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How Racial and Ethnic Identity Influence Your College Journey

Episode 157

July 11, 2023 46 minutes


EAB’s Wenie Lado is joined by Dr. Brian Peterson from the University of Pennsylvania where he teaches, advises students, and serves as the Director of Penn’s Makuu Black Cultural Center. The two discuss Dr. Peterson’s work at Penn and what they’ve each learned through their respective research on ways race and ethnicity help shape everything about a student’s academic development.

Recorded prior to the recent Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action in admissions, the two also speculate on potential impacts from that ruling and offer advice to university leaders on how to better support students of color already on campus, as well as those just beginning their college search.



0:00:12.4 Speaker 1: Hello, and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. At the time of this recording, the Supreme Court has not yet issued a ruling on affirmative action in university admissions. Our guests today discuss possible implications around any changes, but they also explore more generally ways that a student’s racial or ethnic identity influence every step in their college journey and whether that journey ends before it’s ever even started. Give these folks a listen and enjoy.


0:00:46.4 Wenie Lado: Hello, and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. My name is Wenie Lado and I am the associate director of enrollment success on the college Greenlight team at EAB. And I work directly with colleges who are consistently strategizing to bring in more of a diverse class. And so how are they connecting with community-based organizations that are serving certain demographic of students, whether it’s students who are coming from first generation backgrounds, students who are coming from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, or students who we perceive as underrepresented through the world of enrollment. And a significant portion of my work revolves around engaging these institutions and being more effective in terms of, one, recruiting these students, but also marketing to the community’s organizations, the advocates, the advisors, the counselors, high school teachers who might be also engaged in this work, too. And so how do they find the right students to bring to their campus and who are a good fit? And so today, I’m super excited to be joined by another advocate for college access, Dr. Brian Peterson from the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Peterson, welcome to the program.

0:02:01.0 Dr. Brian Peterson: Thank you for having me. I’m really, really looking forward to this conversation.

0:02:06.1 WL: Yes. Would you mind telling our listeners a little bit about your work at Penn and maybe help us set the context for the discussion we want to have today around how a student’s race and identity influence whether and where or how they consider going to college and the approach that they might take to making those decisions?

0:02:28.2 DP: Absolutely. No I’m great. So I am Dr. Brian Peterson I run University of Pennsylvania’s Black Cultural Center, which is called Makuu. It’s one of six different cultural centers on campus. We’re located in a building in the middle of campus with two other cultural centers, La Casa Latina and PAACH. In addition to running the center, I also lecture on campus I teach a couple of different classes. The most popular one right now is on financial literacy. I teach with a NFL football player named Brandon Copeland. We’ve been doing that one for five years now. So that one is really kids love that one, so we love doing it. And I also do pre major advising, which means that incoming first year students who have actually just emailed me this week, they want to set up their appointments, they found out who I am, so we’re going to start meeting to talk about helping them navigate Penn. So I would say in that regard, I’ve met some of these students last year when they were visiting, and some of the students I may have met when they were in middle school because they come to visit us.

0:03:31.6 DP: And so I think in a lot of ways, my role and what we’re talking about is really helping people situate a place like Penn and understand what is a black cultural center. Why do you need that? What do you do? We have another organization on campus that works with first generation students. We have organizations that are working with international students. So I think in a lot of ways, when we think about diversity, what we try to do is help students understand and families understand that Penn is a really, really big place. We live in a very complicated time. We live in a city that’s one of the largest poor cities. And so race plays a huge role in who people see on campus and how they engage them and how they engage each other. And the students are at a very formative time, so there’s a lot happening always for them. And so what we try to do is just create a space to really have the conversations and really just figure out how to make people feel comfortable, whether they’re on the application side or whether they’re emailing me now, as a class of 2027 member.

0:04:35.0 WL: Thank you so much for sharing some of your background and the work that you do at Penn. It is really important for us to have a discussion, especially about race, ethnicity, and identity in a world where we recognize that the Supreme Court is going to be making a decision on affirmative action. And that decision solely bases this conversation about race and ethnicity. And so as you think about the students that you work with or have worked with at your time at Penn or in your career, how have you talked to students about their formative years and how that may have helped them shape their journey as they considered their expectations for college and beyond? Is this an area in which you start the conversation about race or do you talk about identity? Do you talk about interests? Do you talk about just the sheer excitement of college before you tap into the identity piece and the racial piece as they consider these institutions?

