Living with PTSD at Virginia Tech: The fictional story of a 31-year-old veteran

Reflecting on my own story… again?

I remember college as if it were yesterday. I was a motivated undergraduate student, who sat in the first-row of every class with an attentive look and hung up on every word spoken by my wise professors. I must admit.. for the first day of every class… I was very annoyed. I wanted to learn, not hear the rules of the university explained to me as if I were a 6 year-old headed for the playground. Do we really need the university’s mission and disability policies at the bottom of our syllabus? If we cared, we could look it up.

Oh, how everything has changed.

After four tours serving the United Stated Army in Iraq, I see things differently now. Literally. My sight and hearing are off.

My first class… as me?

I am back on campus, an unfamiliar campus at Virginia Tech, using the post-911 GI bill to fund my next degree.  I review my class schedule only to find my first “class” is at the Math emporium. I get on a bus, feeling crowded by the other students. I walk in to the “empo” as they call it, but I am flashing back to a vivid memory. The six-person computer pods remind me of our six-person tents, each tent lined up only a few feet from the next. I know efficiency when I see it. Am I right? Yeah, totally confirmed by the professor who explains the “red solo cup phenomenon”. Just do everything by yourself and ask for help when you need it. When your red cup goes up on the computer, it means you need help from a math tutor. Well not me, I am not asking for help from some 22-year-old know-it-all wiz kid.

I am a number… and some?

I am not part of the 1%; I’m part of the 79%. The 79% who lost a close friend in battle when attempting to secure a post. And the 63%, who saw dead bodies in the streets. And the 60% who were ambushed on a regular day. Finally, I am part of the 36% who discharged a weapon. These numbers don’t define me, or us, but they are part of my story.

The National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) reports many more disturbing statistics related to my pains and perils. This explains the sounds — the clicking, buzzing, and heavy breathing. That clicking sound from the metal beam contracting inside the frame of every door… it sends me back to the same “click” – the trigger being pulled. I hear this sound with every person exiting through a doorway  - in the residence halls, classroom hallway, stairwell, and dining facility exit. At any time, it can send me back and remind me I’m part of the 36%. I can’t connect the dots differently in my head. I want to hear clicking and think about a door, but it’s not that simple. It’s not just clicking, the lights in Mcbryde  Hall take me back. Some of the light fixtures rival me for years spent in service. Instead of letting me retire after a good run (of say, a tour or two), they pushed me to four. I know how the dim light above my head feels, if it were to feel anything at all. But, I can’t feel connected to the object, it bothers me after all. The buzzing is constant. It’s the slightest of hummmm, but never stops. Nobody else but my comrades have ever heard this distinct sound, but I have. It’s the sound of eight electrical generators running all day and night to keep certain medical supplies and organs cooled before a surgery.

Reflection

In order to truly put yourself into someone else’s shoes, you must attempt to live as if you were him/her. This is the start of my journey. After reviewing some of the research literature on military veterans and experiencing campus with a new lens, I came to write the story above. I sat in absolute darkness in order to hear every sound, listening for every kind of sound on campus that reminded me of a war movie.

I expect my voice to intersect with age, nationality, class, and disability status. I have been continuously schooled since Kindergarten, which is a stark contrast to someone who has spent four years overseas serving in a war. In short, a veteran has different experiences and a few years on me. Although, we are both Americans, I expect to see things very differently. As a Washington, DC native, I know the beliefs and politics of war, not the scars and pains from being on the ground. I also come from an educated family in Northern VA, which contrasts with the rural and lower SES typically exemplifying the average veteran. Finally, I have never had a mental illness or experiences intense trauma while many veterans do. The PTSD and other related abilities will affect my daily life, but I have more to discover. I am not entirely sure of my “voice” yet, but I am still searching. My point: Shane and a veteran are not and will not be the same.

Course integration: Espoused vs. Theory-In-Use (Learning Paradigm)

If our espoused values at Virginia Tech center around the Principles of Community, then our responsibility is to maintain policies and procedures at the university and individual levels to demonstrate our commitment. Unfortunately, our theory-in-use reflects a rigid and inflexible, one-size-fits all model where each student is treated similarly (i.e., equality over equity). Unless of course, you are an honors student who gets more attention and support than the average student. If you are a marginalized group, do something or keep on waiting , because it can take some time before real changes are made.

