. In other ways, don’t be this person (see below).

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When I was working on my Masters degree (not here), I struggled with staying physically and mentally healthy. A lot of that pertained to that I was unhappy in my program and had things going on in my life that were challenging. We all experience difficult situations in life, and that is okay. It is okay to struggle a little. But, it’s imperative that we pick ourselves up off the floor and start taking care of ourselves. I had to learn how to balance my work and the rest of my life. People will push you as far as they can to get the most out of you and to help you reach your potential. But, we have to know our own limits and know that having limits is okay.

The hardest part of staying healthy, for me at least, is that it means I sometimes have to say “no” or “I need more time” to my supervisors. I don’t like not doing exactly what they want, and I definitely don’t like asking for anything from them. But I have learned that unless you stand up for yourself and put your health first, nobody else will. Fortunately, I can now say that I have a much better grasp on what I need to do to please both my supervisors and myself. And I am so much happier now than I was.

So, if anyone out there feels overwhelmed, stressed, burnt-out, know that “I hear ya” and know that you are not alone. I encourage everyone, regardless of how you feel about graduate school, to stay as physically and mentally healthy as possible. There are great resources both on campus and off to help us with this. Use these services. Go for a walk. Cook something you enjoy. I promise you, you will feel better. Bottom line, take care of yourself – your health and happiness should not suffer because of your work. We have one life to live (cliché, I know). So, make the most out of it – professionally and personally.

What we say vs. How we say it

In class last evening, I made a comment about how we say things (i.e., the words we choose, the delivery, our body language, etc) is just as important as what we have to say. And I wanted to elaborate more on this topic, as I believe it is extraordinarily important, especially when considering the issues surrounding diversity and inclusion.

When I say the word “communication,” what comes to your mind? My guess is that the majority of people think primarily, if not solely, of verbal communication. Speech. And yes, speech is incredibly important. But, as I re-learned in Communicating Science the other night, 85% of how we communicate is through our body language. Only 15% is verbal.

Learning to communicate effectively must be about the words we choose and how we deliver these words. Has a really nice southern lady ever said “Bless your heart” in a way that made you believe you were actually being chastised? (Not that it always means that. Sometimes it is just a nice thing to say). In this example, the words being used are nice, but the delivery (tone, body language) tells us that the words weren’t necessarily meant in a kind way.

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On the opposite end of the spectrum, who has received a text that says “ok,” and then spent the next two hours trying to determine why the person whom texted you is upset? It happens to me all the time. And 9 times out of 10, the person isn’t mad. But I can’t tell that because in texting, I cannot see this person to get any visual cues, and I cannot hear the tone behind the words. My senses are limited and thus, meanings are misconstrued.

As another example, have you ever been in an “argument” with someone else, and either one or both of you keeps talking over the other? In situations like this, people tend to not listen and just keep thinking about their counter-argument. Being in a long-term relationship myself, I know that how my fiancée and I communicate when we disagree is imperative to how the argument goes. If either of us starts yelling and not listening, communication breaks down. If either of us just say “you are wrong and this is why,” communication breaks down. A better approach is to acknowledge the other person’s perspective (i.e., “I hear what you are saying AND this is how I perceive XYZ).  I capitalized “and” in that sentence because people often put the word “but” there. “But” has a negative connotation. It tells the other person that you are about to disagree with them and is dismissive. “And” suggests that you are open to what the other person has to say AND you respectfully have a different opinion.

This topic may seem sort of random, but I feel it is imperative to increasing tolerance and acceptance of those different from ourselves. Nobody wants to hear that his/her/their opinion is wrong. People are much more willing to change their opinions or at least listen to yours if you communicate respectfully. So, next time you find yourself in a position when the person you are talking to has a very different perspective of the world, remember that the words you choose and your delivery of these words can make or break any chance of changing the other person’s mind.

Is higher education actually about education?

Has anyone ever seen someone wearing a t-shirt that says “we are a drinking school with a football problem?” Or any variation there-of? What do advertisements like this say about the school? And why does that somehow boost the popularity of the institution?

My thought is that so many (not all) colleges and universities advertise themselves as a way of life. They sell “fun” over education. They sell sports, clubs, and Greek life over what college should really be about – Learning. Growing. Becoming prepared for a job.

But fun sells.

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Don’t get me wrong, sports, clubs, Greek life and any extra-curricular activities are extremely important to the college experience. And honestly, most of memories from my undergraduate years revolve around the experiences I had outside of the classroom. But, they are not the point (or shouldn’t be). Yes, you go to college and make friends, likely go to some parties, and participate in clubs. But college isn’t summer camp. We don’t go to college to have fun. We go to college to work and to learn. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have fun and have a life outside of school because work-life balance is imperative.

I remember in high school, some of my peers would just boast about how they couldn’t wait to go to college so that they could drink all weekend, meet boys/girls, etc. Very few seemed actually excited about going to college to learn! Movies do the same thing. Most movies about college students portray huge parties, a lot of drinking, and (gulp) little studying. And people wonder why they do poorly in their classes. And it appears to me that universities keep growing, continue expanding athletic facilities, and spending millions of dollars while they remain understaffed. And being understaffed = stressed faculty that don’t have the time or resources to give individual attention to all of the students who need it.