0:05:33.4 DP: Yeah, that’s another great question. I think in a lot of ways I have what I would regard as sort of a multi-pronged home court advantage, right? So I’m a Penn alum, but I’m also running a black cultural center, so it really creates more of a softer landing spot to have this conversation. But I’m also, I’m going to be 52 this next birthday, so I think about when I came to Penn and what being black meant, means something completely different to today’s students. Right. We had some semblance of diversity in our black experience, but it was largely even really the era before me. There was a huge swath of African American sort of descended from the south, landed in Philadelphia, working class families. That was the pipeline to Penn, where now, even just speaking specifically within the black Penn community, it’s from everywhere, you have students who are international, you have students who are first- or second-generation Caribbean, different African countries. I had a young man who came from London two years ago.

0:06:50.1 DP: He just finished two years ago. I remember the first time he opened his mouth, we said, oh, you’re not from here, right? And so for everyone, depending on where they’re coming from, their idea of how they see race is going to be completely different. And again, they’re at this formative stage where they’re really seeing themselves as I’m this invincible human being out to conquer the world. I got into Penn I can do amazing things. So my race or my ethnic identity or my religion or my gender norm, like, whatever it is that you are kind of weaving in, because I do think as we get into the conversation, we will talk a lot about intersectional identity, because race and ethnicity is just one piece, right? It’s a major piece for some students. And for some students, arriving at Penn is the wake up call. You have students who are coming from Ghana, for example, who they were in the majority for their entire lives. And when they get to Penn, it’s like, wait, what do you mean we have a black culture center? What do we do here? Right? And so I think part of it is listening and just leaning in.

0:07:54.9 DP: But then when you have something like we had in 2020 with the Black Lives Matters movement, and you have George Floyd and you have Brianna Taylor, no matter where people are from, they sort of get it right. For a lot of families, this has been something that they’ve dealt with cycle after cycle, hashtag after hashtag before hashtags. There were headlines, right? And for some people, it’s like, I did not know this is what America was going to be, right? And that spectrum of conversation, really for us to have a center where we can sit down and talk to people and just sort of meet them where they are, that’s what it’s about. But I also would say, I don’t look at myself as the sole provider of answers. I really do think that part of the community building process for us is helping to nurture our upper classmen so that they can also lean in, particularly during COVID because during that time, another complicated layer to the past four years the, we didn’t have day to day interactions in our living room because no one was here, right? And so for us, it was the face time conversations people were having with their peers.

0:09:04.1 DP: But for us to be able to pour into them and say, look, these are some things that we’re seeing, right? And a lot of that is a heaviness around racial identity. So it really depends on where people are, where they’re coming from.

0:09:17.3 WL: I agree I think about the years that I’ve spent working in admissions at two selective institutions, and they were predominantly white institutions, and I attended one of them. And I often times, Brian, remind myself that I didn’t have the conversation about identity and ethnicity until I started applying for programs, whether it might be a fly in program, a music program. And in those essence, I was reminded through someone who wasn’t the same race as me that I should be profiting off of my race and my identity in order to seem as a valuable candidate for admission into those programs. And so I started to realize that I can’t talk about my interest. Instead, people are expecting or having this assumption that my identity and my race is going to be my golden ticket or the trauma that I may have experienced within my race or the demographic that I am part of is exactly what I need to get into any kind of program. And it was mind blowing for a young individual to realize my peers who don’t look like me are writing about anything and everything and don’t have to talk about their identity.

0:10:36.6 WL: But somehow my identity is the only thing for some of these students, especially when we think about race and ethnicity, it becomes just the main focus and it is hard to unravel what identity means for you at such a young age. And so I do worry for students that there is this false perception that identity and race are exactly what you need to get into an institution or a program where in reality there’s so much more to an individual, as you mentioned, about intersections. So I really do appreciate you speaking to that. Any thoughts about some of the things that I shared in terms of when I perceived have you seen students in the past talk about, oh, whoa, this is a revelation that I’m having about my identity and I’m 22years old, I’m not 18, I’m not 17. This is later on. And so where is that expectation coming from? And how can we better acknowledge that this might not be the sole response that we should have for these students and how they are applying or connecting to programs?