Course integration: Environmental redesign (Educating by Design)

Did we ever consider using human-centered design principles to maximize environmental change? Probably not. After 4/16, my opinion is that there was one principle in mind: Prevent doors from being chained again. Instead, we needed to search the possibilities rather than simply reacting to an event. If the “clicking” sound of the door is this troubling to a student, how else could we imagine new handles for doors with a design thinking process that also maximized safety in order to meet more needs? Could we ask all types of students to work with an Industrial Design course to redesign aspects of campus for everyone?

Stay tuned. Over and out. 


Posted in Student Environment

I Don’t Like Death Penalties

I woke up one morning, the last week, to Facebook overflowing with comments smitten with rage and fury over Asha Mirje’s take on rape cases. What shocked my fellow Facebook-feed refreshers, enough to go on a share-click-like rampage was that Mirje’s opinions resonated a vibe of not only suppressing freedom but also assumed a defensive tone on behalf of the upholders of democracy.

This incident occurred three days after India awoke to 65 years of an active constitution. A constitution which proclaimed all of her citizens to be under a nation which was a sovereign, socialist, democratic republic.

65 years. Of waking up to 1.2 billion fellow citizens, 28 states, 350 odd languages and one nationality.
65 years. Of waking up to a home and haven for over 1.2 billion hearts and minds and aspirations and opinions.
65 years. Of uncertainty knowing that every 20 minutes, a new rape victim is born.

Did our constitution never age? Did we never pass the twenty first century mark and progress into development? Or did it so happen, that while the GDP advanced and the per capita increased; civility and common sense slid to oblivion. From a country subjected to the horrors of domination, by an alien Raj for over two centuries, did the ‘weaker half’ of the populace step into the beginning of domination by brutes who use force and threat to overpower the former?

One can only write and say so much about everything that is wrong with the Honey Singh appreciating, female letching, unscrupulous men of my subcontinent. Agatha Christie once famously observed, that the story of a murder begins much before the act itself. Similarly, the story of rape in India, stems not from the momentary lustful wrath and perversion of a fiend lured by an opposite sex, instead it germinates from the time of birth of that individual, wherein the deviant mind is conceived and nurtured by a society which subjects the mother to atrocities, where the wife is denigrated to a bonded slave, the daughter is a commodity and the women who earn a living and voice an opinion are immoral and uncultured. Yes. India is the land of dichotomies. We shall continue praying to Goddesses for strength, for wisdom and wealth; while we treat our girls and our women as second class citizens.

It is high time that this stops. And no, it will not be an overnight incidence wherein hundreds of petitions may or may not be signed. And millions may or may not take up candle light protests. Nor will it stop if you and I cease to venture past dark into the ‘wild’ and unruly streets of our cities. But yes, it may alleviate the position to a certain extent to understand the causes and refrain from discrimination and being discriminated against. Yes, that means cutting down on the gossip on character, just because a woman wears shorter skirts or deeper neck lines or because she stayed late at work into the wee hours of dawn, or because her reality is different from yours. Let’s grow up as a nation. Ans yes, that means you and me.

As for the existing cases of rape in our nation. The nirbhaya rape and murder, at the capital, was one of the many that brought to light the gore and filth that has accumulated in the name of bureaucracy and governance in our subcontinent. Besides blame games and slander driven revelations, the politicos along with the law makers and the law breakers coalesce into allowing perverse individuals to get their way with rape, murder and slander; while blaming the victim for the entire episode. Maybe it is time that we recognize that capital punishment might just be the way to go.

No, the title isn’t meant to be misleading.

I am very much against death penalties and playing God.
But I am against rape.

And in the battle between prevention of rape and granting life to perpetuators of the act, I chose the former and demand justice and death, even though it doesn’t seem enough, might just satiate, for now.

Posted in Musings

The Undergraduate Research Experience

As an undergraduate, I was given a fantastic research experience.  Beginning my first semester of freshman year, I worked with Dr. Dan Jones to do work with x-ray crystallography.  Dr. Jones was an incredible mentor of a caliber that I aspire to reach one day, spending hours each day to teach me the intricacies of data collection and analysis as well as the theories underlying our work.  I completed an undergraduate honors thesis under his supervision, and we published several papers together.

And when I realized that my true research passion was in psychology, Dr. Jones continued to mentor me as I cut back research hours in chemistry in favor of beginning work with Dr. Arnie Cann in psychology.  Dr. Cann patiently taught me how to use psychological software (SPSS, SONA, etc) and he continually offered me access to data and projects that allowed me to practice my new-found skills.