How can we make college about education first? It must have been that way at one point.

Salad anyone?

The United States of America has been described as a melting pot or as a salad bowl. Clearly, the USA’s obsession with food is real, but that is another topic altogether!

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I grew up hearing the USA described as a “melting pot”, but others grew up hearing the term “salad bowl.” While both terms can be offensive and perhaps are not the best way to describe the genetic/racial/cultural/ethnic/etc make-up of people who live here, originally, I thought that melting pot was more inclusive. Nobody can pick pieces that they don’t like out of a melting pot – as everything gets melted together.

I viewed the salad bowl concept as an easy way to say “Well, I don’t like tomatoes. Get rid of them. I don’t like carrots. Get rid of them too.” Obviously, tomatoes and carrots are metaphors for different groups of people. Additionally, different salad ingredients are not “equal” – think Iceberg lettuce vs. organic spinach (in my opinion at least). The melting pot metaphor also suggests that “we are one” (cue in Lion King II song) and that we are equal. However, the more I thought about it, the more I came to another side of the story.

Perhaps the salad bowl concept is more inclusive (if either term is inclusive at all) because it calls for us to celebrate our diversity. It suggests that people do not have to lose their unique identities by “melting” into other. The melting pot analogy can suggest that people must abandon their cultures in order to successfully integrate into the “American” culture. In salads, different ingredients do not lose their individual characteristics, whereas if you threw salad ingredients in a pot and melted them, you would lose the semblance of the individual.

What do other people think? Which metaphor is better? What other metaphors could be used instead?

Higher education setting us up for … debt?

I am sure we all know someone who is up to his/her/their ears in college debt. For perspective: (1) the USA student loan debt totals $1.44 trillion, (2) there are 44.2 million USA citizens with student loan debt, and (3) the average monthly student loan payment is $351 ( Attending college and/or graduate school is becoming a huge burden for millions of people. And we are “told” that attending college is the only real option to be successful.

So, where does that leave us? We are financially burdened if we seek higher education degrees. But we won’t get a decent-paying job if we don’t seek higher education degrees (or so we are told). Either way, we are financially stressed.

I am one of the very fortunate ones. I had a full academic scholarship for my undergraduate degree and am in a field that typically pays students to go to graduate school. So, I am student debt-free. But, I am the minority. The majority of my friends and family with any higher education degree are swamped in student loan debt. Swamped to the point where they can hardly afford to pay rent and their loans, let alone for food, gas, etc. It is a real problem, one that I don’t know how to fix.

We need to find a way to make higher education more affordable for the masses. People should not be in debt for 20, 30, 40+ years because they want to learn. The question is, how do we do this?

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Scholarships, fellowships, and grants help reduce some of the financial burden for many; however, many people either do not know about these awards or do not want to put in the effort to fill out applications. For those who don’t want to fill out applications, there is not much that can be done – but I do think that high schools, colleges/universities should try to do a better job about advertising different financial aid packages. Students also need to do a better job at researching different scholarship options – I hear of scholarship money not being used because nobody applied (shake my head)!

But scholarships, fellowships, and grants don’t solve the problem alone. Does anyone else have any thoughts on this issue? How do other countries (i.e., Germany) make higher education so much more affordable? How can we get a different model implemented in the USA?

But you don’t look Jewish …

My first name is Irish. My last name is German. My eyes are blue. My hair is blonde. My nose is small. I am Jewish, and this confuses people.

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In my opinion, most people don’t say “but you don’t look Jewish” with the intention of being rude. But, it is rude. And if I said “and what does a Jewish person look like,” I would probably be perceived as a bit rude as well. As we discussed last week in class, microaggression unfortunately is a very common problem in all areas of our lives. Our co-workers, our friends, even our families can exhibit microaggressions. Before this class, I always called these types of comments as “backwards compliments,” as often they are intended in a “nice” way. “Wow, you look great! Did you lose weight?” is a very common example of these backwards compliments, as the statement implies that you didn’t look great before you lost weight.

“But you don’t look Jewish” is a more subtly aggressive statement, as it doesn’t apply I look better or worse than whatever the stereotypical Jewish person looks like. However, what is insulting about it is that being Jewish is part of my identity. My parents are Jewish, and they raised me to be Jewish. I went to Sunday school, Hebrew school, confirmation school. I attended countless Friday night, Saturday morning, and holiday services growing up. I became a bat mitzvah, and I was confirmed in my synagogue. I spent countless hours memorizing the prayers, learning to read and write in Hebrew, and when people say I don’t “look” Jewish, it in a way diminishes all of the work and time I put into the Jewish traditions. It also challenges my word as on honest person (i.e., it implies that I am lying when I say I am Jewish). Most importantly, it challenges my identity as a Jew.