0:11:46.3 DP: Yeah, and I think it’s fascinating because in a lot of ways, particularly when we think about first generation college students, for some of them, this is their story, right? There’s a narrative of trauma, there’s a narrative of struggle, there’s a narrative of having to do without for so long. But they don’t want to have to always sell that story, right? They don’t want to have that be all that they are. And then they could have someone that they meet in one of the pre-professional groups who’s just come up through privilege, right? Same skin tone. It could be relatives if you look at them and like, oh, you guys must be related. But it’s like their lives are completely separate. And how do we create space for that and really give them an opportunity to connect with each other? But then with this larger back drop of Black Lives Matters or affirmative action, all these other complicated things where you have their peers who have no racial or ethnic connection at all, who are looking at them and sort of putting them in the same box. Right. But then politically at times, you’re fighting for things where if you can understand that there are other people who really need to benefit from some of these things that maybe you may or may not need to benefit, but we’re still having that same conversation.

0:13:06.6 DP: I mean, we literally just celebrated June 10th two days ago, and we’re thinking about what does that mean? What does it even take for that to be recognized as a holiday? But also, what is June 10th? Right? And how do people really grapple with that whole idea? But you’re right, I think that students have to really come into it on their own and really get comfortable, but also understand that there is no one narrative, right? There is no one sort of black identity. And that’s for institutions to understand as well as for the individual students themselves to say, look, this is who I am and this is what I want to be. And I think for us, with Makuu and broader at Penn in particular, we really just try to create safe space for students to create, to have that discovery. And a lot of it is peer led, organizational led, as well as the different things that we do within Makuu.

0:14:03.0 WL: Thank you. Brian as I think about the work that you do with Makuu, tell our listeners, why is it important and valuable for institutions to continue to have programs like Makuu on their campus? Yes, we recognize that diversity. One aspect of it is race and ethnicity. But what is that value for students to continue to have a safe space or a space in which they are welcomed, to feel safe about who they are and their history or their identities?

0:14:38.4 DP: Right. Part of it, pragmatically speaking, has nothing to do with race at all. Right. Part of it is just numerically, it’s a large institution. There are 10,000 undergraduate students, right? And you get lost every day you get lost. So if you’re on the soccer team, that’s your community, right? If you’re in the band, that’s your community. If you’re on the debate team, that’s your community. And this is just another place to offer community. Right? So, but then when we think again about the backdrop of all the different political things that are happening, as well as just affinity, just different natural cultural connections. So Makuu, we help to advise 30 plus different campus organizations on the undergrad side who are doing something connected to black culture. So some of those are ethnic based, pre professional based, performance arts based, religious groups on down the line. And again, for them to have connections where it’s like, oh, you like West African dance, I like West African dance, too. We’re going to form a group.

0:15:43.6 DP: Oh, you’re a black woman who wants to be a entrepreneur, right? So you can be a part of black Wharton and they’ll have a summit where we can do that, or you’re a pre law student, but you understand historically there’s still stuff that’s happening, right? There’s still either particular obstacles we still have to break through. I think about black maternal wellness, which my wife works heavily on. There’s a lot there that she brings to the table that other black women are now becoming empowered to really become at the forefront of that conversation. So this a space like Makuu cultivates that and builds that. And then we, again, I said I have sort of a dual home court advantage. Being an alum, I can tap into my wife’s network of all these different black doctors who have gone through Penn, undergrad and are practitioners and connect them to the next generation of black premedical students. Right. And that’s a power base that I think, again, we’re able to leverage that in a way that has helped students really see so many more possibilities.

0:16:47.8 DP: Like, again, I graduated from Penn in 1993. The students today have so much more access, and it’s not just because of the Internet. It’s the Internet combined with these human connections of these decades of other alums who have come through, who really want to help them. And without a place like Makuu, without black alumni support, without multicultural connections, this stuff is not going to happen on its own. You have to be intentional about making it work.