Dr. Cann and Dr. Jones continue to be fantastic mentors even now, several years after I’ve graduated.  Dr. Cann and I continue to work on publications and conference presentations, and Dr. Jones and I make a point of getting together for pizza and conversation whenever I return to the Charlotte area.

The research experience that I had with both of these incredible mentors inspired me to pursue graduate education and careers in academia.  I had, when I started graduate school, and I still continue to have the lofty goal of being a Dr. Jones and/or Dr. Cann to students of my own.  I want to work closely with them, to get them excited about research, to teach them new techniques that I’ve been so excited to learn, and to help them pursue their goals.

To say that it’s a hefty goal to want to fill the shoes of such mentoring experts would be an understatement.

But I’m trying…

Over the summer and the fall, I worked closely with two undergraduate research assistants, Shawnna Mencias and Brian Singh.  Both are incredibly talented, eager to learn, have fantastic skills for interacting with people, and have incredible eyes for detail.  They were involved in every step of my dissertation process from recruitment to data checking, but they shined the most brightly in their data collection skills.  The three of us worked together to collect data on nearly 70 4-year-old children together.  If I want to be a Dr. Jones or Cann, I know that my work with these two is far from over.  I look forward to publishing with them, presenting with them, helping them to pursue further education, and otherwise keeping in touch with them in the future.  But, for now, I wanted to share a couple of pictures of their hard work.

Shawnna administering the PPVT!
Shawnna’s first poster!

 

Brian administering the KBIT!

How about you, Blogsters?  Do you have any undergraduates that you’d like to brag on?  Any tips for providing them with good mentorship?

Posted in dissertation, Grad School, inspiration, mentors, Students

2013: Reflections on The 30th Anniversary of Phish (Part I)

“The years just keep sliding by don’t they…”

Anniversaries are arbitrary. The demarcation of space and time and the claim that human activities are explicable or effected by such artifical boundaries is, well, kind of a cop out. Scientifically or subjectively, it cannot be said that because “such and such” happened in “such and such” year is a matter of causation or correlation (as it should be said correlation does not always suggest causation or vice-versa). Put crudely, it is pure coincidence – a happenstance or seemingly connection that only occurs in our minds as a product of categorizing and organizing human moments in our all too brief lifespans. To be sure, the notion of age/aging or loosely applied, entropy (i.e. the predictability of decline – we all will get older and die) is a contingent factor. Biologically, time and space have influence over numerous aspects of life, such as “biologial clocks” for all sorts of life (e.g. humans, and no pun intended, fish…like salmon). Less we forget the Earth’s orbit around the sun and the changing of the seasons. These happen whether or not we acknowledge them with our labels or constructions. None of this is to suggest that fixing or organizing the passing of time in space is ‘bad’ thing – by no means. Western civilization depends on it (but it does make one wonder what life would be like, for instance, human activities followed a different set of rules for counting out time, say like Native Americans following seasons in matters of resource distribution and diets). But to suggest that any subject or object is influenced by the “grid” we call time – and in the process sucking all the ‘fun’ that comes from such divisions completely – is senseless. If anything, such distinctions probably do more harm than good to the human psyche, those constant reminders that, in the words of Jim Morrison, “the future’s uncertain and the end is always near.”

Having said this, no Phish fan can doubt that 2013 was a good year. Indeed, it is a good time to be a Phish fan. If summer tour was one thing (despite the bad weather that seemingly followed the band all the way to Chicago), including the Gorge, the Tahoe “Tweezer” and the Bill Graham run; fall tour took an unparalleled leap into the stratosphere in which Phish arguably produced the best music of 3.0 and some of the best music of their career. If we take Trey’s word for it, and this train keeps rolling (which I think it will), then I think it is certain we will look at ’13 with much of the same reverence as we look at the years ’95 and ’97 with the same meaningless milestone differentiation we do with all other human things, music or not (1.0, 2.0. and 3.0 included). That is to say, it was not the years themselves, but the always emergent development of human activity – evolution in skill, acumen, practice,  ideas, and creativity. Are other factors present in such moments? Certainly. For example, it is very likely if one has more money than another, then a whole plethora of things will radically be different from health, sleep, stress, convenience – quality of life and materiality – will improve, over those that unfortunately have less.

