What You’ve Taught Me: Semester Wrap-Up for Fall 2016

Today marks the thick of another finals week here at Penn State University. As comes with the end of all semesters, there is a whirlwind of questions about exam materials, stressed students coming and going from my office, and papers to grade.

Despite the whirlwind that is finals week, I find it edifying to take a moment to reflect on the lessons the semester brought for me. As the old adage goes, my students teach me every day.

I love my job–every Fall and Spring I’m presented with the opportunity to meet, connect with, and learn from 400 new individuals as we meet in classrooms across University Park campus and discuss topics I find compelling and fascinating. Seriously–what could be better?

Reflecting on Fall 2016, I have only become more enamored with my job and with this cohort of students who represent the future of our culture and our world. Here’s what I’ve learned, in no particular order:

  1. My students are Resilient.

It’s an unfortunate statistical likelihood that, given my large group of students, I will work with men and women who are coping with a variety of tragedies and traumas as they pursue their studies. This semester was no exception–death, grief, sexual and physical assault, and mental health crises all crossed the threshold of my office. And yet, even as these students coped with their trauma, they demonstrated such strength and  determination. They sought out support from friends, family, and faculty. They pursued treatment from mental health professionals and counselors to heal their psychological wounds without shame or  embarrassment. And they actively sought to advocate for themselves and other students coping with similar situations in their own lives. Although these students suffered, they refused to be victims, and their personal power inspires me every day.

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My HDFS 432: Developmental Problems Class (and the first selfie of the day, as you can tell by my less-than-composed expression). My class, though? They look fabulous!

2. My students are Kind.

I cannot count the number of  times I noticed students sitting with each other before class, sharing notes or readings, and asking each other relevant clarification questions about course material. Within class discussions, especially when we would cover topics that ranged into the personal (e.g., mental health struggles, histories of peer victimization, parental loss/grief), my students showed each other not just respect, but empathy. In one discussion, where the topic was Attachment in Adult Relationships, one student shared her experiences with maintaining her long-distance relationship with her significant other. Immediately after, another student raised her hand to comment on her own experiences with her long-distance relationship, and to offer support and commiseration to her classmate seated across the lecture hall filled with 150 students. Even when we don’t ‘know’ each other, there is a shared knowledge and compassion inherent in humanity that my students express regularly with each other.

I can also add, from my own personal perspective, the kindness students have shown to me. E-mails they’ve sent to express their enjoyment of a topic of the course sit in a special folder in my inbox, where I sometimes go to read them when feeling stressed and less-than-competent (as we all do at points in our careers). Students thank me for holding review sessions, answering e-mails, answering questions, meeting with them to go over study tips. All of these are activities embedded in my job, and yet my students take the extra step to thank me for it. It’s certainly not necessary, but it does bring a brightness to my work that sustains me.

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Second Selfie with my HDFS 229:001 Infancy and Child Development course. Getting better. (Can you spot the students taking a photo of my photo–how meta!)

3. My students Care.

Today’s university students are often maligned for being focused entirely on grades, and not on growing as thinkers and professionals. My experience, though, is quite the opposite. My students regularly asked questions in class that delved deeper into material–not because they were worried about being tested on it, but because they were genuinely curious. My meetings with students after exams and papers were returned often involved students coming to review what they missed in order to edify their knowledge-not to argue over points.

As one example, a young woman stopped by to review her paper–which was excellent already–just to discuss the two small issues noted on the rubric about her paper. Not to argue for points, but because she sincerely wanted to improve her scientific writing skills further. After she left, I couldn’t help smiling to myself. The Millennial generation, however often maligned in the media for its lack of accountability and determination, seems to be doing just fine from my perspective.

Students ask to borrow books for further reading. They ask to sit down and chat about career options, volunteer opportunities, ways to give back to populations and organizations whose missions they value. They are not afraid of hard work and they are not afraid of challenging themselves. If there is one thing my students seem to be afraid of, it is of not challenging themselves enough to grow during their college experience.

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Selfie #3 in HDFS 229:002–look at all those smiles! What a great semester we had.

So, for those in our country worried about the next generation of professionals, parents, and thinkers–don’t be. We are in good hands.

What My Students Taught Me: Spring Semester Edition

It’s the end of another semester here at Penn State and, as my mother (who is a high school science educator herself) reminds me, nothing ever stays the same when you are an educator. Classes end, students graduate, and time marches on. It’s one of the blessings and drawbacks of this profession–you are ever continuously in motion.

As we head into our finals week on campus and my Human Development and Family Studies students (HDFS-ers for short) prep for exams, I’m struck looking back on the past 15 weeks by what my students have accomplished. Not just objectively, from exam packets completed or written projects handed in, but also more intangibly through their comments, actions, and affirmations. It’s been a good semester for growth, and I feel empowered and strengthened by the gift of having worked with my students this semester. Below are three highlights.

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  1. When discussing links between pornography consumption in men and viewing women as objects, I posed the question of what it means to be objectified, especially since that phrase has been overused to the point of becoming meaningless. My students responded to the question, with swift emphasis, that:
  • An object has no desires.
  • An object has no discomfort.
  • An object does not need to give consent.

After this discussion, I sat quietly at my desk after class, thankful these young people are heading out into the world soon. Change will come.

2. At the end of the semester, I asked my students for their final in-class assignment to write about which activity or topic I should definitely include next semester. Almost half of the course emphasized the importance of viewing The Hunting Ground and our discussion of sexual assault on campus, including the Bystander Training Prevention program we participated in as a class through Penn State’s Student Affairs.  It reminded me, once again, of the importance of giving our students access to a safe educational environment. Given that I’ve received 4 ‘timely warnings’ of reported sexual assaults on campus in the past week, we still have a long way to go, but I am confident that many of our students will continue to fight until we get there.  @endrapeoncampus

Timely Warning

3. My sophomore-level course is a survey of infancy and childhood, so we cover a variety of topics, much to my delight since I love learning and teaching about this period of development. Each semester, I try to squeeze in a presentation on the Children’s Village of Grasi, which is a children’s home/orphanage in Cesvaine, Latvia. I volunteered there many summers ago and my husband and I have since traveled back to Latvia several times as part of our adoption of our three children. I partly share the Children’s Village with my students because their program of caring for children whose families are unable to do it themselves, due to illness, maltreatment, or a variety of other causes, reflects what developmental research has shown again and again to promote resiliency, including family-style homes, family meals, longevity in their staff, and support for children even after they ready the ‘age of majority’. It’s an incredible program, to say the least.

Another a reason I talk about this with my students is to encourage them to consider how families form, and that families grow from a variety of circumstances. Grasi creates a family by linking the children who stay with them with the staff who have worked there for years. My husband and I created our family by adopting our children, who are all siblings, when they were school-age (our son was 11yrs, and our daughters 8 and 7yrs). This semester, luckily like so many others, my presentation on Grasi led to a flurry of e-mails from students wanting to know more about Grasi, about volunteering at children’s homes, about foster care here in the States, and also about adopting older children. Although I feel all of these topics are important for my students to explore, I am always especially gratified to hear students considering alternative ways to form their future families.

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With so many stories in the news focusing on adoption in a negative light, whether with exposés on reactive attachment disorder or discussions of the ills of children who are adopted later in their lives, it is even more important to communicate to my students that these stories are the exception, not the norm. When I hear students tell me they are now thinking about adopting as part of their future family plan, and even perhaps adopting older children, it makes my heart swell.

If you worry about Millenials and their impending impact on the world when they come of age, I’m here to tell you: Don’t sweat it! As my students have taught me again and again these last fifteen weeks:

The future is in good hands.

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