0:17:18.7 WL: Absolutely. I want to reiterate for our listeners that these programs are important because it builds community. This is not important just because it has to do about race or ethnicity or identity. It’s because of the community building and being able to build community through affinity is the most reassuring thing. And so being in a new place or being maybe five minutes away from home, but still knowing that you have access to a community that you know will celebrate you, will empower you, but then open doors to say, hey, I once thought that I should be a teacher. But hey, because I see other people like me going into the medical field, going into business, I can also feel empowered to see that as an opportunity for myself. That’s the benefit of having these specific programs and offices on a campus. So thank you so much for sharing that. I want to shift a little bit back to our enrollment space and think about our institutions. And do you feel that it’s fair to say that most colleges want to diversify their enrollment and what do you expect will happen to Penn and other universities should the Supreme Court strike down affirmative action and ambitions? I know we are in a chaotic place.

0:18:43.5 DP: Yeah.

0:18:43.7 WL: But what are your initial thoughts about the future of enrollment for institutions?

0:18:49.6 DP: Yeah. And it’s a very rare, complicated time for a lot of reasons. So, to answer your first question, I definitely agree that universities, campuses want to diversify. Right. And this is why it’s so puzzling that we’re talking about slacking down affirmative action, right, because the way that the entire premise of affirmative action as we currently understand it, it’s based upon making the world a better place.

0:19:18.8 WL: Correct.

0:19:19.2 DP: It’s based upon saying that we want our university to benefit from this broad swath of experiences and identities and wants and goals and histories, all these different things. Affirmative action, diversity efforts are not about fixing history. It’s not about repairing anything. It’s not about restoring anything. Right? It’s not about setting aside spots for groups that have been disenfranchised. It’s not about that legally. It’s just not. Right. We’ve already had court cases to argue that it’s not. And the whole defense is, this is what we’re doing to say we want to be a part of this global economy, this global experience that is literally manifesting itself as we speak.

0:20:08.6 DP: So I will say, we’re not putting people in the room together to have conversations, we’re not going to be globally informed. Right. This is probably why we have foreign language requirements in high schools and in colleges so that we can speak to each other. Right. We have to live with each other. And this is why diversity is here. So. That’s where we’re supposed to be. But again, with ideas like critical race theory being kind of twisted and manipulated, affirmative action is experiencing the same thing. Right. And so now we’ve gotta figure out what do we do? I don’t know how you roll back for… Particularly for a place like Penn, what we’ve done, this community we’ve created, I don’t see that shifting.

0:20:54.6 DP: I feel that with the number of applicants, a selective institution like Penn has, you can still create a very diverse class to fulfill the goals of diversity, the institutional goals. And I think we’re committed to doing that, and we will continue to do that. Other schools, it may be more challenging. Right. And it may also depend on how much states can play a role and how they decide, particularly with their state systems. Right.

0:21:23.5 DP: What they’re going to do and what they’re not going to do. You know, so there’s a lot happening. There’s a lot happening. But I will say I’m really… I’m looking forward to the ways that students engage this. And really sort of take the front lines in this and just remain informed, but also really push. But I hope that we’re not too far behind the curve time-wise in where we need to be, ’cause I know things are happening and students may or may not understand. A part of that too, I mean it’s interesting as thought is kind of taking shape now, but I feel like with Obama, there was this kind of lure to say, “Oh we’re post race.” Right. And I think with the access that our students now have, the diversity that they have in some of selective prep schools that they go to, it’s almost like they’ve let their guard down and say, “Well, yeah, of course this is going to be diverse because it’s always been diverse.” But no, it’s only always been diverse for your young life.


0:22:25.6 DP: Right. It’s never… It was not diverse when I was coming up and trying to apply for these posts. It was not, right. And so there’s this lull that I hope that the things that are happening can kind of get us to commit and say, “Wait, why are we not reading these books in school? Why are… ” Why is it even a conversation? Right. Because it really should not be. But it… To me, it’s all connected. It’s really all connected.