All of this is to say that NYE runs, while no doubt special and a whole lot of fun, are by no means any better than any other shows Phish plays on any given tour at any time during the year.

Furthermore, fall ’13 as a whole, or even a select handful of the twelve shows they played (and let’s just say 10/20, 10/26, 10/29, and 11/01) are arguably ‘better’ than the four New Year’s run shows for 2013. Don’t get me wrong here: I’m not poo-pooing NYE ’13 for any specific reason other than to put it in retrospective of what an awesome, incredible year of Phish this was. Was NYE ’13 good? Absolutely. Was it the best NYE run ever? Doubtful, but what NYE run is? Each year Phish has performed consecutively at the end of December has always produced one or two great shows, some legendary (12/31/95, 12/31/98, Big Cypress, 12/29/97, and I will include 12/31/10, and 12/30/12 to keep things fresh – I think we can add 12/29 and 12/31 for 2013 to that list as well).

But in my humble opinion, fall tour ’13 was superior to the New Years Run ’13.

(more to come)

-TheDarkHorse

Posted in Music, Pop Culture

Introduction (Yet Again)

This blog began as a project for a graduate school pedagogical class (and looking back on it,  a pretty good one at that). In the course of graduate school, however, the impetus to maintain, write, and post things on this blog fell by the wayside (busy, busy, busy). The original posts, many of which were required for that class, have been purged since they were so far removed from what I intend to do here now.

Who am I? I am a happily married  PhD student in the ASPECT (Alliance for Social, Political, Ethical, Cultural Thought) at Virginia Tech (VT) home of the Virginia Tech Hokies, residing in Blacksburg, VA. I work as an instructor of record and adjunct faculty teaching courses in Political Science at both VT and Radford University (RU), located roughly twenty minutes from Blacksburg. This year I will be diligently working on my (as of now untitled) dissertation project that, to be brief, is a [poststructuralist] problematization of United States national security policies and objectives, domestically and internationally.

This blog will serve ultimately as a vehicle or “canvas” of ideas and thoughts that may facilitate and propel the so-called art of “dissertating.” Furthermore (as per the original intentions of the construction of this blog), it is a medium in which to show others the work and research I engage in. It will likely incorporate themes and class material from the courses I will be teaching in any given semester as well (ahem, students). Not to mention provide a brief, personal, glimpse into my thoughts, life, interests, and personality.

This blog has no set format, although I think the heading “like you know whatever” (see “Summer of 4Ft. 2″ episode of The Simpsons) will suffice. I will write and post about things that are of interest to me; deal with my “research” in my PhD program (I put this in quotation marks because, well, I suffer from so-called “imposter syndrome” – which of course is false, but it is so overwhelming it needs to be acknowledge), and generally whatever I feel like on any given day. It is not “personal” as such (i.e. this will not be a “diary”), although I reject the notion that one can remove themselves (i.e. personality, perspective) entirely from research, much less politics, life, and art. For instance, bias (preference or “taste”) is not bias if it is acknowledged and recognized. Indeed, most are often unaware of our own self and socially constructed biases.

In other words, this blog will not be simply “in my opinion” (IMO) but provide, provoke, destabilize, and offer analyses, perspectives, and counter-narratives to late modern and contemporary issues of importance, and indeed, digress into matters of pure personal interest (including my obsession with the rock group Phish).

I think that should do it, for now. Thanks for reading.

-TheDarkHorse

Posted in Political

Introduction (Yet Again)

This blog began as a project for a graduate school pedagogical class (and looking back on it,  a pretty good one at that). In the course of graduate school, however, the impetus to maintain, write, and post things on this blog fell by the wayside (busy, busy, busy). The original posts, many of which were required for that class, have been purged since they were so far removed from what I intend to do here now.

Who am I? I am a happily married  PhD student in the ASPECT (Alliance for Social, Political, Ethical, Cultural Thought) at Virginia Tech (VT) home of the Virginia Tech Hokies, residing in Blacksburg, VA. I work as an instructor of record and adjunct faculty teaching courses in Political Science at both VT and Radford University (RU), located roughly twenty minutes from Blacksburg. This year I will be diligently working on my (as of now untitled) dissertation project that, to be brief, is a [poststructuralist] problematization of United States national security policies and objectives, domestically and internationally.