I may be more sensitive to these types of comments than others. I was adopted and thus have self-identity perceptions that many do not. Because of this, when any part of my identity is challenged, it hurts because how I was raised is my identity. My blood is not. My blood may not be “Jewish” which may be why I do not look Jewish. But, my heart is Jewish. My family is Jewish. I am Jewish. So, next time someone tells you something that surprises you about themselves, stop and think for a second. Ask yourself “could this potentially be offensive.” Words, even well-intended ones, can and do hurt.

Paying to be taught by __________?

I preface this post with the statement that I have the utmost respect for all teachers. And that I mean no disrespect by this post, which potentially could be polarizing. I have had lot of fantastic professors who have forever changed the way I think and what I want to do. They have instilled in me a desire to learn, to grow, to push myself. However, I have also had some professors or instructors who did not leave lasting impressions (well, not a positive one anyways), typically because they showed little enthusiasm for being there. If a teacher doesn’t want to be in the classroom, why should the students?

From pre-school teachers to college professors, teaching is such an important profession. Important, yet often underappreciated and thankless. Parents and students alike are quick to judge teachers, complain to them about grades, say the test/quiz/project/whatever was unfair, with little acknowledgement of the work teachers put in each day and night (because anyone who knows a teacher or teaches knows, the school day is not over when the kids leave).

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That being said, I cannot help but wonder: why do millions of students pay thousands upon thousands of dollars each year to be taught by people with little to no desire to teach? Not that all professors don’t have the desire to teach, as many of them love teaching.  However, I have had enough teachers in my going on 9 years in higher education to know that there are some people who are brilliant in their fields and very impressive people but who should probably not teach. And many (likely the majority) of those within that category don’t even want to teach – which exacerbates the problem. We send our kids off to pre-school where they learn to share and play nicely (among many things) from people who, for the most part, want to teach. They made that their career. But, why are we willing to pay huge sums of money, go into debt for decades, and sit in classrooms where we can play “where’s Waldo/Emily/Eric/the girl who sat next to my last class” every day and still never see a familiar face to be taught by people who really just want to do their research?

From my perspective, there are two types of people who go into academia as a field: (1) people who want to teach and do research and (2) people who want to do research. There is nothing wrong with either type of person. Not everyone likes the same things, which is what makes the world interesting. I don’t have any real words of wisdom about this perceived “issue,” and I understand that it would likely not be feasible to hire people to teach and separate people to do research (on the large scale – this is done but not broadly). I am curious to read what thoughts others have and how (if any) can we help change the system.


Diversity in commercials/higher education… inclusion or smart business?

To somewhat indirectly address “How have perspectives on equity, diversity, and inclusion emerged, progressed, or regressed in U.S. higher education institutions?”, I ask more general questions.

Has anyone else noticed how many companies are making noticeable efforts to include more diversity in their commercials (see my blog on 08.30.2017 for one example)? And does the term “company” or “business” coincide with “higher education?” Are universities and colleges “businesses? And do they follow money making policies in similar ways? Just some food for thought.

To relate back to companies and commercials, having more inclusion is great, especially in a time when people and children “learn” so much from watching TV. What we perceive as normal today relates a lot, in my opinion, not only to what we experience at home, in school (K-12 and higher education), etc but also what we see and hear on the TV and radio. I don’t have to know someone of a specific minority group to be exposed (at least minimally/indirectly) to them anymore. And exposure, I believe, helps with the issues of acceptance and tolerance.

As another example of a company demonstrating more diversity and inclusion in their ads, Marriot put out this ad recently and states “Being human is so much more than simply going about our day; it is about serving others and treating them with kindness. At Marriott, we live by the golden rule and treat our guests the way we want to be treated with respect, care and compassion. Four of our brands are coming together to share what makes the golden rule so important to us and why treating guests with respect has always been our guiding principle” (taken from YouTube description under this video).

While I am really happy to see companies like Marriot and institutions of higher education (either in mission statements or even in the commercials colleges and universities play during sport commercial breaks) embrace diversity more now than even a few years ago, I have to ask whether this is a solely altruistic trend or is money the major player? In other words, is it peoples’ open-mindness or greed or both that drives greater inclusion within mass media commercials, within colleges/universities?

We live in a world where money talks – if people want diversity, give them diversity. A lot of companies are realizing that they can broaden their client-base (or become more appealing for students with various backgrounds) by being more inclusive (though they must weigh the risks of losing clients/students as well who are anti-anything diverse). And, it works – I remember the companies that show diversity and inclusion over ones that don’t (but that could just be that I try to be tuned-in to diversity topics in general). Personally, and I welcome everyone’s opinions, I believe it may be a little bit of both. In my opinion, it would be naïve to say that companies/colleges/universities are incorporating inclusion and diversity more than they used to for solely good-hearted reasons because we live in a world where money is important. Businesses (which I believe include many institutions of higher education) need to make money, so they “sell” themselves in the way they think (based on who knows how many polls, surveys etc) will make them the most. That all being said, however, it’s okay if a major player in the increase in diversity is money-related. Because that means that more people are accepting and tolerant. So, I see it is a win (or at least a movement in the right direction).