0:22:52.7 WL: Yes. Absolutely. I couldn’t agree more. I also think about… In the world of making decisions upon who might come to an institution, there’s heavy reliance on certain categories. And we would think back to when the pandemic hit and many institutions suddenly became test optional.

0:23:14.1 DP: Mm-hmm.

0:23:14.2 WL: Many of those institutions relied so heavily on those scores to make a determination on the credibility of the student through an academic lens, but then they were asked to not be able to consider that.

0:23:28.0 DP: Right.

0:23:28.2 WL: And so, other institutions or individuals within institutions found alternative measures to still be able to determine the credibility academically of a student without those numbers. And so they found a replacement, whether it is looking at AP scores, individually, looking at subject scores, or looking at IB scores. But my question to you, Brian, is there a replacement for race, should that be struck down?

0:24:01.3 DP: So. That’s where… This is my personal view but it really goes against what I have just said around what diversity and affirmative action are. Right.

0:24:11.7 WL: Yeah.

0:24:14.1 DP: I think that we have to figure out some ways to grapple with the historical inequities that have been created. Right. And those cut across racial lines, they cut across economic lines. So. I think, you have to figure out some creative ways to understand that. Now, some people would argue that this is not the role of colleges. Right? But then you will have to point to where do you start.

0:24:41.9 WL: Exactly.

0:24:42.0 DP: Right. Whose responsibility is it? I would argue it’s everyone’s responsibility. We have to do it all across the board, right? We need more Black women doctors. That’s the responsibility of medical schools, right? We need more Black women CEOs. That’s a responsibility of corporate hiring practices. We need more queer people, in all these spaces where they’re underrepresented. We need more people, period, who are carrying the torches for the different communities that they represent, where they have been largely just excluded from these spaces. And this is a part of just modern history. We’re now at a point where we can look and we can see data points and we can educate people, which is probably why people don’t want people to read particular books because it’s, it says what we did. This is what happened.

0:25:34.2 DP: It’s not, we’re not making these things up, but we just want people to be aware. Well, the less aware of people are, the more you can say, well, of course we don’t wanna change anything. Why would we change anything? Well, no, this, these things weren’t right. And legally it’s hard to do that. And that’s where you really have to lean into what is the world that we want to have? How do we get there? Let’s make some intelligent decisions that we can agree upon. But the agreement part is the part that’s always the sticking point. How do you do it? I don’t know if you do blind admissions, do you… What happens? I don’t know.

0:26:15.4 WL: Yeah.

0:26:17.2 DP: I have no idea. I feel like, I’ve looked at, I’ve been a part of some search processes that were supposedly redacted, but it’s just like, you can, see it’s like, well, I’m pretty sure this person exists. And does that impact your decision? Depends on who you are. It depends on, what you’re trying to get done. Ideally in the best case scenario, you hire the best person. But let’s think about Penn, 60,000 applications, 2,500 spots.

0:26:50.9 WL: Yeah.

0:26:51.0 DP: On Thursday you could pull in 2,500 best people, and on Friday you could pull in 2,500 different best people.

0:26:58.2 WL: Yes, exactly.

0:27:00.0 DP: At some point you have to have all these other factors. Say, ‘Well, here’s what we’re going to be about.” And how do you do that? I don’t have the magic wand, but I do feel like race and reparative justice, in my personal opinion, have to always be a part of the conversation, right? Because we’ve done so much damage. If we don’t start undoing that damage, we’re not going to be who we claim we are as a nation.

0:27:28.6 WL: I agree. And I’m hearing from you that there is no replacement to race.

0:27:34.4 DP: Right.

0:27:34.4 WL: And ethnicity, there is physically no replacement to that as well. And, as we think about a potential ruling that eliminates stereotypes, assumptions, bias, those are the things that are leading us into the complication of decision making. Because the individual has the opportunity to evaluate the person who is presenting themselves. But if they present themselves with the joy of celebrating their identity, the person who might be evaluating it is up to them to make that decision. But it’s their bias or the stereotype that they perceive that will end up being the challenge. And so those are the conversations I hope more admissions and enrollment teams and campuses start to have. And as we think about this conversation, who is it going to affect? It’s the students.