This blog will serve ultimately as a vehicle or “canvas” of ideas and thoughts that may facilitate and propel the so-called art of “dissertating.” Furthermore (as per the original intentions of the construction of this blog), it is a medium in which to show others the work and research I engage in. It will likely incorporate themes and class material from the courses I will be teaching in any given semester as well (ahem, students). Not to mention provide a brief, personal, glimpse into my thoughts, life, interests, and personality.

This blog has no set format, although I think the heading “like you know whatever” (see “Summer of 4Ft. 2″ episode of The Simpsons) will suffice. I will write and post about things that are of interest to me; deal with my “research” in my PhD program (I put this in quotation marks because, well, I suffer from so-called “imposter syndrome” – which of course is false, but it is so overwhelming it needs to be acknowledge), and generally whatever I feel like on any given day. It is not “personal” as such (i.e. this will not be a “diary”), although I reject the notion that one can remove themselves (i.e. personality, perspective) entirely from research, much less politics, life, and art. For instance, bias (preference or “taste”) is not bias if it is acknowledged and recognized. Indeed, most are often unaware of our own self and socially constructed biases.

In other words, this blog will not be simply “in my opinion” (IMO) but provide, provoke, destabilize, and offer analyses, perspectives, and counter-narratives to late modern and contemporary issues of importance, and indeed, digress into matters of pure personal interest (including my obsession with the rock group Phish).

I think that should do it, for now. Thanks for reading.

-TheDarkHorse

Posted in Political

Revoking the License to Steal

Disclaimer:  The following may or may not include fabrication, exaggeration, or other inaccuracies which, along with the absence of names, are specifically designed to protect the innocent and guilty alike as well as provide comedic effect.  Continue at your own risk.

2nd Disclaimer:  Don’t you hate when you forget to check the little PFP box so it posts to the right place?

Recently, I was having a discussion with two colleagues/classmates who both also aspire to the honored profession of providing higher education.  We started talking about the tenure track and one said simply that he was looking forward to getting tenure so he could go fishing several days a week.  Now he was likely joking, at least in part, but his comment brought to light the murkier concept that there are professors out there whose receipt of tenure is tantamount to receiving a license to steal.  A free pass to cruise until retirement.  I find this incredibly unjust and if given the chance to change one thing about the higher education system, that would be it.  I don’t want to get rid of tenure entirely, but I do want to add a review cycle to that tenure whereby retaining the status is easier than obtaining it to begin with but is by no means a certainty.  The review should be influenced just as much by the ability of a professor to make money for the department through research as the professor’s ability to teach – a responsibility that I personally value far higher than the other research, service, or any other characteristic.  Thus, the review would by necessity involve students, whether in person or through some modified review forms beyond the classic course evaluations currently in widespread use.  I would consider the system fair and just if it weeded out those professors who really don’t have any business being at the university.  I have met a few of those.  A selection includes:

The Dead Wood:  A professor who seems to offer very little to the advancement of knowledge.  Their last publication was within a few months of receiving tenure and their syllabi haven’t changed since the last century.  Float away, sir.  Far down river, please.

The Pompous Ass:  This is the prof who questions your method of solution, which at the root level is exactly correct, just because it isn’t how he would approach the problem.  He goes on further to explain just how errant your ways are, whether you are more comfortable and faster doing it your way or not.  Well, my way wouldn’t be to ask for a resignation.  You can explain to me the error of my way when I fire you loudly and forcefully.

The Incurable Bigot:  This is a world-renowned university with students from various countries and backgrounds.  Yes, some may speak English with a heavy accent, but that in no way gives you the right to pick on them, call them out, or insult their heritage.  You know that course evaluation that said you should be fired immediately?  That was me.  And no, I was not picking on you because of your ethnic last name that you claim no one knows how to pronounce.  But I do know how to pronounce “gone”.

The Cure for Insomnia:  There are those in this world not meant to hold the attention of a classroom full of students for an hour at a time.  That is fine and to be expected.  But then there are those who can put you to sleep despite you having just chugged a 5-hour energy drink with a hot coffee chaser.  I think you need to consider a career change.  I understand the sleep lab at the hospital is hiring.

The Stickler:  Okay, so we have a grading scale that gives a 94 as an A.  And a 93.97 average with a 99 on the cumulative final is not a 94.  But seriously?  You have to give the lower grade?  Technically, you have to round up unless you required a 94.00 for an A.  But I have a better suggestion.  The accounting profession is woefully short on anally retentive types.  I will even write you a reference letter.

