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UIC TA Handbook - Beyond Statistics: Lessons from a UIC Student

By Fay Rosner
Revised by UIC Graduate College November 2016

Former Graduate Assistant
MED Education - Instructional Leadership, UIC May 1992
UIC Council for Excellence In Teaching and Learning
Graduate College

UIC's Uniqueness

I have spent the greater part of a decade working with UIC students, providing career guidance, conducting job search workshops, talking to classes about careers. While I generally enjoyed my work, there were times, sitting in my office when I would daydream about working at some small liberal arts college -- one with lots of trees and grass and flowers, historic buildings, and above all, a window so I could see all this splendor.  A few years ago, I was with my husband at just such a college, where he was attending a conference. "This is the kind of place you'd like to work, isn't it?" he asked as we strolled across the river which ran through the heart of campus, past beautifully weathered buildings. "No - not at all," I heard myself say. I launched into a litany of all the things I loved about UIC: "I never met a UIC student who was the least bit pampered. They're hard-working and determined, and they appreciate the smallest courtesy... I sometimes meet students from six or seven different countries in one day..." It was a defining moment for me - my words made me realize how much I'd learned from the students I'd worked with, the many ways they had enriched my life.

Grace's Story

Grace is one of those students I'll never forget. (I have changed her name and a few minor details in order to protect her privacy.) An African American woman, she was tall and self-possessed, a colorful dresser with a colorful sense of humor -- she had "stage presence."  I learned many things about Grace over the course of the two years I knew her. She was a single mother of an 11 year-old. She had been homeless at one point in her life. She had a phenomenal singing voice. (As part of a management class presentation, she sang a song to the president of the Goodyear Corporation.) She was bright, hard-working, putting in 30 hours a week, as I recall, while taking a full load of courses. She also faced many challenges to make it to graduation as an African American first generation student.  Apart from various obstacles possibly preventing graduation in four or five years, or at all, students with family responsibilities are 87 percent more likely to drop out of school, according to UIC education professor Amaury Nora.

Beating the Odds

With all these strikes against her, how did Grace make it, not only graduating with her B.S. in two majors, but landing her dream job in a Fortune 500 company? Pure grit and determination were certainly part of it. Those of us who knew Grace knew that nothing was going to stand in her way. But there was something equally important that I think allowed her to beat the odds: she had the most extensive support network of anyone I've ever met. Her professors all knew her by name. Our staff all knew her by name. She befriended her work colleagues at her on­ campus job. Professor Nora's research affirms what Grace's experience suggests, and what our own intuition tells us: "interactions with faculty, teaching assistants and administrative staff [have) very positive effects on remaining enrolled." In addition, Nora finds that a strong support system can actually minimize negative effects that working and family responsibilities have on student persistence.

Well, a support system is one thing in the abstract, but when I went to Grace's graduation party, held in the basement of her church, I saw her support system in the flesh, and it was amazing. Her family was there .. aunts and uncles and cousins, her mother and son, and several sisters, who, it turned out were also gifted musicians, joining with Grace at one point for some unforgettable gospel singing. There were also professors, several women she'd met through a professional society, fellow students and co-workers. Grace had turned UIC into a second, very extended family. It was a family that supported her, cheered her on, believed in her, gave her its best.

But what about students who lack Grace's resourcefulness? her charisma? her communication skills?  In her book, The Urban Campus, Peggy Gordon Elliott observes that many at-risk students are "lacking the day­ to-day experiences that would foster intellectual development. Even those who are not lagging behind scholastically may find that their own culture and language are so far removed from those of the university community that it is difficult for them to communicate in the academic environment. The clash of cultures can be consuming, even painful."

Letting Your Students Know They Matter

As a TA, you play a critical role in shaping your students' university experience. You will be helping them assimilate into a new culture with a whole new set of codes, expectations and rules for success. (What worked in high school may no longer work in college.) For some, you may turn into a mentor, an informal advisor, a tutor, or all of the above. To others, an occasional word of encouragement on an assignment or a friendly word when you run into them on campus may have an impact you could never imagine. Whatever role you play, you may be the one to make a difference in a student's decision to stay in school. How can you prepare yourself? By cultivating and communicating an attitude that lets your students know they matter. Some suggestions:

  • Do your homework. Find out about the students you'll be teaching.
  • Get to know your students as individuals. On the first day of class, you might ask them to fill out an index card citing previous coursework, if applicable; intended major; work experiences; hobbies; and other information you think is important.
  • Get to know the campus resources, and find time to visit at least some of them yourself, so you can refer students personally when appropriate.
  • If possible, invite resource people to come speak to your class on topics such as study skills, time management, internships, using the library, e-mail. Students tend to be less intimidated about using these services once they've met a real live person who can help them.
  • UIC students are isolated from one another by geography, commuter status, and a fierce heterogeneity. Members of any UIC class need to be introduced to each other and continually challenged to remain in dialogue.
    Christian Messenger Professor Emeritus, English Silver Circle Award Recipient
  • Foster a sense of community in class. Just a few minutes now and then of informal conversation - about movies, sports, jobs - can help student feel a sense of belonging.

Summary

Is Grace a "typical" UIC student? Yes and no. No - because there is no such thing; that is, UIC is so diverse that there is no one ethnic group that is the majority. And yes -- because Grace faced some of the same challenges that UIC students typically face: balancing work and school, academic underpreparedness, negotiating the bureaucratic tangles. The human touch that you provide can go a long way toward making a difference -- letting students know they matter can help them turn obstacles into success. What I learned from Grace is the powerful effect a community can have on an individual's life, how it can help her defy the odds, thumb her nose at the statistics, and succeed beyond her wildest dreams.

References

Elliott, P.G. (1994). The urban campus: Educating the new majority tor the new century, Phoenix, AZ: American Council on Education and the Orynx Press.

Nora, A. (November, 1995). Student persistence at UIC, Teaching at UIC, The Council for Excellence in Teaching and Learning newsletter.

Messenger, C. (February, 1996). Excerpts from a panel presentation given at a New Faculty Workshop and reprinted in Teaching at UIC, The Council for Excellence in teaching and Learning newsletter.

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