0:28:29.2 WL: And so Brian, as you think about what’s happening in this world, I feel we’re tearing apart the essence of individuals. ‘Cause we can’t change our race and our ethnicity. But are you talking to students on your campus about this issue? And what are you hearing? And if you’re not talk… If it’s not students on campus, but student perspectives, what have you been hearing from them about this idea that admissions could be blind to race and based strictly on merit, but what is merit? That’s the other question. Any thoughts there about that?

0:29:00.6 DP: Right. And this one I think about, I come from this question from the perspective of a parent of public school students. Five young people in my household most… I have one child who will be attending private school this year. That’ll be the first one ever. Everyone else, straight public school. And I look at the public school system and I think about how Penn does not recruit largely from certain schools, right? And it’s really because the schools are not set up to be feeders to Penn. You’re really saying if we invite a student to apply, are they gonna be able to have a great experience? You never wanna invite someone to your campus and you know that they may not be able to do the work. And sadly, you can look at the grades across the board in the city and see that there are neighbourhood schools are underperforming, right?

0:30:02.4 DP: But underperforming is contextual. Are they underperforming? They’re underperforming in terms of where we would want to see performance, but where are they in terms of the resources that they have allocated to them? They may be performing above what they’re, what they should be doing because they don’t have the resources. And so again, that when you think about, well, how do you pull merit out of that, right? I don’t understand the conversation that you could even have to say, “Well, we can look at this school that has all these resources that’s pumping kids to Penn and Harvard, Stanford or wherever else. Did they get in on merit or did they get in because they had a counsellor ratio that was actually like suitable, right? Did they have access to other resources? Did they have access to other opportunities? Did they have access to AP courses? Did they have access to the things?” Right? And, this is to me, working with young people, working with families, as I’ve done in other roles outside of my role at Makuu, there’s always this… Just context of these young people. I wanna be a doctor, but I went to this poorly performing school, and I don’t even really know that you don’t get to be a doctor after just four years of college.

0:31:26.1 WL: Yes.

0:31:27.2 DP: And I’ve had a heartbreaking conversation like that where we could bring a student to campus for a program, and I say yeah I think I might wanna go here. And they’re in 12th grade and they’re in algebra two.

0:31:40.4 WL: Yeah.

0:31:41.7 DP: And so it’s just like, well, now we’ve gotta have a broader conversation about college. But 10 is not gonna be a part of that conversation. I get that you like the campus, but you’re in the city, you can come for events, you can come for different things. And maybe, you can transfer after a few good years here, or maybe you can come for a grad program. But that reality check is heartbreaking. So again, like when I think about a word like merit I’m like well the system is so imbalanced that that’s not even a word that I use. I really think about systemic inequities and how we fix these broken systems. And that’s a much bigger job.

0:32:20.9 WL: I couldn’t agree more, and a few months ago, I gave a presentation to a bunch of enrollment leaders about the future of this work as we think about diversifying enrollment. And I remember making this comparison to say, in high school, when I was in high school, everyone took the ACT, but because the ACT it was then sharing names depending on the scores that you were receiving. I got a 19 ACT score, so I was getting letters from community colleges, local area schools, but all of my peers were getting letters from the Yales of the world, the University of Madison Wisconsin’s of the world.

0:33:18.9 WL: And that definitely changed my perspective of which type of institution is going to see me as a viable candidate. And so when I thought about that, I realized that people who were guiding me through the application process were basically saying, your test score is not gonna get you into these institutions. What’s gonna get you into these institutions? Do you wanna talk about your refugee status? Do you wanna talk about your mother passing away when you were young? Do you wanna talk about being an immigrant? Do you wanna talk about growing up low income? Those were the options that I received in order to be able to express myself in my narrative so that I can be a viable candidate. But that was so hard on my mental health because I didn’t even know how to process those things. And I didn’t even yet know, okay, hey, I’m first generation to the US and I’m first generation to college. What are these things meaning. So as we think about mental health, because these questions or these perceptions that we have about race and identity, and we ask these students to share that insight, what are some ways that you see race impacting the mental health of students as they think about college and think about their success as an individual on a college campus?