With all luck, and hard work, I won’t be the subject of a student’s lampoons at any point in my future career.  But if I am, just make sure you come up with a witty nickname, okay?

Posted in PFP13F, Teaching Philosophy

New Beginnings

This has been a semester with the promise of many new beginnings.  I’m fast approaching the end of my time at Virginia Tech, but I know that there are many good experiences ahead of me as I transition from a PhD student to an academic career woman.

Wednesday of this week was a big day for my dissertation.  I recruited the final child for my dissertation.  And, following a week of heavy data collection, by next Tuesday I’ll only have 4 children left to see.  Add to this that I also found out Wednesday that I have won an APA Dissertation Research Award!  It’s incredibly encouraging to have such a prestigious group believing in my project and supporting me through it, and, when combined with my previous awards, this award will fully cover the cost of my dissertation.  What a relief!

At the same time as the dissertation comes to an end, my adventures on the job market are beginning to pick up.  The fantastic job ads keep pouring in, and I continue to submit applications just as quickly.  I’ve had a couple of interviews that have begun to make the process seem very real.  I’m very excited about the prospect of moving on and beginning to make working with students a more central part of my day-to-day life.

It seems, then, that this girl-who-doesn’t-like-transitions-very-much has found a very welcome transition to the next stage in life.  And it’s very exciting.  :)

 

credit: fostercityblog

Posted in Academia, dissertation, Job Market, transitions

American blinders

During the first night of our around-the-world tour of education, I had this overwhelming sense of the arrogance/complacency/stupidity/ignorance/blindness that I have as an American.  I realized somewhere in there just how much I (and I suspect most of us in the States) take for granted.

The first issue was choice.  In some other countries, we have 14-year-olds choosing their future and nearly stuck on that path without the option of changing their minds.  Here, when I was a senior in high school, they told me “you can be whatever you want to be”.  I have a nearly infinite array of choices and even after picking my initial path, switching majors was a piece of cake.  Then choosing a career that really wasn’t in my major.  Then choosing to switch careers a couple times, then choosing to come back to school in a major that was sorta close to all of what I had done before but in an effort to switch careers again into teaching.  I didn’t really realize just what a luxury having all those choices at my fingertips was.  One of the freedoms I have also just taken for granted.

The second issue that struck me was the inherent assumptions that we (and here I have to include at least our instructor) make about our foreign colleagues/classmates.  The session was set up for foreign students to tell the class about the education system in their countries, starting with elementary school.  But did anyone else notice that we never educated those from other countries about what the system is here in the United States?  Do we assume that they already know?  Why would they?  Or, more insidiously, do we truly think this should be a one-way exchange?  I doubt that Dean DePauw set up the session with the intent of being unfair, but don’t our foreign brethren deserve the same opportunity to compare their system to ours that we got by listening to their stories?  It seemed to me that a large portion (20%?) of our class was being short-changed.  As I said, I don’t think it was on purpose, but I do think it is part of the blinders we wear as Americans.  And realizing this, it opened my eyes a bit.  I hope I can work on setting those blinders aside to make me a better professor.

And in the meantime, I want to share a little bit of our system, based on my own experiences both as student and parent.  Others may have a totally different take on our early education system so I hope they take the opportunity to fill us all in with their own experiences.

The first thing to note is that policies on education vary from state to state or even from county to county.  For example, I started my kindergarten year at age 4 in Pennsylvania.  Half way through, we moved to Virginia where they deemed that I had started a year early so they kicked me out and I had to start all over again the following fall.  Of course, back then, kindergarten was a half-day program whose main skill taught was finger painting, so being thrown out wasn’t much of a set back.  Today, kindergarten has more of a curriculum with my kids going a full day and learning to read within that year.  Then I had 6 more years of elementary school to be followed by 2 years in an “intermediate” school.  I was in a county with lots of tax base, so the offerings in 7th grade included lots of languages (I chose Latin), music classes (I chose beginning guitar) and lots of levels of basic classes like math (they pushed me into algebra, a class typically for 8th graders).  Most of the way through my 7th grade year, we moved to a different county that was less wealthy and a lot of my choices went away.  I was then in what that county referred to as a “middle” school, including 6th, 7th, and 8th graders.  That model seems to be the most common in this region now, though I know of schools in more rural areas that go all the way from kindergarten through 8th.  In my case, I had to forget Latin and re-start on French in 8th grade.