0:34:22.9 DP: Yeah. And it’s been such a difficult time, COVID and thinking about just the lives lost. And the impact on Black communities in particular that was heavy and then coming out of Black Lives Matters, that was heavy. But what I really love about today’s students compared to when I was at Penn, is an ownership of a mental wellness journey and a mental health journey. I hear students… In Makuu we have sort of a common space we call the Makuu living room, that’s really the space people congregate between classes, have lunch, and you’ll hear students, say, alright, I gotta wrap this conversation up ’cause I gotta go to meet with my therapist. And that would not have happened in my generation at all. One, we weren’t using therapy and for the one or two people who were, you wouldn’t tell anyone, you would take the back route to wherever the therapy office was and kind of try to sneak in the side door. But now students are really talking about it and they’re helping each other.

0:35:35.9 DP: ‘Cause I would say above and beyond, all the different challenges we talked about today with race and identity. And I really appreciate you sharing your story about your application journey and just how you had to navigate that amongst yourself. Because I think that it’s an internal question and an internal struggle that we’re all gonna have constantly. But we reached a moment now where I think we’re embracing it. But Penn is hard. These selective institutions are hard. And for a young person who struggled in high school, who my daughter didn’t have a high school graduation ceremony because of COVID. So there’s memories that she may be triggered anytime someone pulls out a yearbook because hers got mailed to her. So there’s all these things that are gonna happen. But then when you’re battling an academic competition with people who you imagine came from the best schools. And if you’re at community college and you didn’t think you would be in college, but there you are and you’re questioning do you deserve this seat? Who do you talk to about that? And so again, I really applaud this generation for saying, look, I’ve got questions I need help.

0:37:00.7 DP: So part of that, is therapy for sure, but part of that really is a space like Makuu. A tutoring center, peer mentoring, alumni networks, all these… We have to build these villages to really support the young people and not just put every single thing on therapy. But again, I really do applaud them for believing in it and saying, “This stuff is tough, but I wanna get through and I wanna really enjoy the journey as much as I can.”

0:37:33.4 WL: And there are a lot of misconceptions from institutions making this assumption that mental health is a professional, it has to be formalized. While that is true, mental health is also social wellness. So for individuals and our students who are coming from backgrounds that aren’t the majority on their institution, campus, or location, we have to realize there’s an environmental shift, there is a social shift, and everyone might be navigating that as well and so we can exclude our students from having those opportunities to build, like you said, Brian, community through affinity. And it’s not just saying, “Hey, let’s have a conversation about trauma.” It’s, let’s have a conversation about, “Okay, this is affecting me today, are you also going through it too? Is there advisor that I could talk to that can help me navigate this?” That gives individuals the step towards actually seeking out a professional should they need that opportunity.

0:38:36.4 WL: So give them the space to speak up and be able to share their voices and their narratives, and I couldn’t agree more. The students are doing that so much through their essay writing. I’ve seen so many essays talking about how there has been a dynamic shift in how they perceive themselves, but they don’t know what to do with it. And so if we can be more attentive to those students, then we can think about the resources that we can provide on a college campus to further improve retention one, and the ultimate success of the student. So thank you for sharing that. Dr. Peterson, you have been very generous with your time today, but before we go, I would love to ask you to share maybe your top three to four pieces of advice for university leaders or enrollment leaders on how to better support students of color, students who are coming from marginalized communities on their campus today and those who may be beginning their college search. What advice do you have for them?

0:39:34.3 DP: Absolutely. Now again, I really appreciate the opportunity to be here and to share. So I would say one of the things that I’ve seen work really well at Penn and I do it myself as a leader of a center here is just listen. I spend a lot of time not… I wanna research, I wanna understand best practices, I wanna understand what’s happening in the landscape and higher Ed, but I also wanna understand what students are bringing to the table, what ideas they have, what are their experiences? Because I think as you listen to particularly within diverse communities, understanding what that means to them and how they see their place in the institution, we can then learn, oh, maybe we’re giving you all too much in terms of the expectation to show up for this photo shoot, to lead this working group, right? To do all these things, to fix all of these huge problems that our people’s jobs. But we’re putting that on students.