High school is 9th through 12th grades, so with the age requirements for kindergarten, the vast majority of students graduate at the age of 18.  State law requires parents to send their kids to school, except in the case of “home schooling”.  Public schools are free to attend and with the mandatory attendance, caters to all levels of academic aptitude.  The curriculum is fairly rigid, or at least it was when I went.  In certain years, you study certain courses with maybe a third of your schedule open for electives.  Each required subject (math, social studies, English, etc.) is taught at various ability levels.  Grades are similar to Virginia Tech though in most cases, a broader range is used for each letter grade.  The letter grades are translated to a number scale (4.0 when I went) and you have a GPA.  Just after I graduated high school, my county went to a 5.0 scale for advanced classes so that basically you take the 4-point scale and add 1.  It was an easier way to distinguish those of us who struggled through classes like calculus or 5th-year French from those who took less grueling subjects.  I am still bummed that they didn’t have that system when I graduated, as I likely would have placed a few spots higher in my class.

The process of getting into college is somewhat variable, depending on the university.  Just about all of them require standardized tests (the SAT’s) with some needing more subject specific tests (ACT or Achievements).  Students take these tests usually in the 11th grade and have the opportunity to re-take them as many times as they want with the composite score being the best individual score from all the attempts.  When I took the SAT, there were only two subjects, Math and English, but now I believe they have split English into two different tests.  My final score for college admission purposes was my English from the first time I took it and my Math from the second time.  My scores were pretty high by the standards of the time, but in talking to various people recently, it seems that scores today are significantly higher than they were then.  If you read Virginia Tech’s info, the median score today is in the mid 1300′s but back when I came here as an undergrad, they were in the 1100′s.

In addition to test scores and grades, different colleges look for different things.  Like extra-curricular activities, admission essay, etc.  And different programs within colleges have different requirements.  For example, I know a girl who is making 4 college trips in October and November to audition for their dance programs.  Her sister is dance major with a math minor and intends to go to medical school after graduation.  Certainly not the typical path but indicative of all the opportunities and choices we have in the system.

And then there is the undergrad experience.  Some universities require you to pick a major before you arrive while others assume that all freshmen are “undeclared” giving them a chance to adjust to college before picking a major.  A large percentage of students change their minds on their major at least once during their academic careers and thus, 4 years is only an estimate on how long you will be in school.  In my case, I switched once and slacked off a lot so spent 6 years getting a 4-year degree.  Because of my financial need, I got some assistance from the federal government, but wound up borrowing thousands and thousands of dollars to finish.

So hopefully with this brief introduction, students from the more “rigid” countries can see there is a very large difference in how we do things in the United States.  And, you can get a feel for just how variable and flexible our system is.  As for my fellow Americans, if you read this far, maybe like me, you got a sense of just how fortunate we are to have what we have.

Posted in PFP13F, Teaching Philosophy

Ron Finley’s Food Desert Activisim

On any given Saturday morning or Wednesday afternoon, we can wander through the farmer’s market in our college town.  Each time I do so, I am guaranteed the opportunity to select from a wealth of local and organic veggies, fruits, goat cheese, and hormone-free, grass-fed, humanely raised meat.  The farmer’s market in Market Square Park has become a normative part of our community supported agriculture (CSA) and a little piece of the slow food movement in our own neighborhood.

I was struck once again by the injustice of unequal access when I listened again to this report on a food desert in L.A.  It isn’t often enough that I think about food deserts.  I should, though, because scarce access to a wide variety of fresh, unprocessed food isn’t just a problem for the residents of inner city Los Angeles.  We can find food deserts of various kinds in most regions and many small towns, including those just beyond the geographic and cultural boundaries of our campus where Hokie nation is replaced by a fast food nation, one in which over-processed ‘food’ becomes the most affordable and easily accessible option.

Thinking about problems of access and equity in ways that don’t end up sending us into  emotional paralysis (or into denial) about the social problems we face is important.  Awareness should encourage us to think about both individual and/or collective action(s) we can take, of next steps–whether they seem to be big or small as we begin to move.  It’s the forward movement that is important.  Action, activism, positive problem-solving can so easily build community, or strengthen and reawaken and unite communities that have stopped functioning as such.  Ron Finley has refused to let the status quo continue.  He refused to let initial push back stop him from forward movement, from his community-empowering action, from creating the opportunity to reconnect with one of the touchstones of building community–growing food together.  His activism is a reminder to me that action and collective activism trump emotional paralysis and denial every time.