0:40:36.5 DP: But at the same time, sometimes when they take that work on, they gain a perspective that we frankly don’t have. And if we don’t create a platform for them to share that with us, we lose that year of labor, right? We lose all those experiences and even if it’s just casual conversations with students who you encounter just asking questions and just really seeing, what is it like for you to be here in 2023? Because I can’t rely on what it was like for me to have been here in 1990 [laughter], right? It is not the same place at all. So that would be number one, listen. Number two, I would say is just empower spaces like Makuu, community building spaces. And they could look any number of different ways, but I think that when you… Even on small campuses, right? When you empower spaces like Makuu, clubs, different opportunities for people to dive deep. It could be study abroad opportunities where people are going in small groups, but when you can build up those communities, it really exemplifies what I perceive as like the role of higher education, which is to bring people together around rich ideas and allow them to just be.

0:41:53.6 WL: Yeah.

0:41:54.5 DP: Right? So if I’m just being, but as a Black man, as a father of five, as someone who claims Philadelphia’s home now, but originally from Harrisburg, and I can bring that experience as a faculty mentor on a trip with a 20-year-old from another part of the globe, right? That’s why we’re here, right? That’s why we’re here. So I would say just create those learning communities. And the last thing I would say and this is another thing that I’ve had to learn particularly coming out of COVID, I say coming out of COVID, always sort of hesitantly, ’cause COVID is still here, right? So it’s a weird time because we’re acting like everything is fine, but it is not exactly fine. But I would say for the last two years we’ve gradually ramped back up and in some ways we’ve tried to make up for lost time and you can’t make up for lost time, the time is lost, but we’ve over programmed, right?

0:42:54.5 DP: And then students they’ll launch a new group without realizing that a similar group exists, right? And campuses where we’re saying we’re here, the requirements here, the things, but this is what I teach at financial literacy class, you don’t really learn this stuff in high school, right? And when you get to campus, no one tells you how to be a student. No one tells you how to balance your time. And so we’re throwing all this stuff at 17, 18-year-olds, and they’ve never had to hold all this stuff before because they’ve always been at home and that’s been a more managed process. So now they’re independent, but again, I’m not putting an onus on them to say, “Hey, you guys need to figure this out quicker.”

0:43:38.7 DP: I’m saying as an institution, we need to say what matters most to us? What experiences do we need to cultivate? And how do we reduce the level of stress we’re putting on our young people? Because we can see the negative results when they don’t have a way to process it healthily, it’s not good. It’s not good. And they suffer in silence and we’ve seen extremes of suicide and loss and we’ve seen students who are literally just not having the experience that they thought they were gonna have, and they have no idea what to do about it so they go through these four years and they’re miserable.

0:44:19.3 WL: Yeah.

0:44:20.3 DP: They’re miserable. So we do not want that. But again, I think we have to own that as an institution to say what’s most important to us, how do we create healthy communities, healthy individuals, so that they can feel good about what they’ve decided to do right? And continue to lift up the torch of the institution long after they’ve graduated, but graduated as a whole holistically developed person.

0:44:48.2 WL: Yeah. Dr. Peterson, it’s been quite an honor, hearing your perspective and I deeply appreciate you for joining me today. This conversation is just the beginning and I hope our listeners take this conversation and continue, share it with your leaders and have them really listen into the small things that we talked about that are such big factors into an individual’s perspective and opportunities on your campus. And so, if we can be better humans by being humans to one another, then I think we can have a better understanding of individuals and how they navigate through this process on a personal level, but also on a structural level. ‘Cause yes, you don’t want them on your campus for seven years, you want them to be able to use the four years, or the six years that they have on your campus as a way for them to grow and nourish themselves through this lens rather than being a miserable experience because they’re also navigating their mental health, the environment, and the societal challenges that exist. So again, thank you so much for your time. Thank you for your expertise and thank you for the work that you do to continue empowering students and their narratives as they seek opportunities at Penn.

0:46:07.6 DP: Thank you for having me.


0:46:14.5 S1: Thank you for listening. Please join us next week on Office Hours with EAB.


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