This blog post was written by Jessica Kelly with the Office of Scholarly Communications.
Supporting Today’s Students in the Library: Strategies for Retaining and Graduating International, Transfer, First-Generation, and Re-Entry Students, a collection of case studies compiled by authors Ngoc-Yen Tran and Silke Higgins, is an excellent resource that pleasantly turns out to be not just for library professionals. Bonus – Mullins Library owns a copy of this book! The lessons within its pages is information that anyone working in a higher education setting could utilize to improve their service to students. There is something for everyone – instructors/library faculty and staff, yes, but also professors, administrators, and staff across the various higher ed academic settings – from which to learn.
Pinning down a definition for “today’s students” is a difficult task and varies depending on whom you ask. For the book’s purposes, the acknowledgment of the “marked growth” (p. 1) of nontraditional students dictated this interpretation of what comprises “today’s students.” The editors freely admit that there are not nice, neat categories in which to box nontraditional students; indeed, admitting this fact is half the battle! The various definitions of what constitutes a nontraditional student is part of what makes categorization so difficult. However, this book does an excellent job of trying to incorporate as much as possible, encompassing a range of non-traditional student types – first generation, single parent, international, transfer, and more. While the book describes multiple ways of what support might look like, the only limit is one’s imagination. This collection of case studies showcases the creativity, ingenuity, and collaboration that various libraries have achieved to meet certain challenges of support.
As librarians and information professionals, the book’s authors and editors are uniquely situated as authorities on these matters. They are committed to supporting nontraditional students, putting thought and effort into strategies to help their student population flourish. This collection of papers shares their experiences of how they addressed their particular library’s unique challenges. The editors acknowledge how difficult classification and grouping of these papers was, with the many facets of nontraditional students in addition to the overlapping library functions utilized in supporting such a diverse group. Accordingly, the book is laid out by primary topics of instruction and information literature, collaboration, and outreach, encompassing a variety of strategies. But a forewarning – library employees should be prepared to come across a few hard truths and things they do not wish to hear. For example, Chap. 12 briefly describes a study of First Generation students wherein librarians are considered a “low information source overall” (p. 187). Understandably, that stings.
One of the many positives of this compendium is the realization that the lessons learned can be transferred across many aspects of an academic campus. Almost every chapter discusses important learning and teaching methods which the authors state are “of a practical nature” (p. 2). Many of the chapters focus on the sense of belonging & inclusivity, and its importance in the academic setting. An extraordinary amount of the book discusses student isolation – feeling out of place, struggling to fit in, unable to “navigate the system [like their peers]” (p. 186) and like “imposters in an unfamiliar culture” (p. 14). Reframing the ways in which we think about educating and engaging with students is an important part of addressing these issues. Chap. 15 discusses the library building itself as being a source of inclusivity and belonging, utilizing Astin’s theory of student involvement as the basis for the strategies the authors implemented. Such an ideal is applicable across the board and though targeted towards one group, resulted in “benefit[s for] all types of students” (p. 248). The Neuman Systems Model, which focuses on a “whole person” approach, is discussed in Chapter 3 as a method of increasing student engagement. In Chap. 9, the authors write “As a matter of equity and ethics, when a university admits students they know to be at-risk of not graduating, the institution must provide a network of support in order to help these students succeed” (p. 137). Chapter 11 discusses diversity and representation with regards to collections not only as the subject matter, but also authors. Additionally, it highlights accuracy and authenticity of the diversity representation. The importance of students seeing themselves accurately reflected in the collections – along with their and their community’s stories being seen, told, and documented – cannot be overstated.
I must confess that Chapter 12 was my favorite chapter. Titled “Meeting Them Where They Are,” it appealed to my keen interests in supporting nontraditional students and introduced me to a resource I did not know was available, the University of South Carolina National Resource Center for First Year Experience and Students in Transition. It was also particularly commendable to see this chapter discussing the cultural deficit model, which “contends that minority cultural values, as transmitted through the family, are dysfunctional, and therefore cause low educational and occupational attainment,” caused by “…parents of color fail[ing] to assimilate and embrace the educational values of the dominant group…”1 Addressing the cultural deficit model acknowledges that such thinking – often an unintentional implicit bias – is present across all aspects of academic campuses, and has “negative consequences on learning outcomes and student development” (p. 188).
As previously stated, difficulties abound when defining non-traditional students and this book has its fair share of this problem. Of a total 16 chapters within this book, 6 deal with international students and ESL/language barriers, 4 deal with First Generation students (another nebulous category), and the rest of the chapters are spread across other non-traditional categories. Arguments could be made as to the brevity or prevalence of each subject matter but that is a debate for another day. I would be remiss to at least address Chapter 5. It fit in the least with the overall feel and focus of the book. The deficit model of thinking negatively permeated the entire chapter from start to finish, so while the method discussed is transferrable to other areas of campus (as it was originally adopted from academic classrooms), I would be hesitant to recommend it.
So what things are we at the University of Arkansas already doing along these lines? In doing research to compare what the University Libraries are doing, I found myself at a loss. Searching through the Libraries site, I did not see anything specific that I could compare to programs in the book. That is not to say that University Libraries do not already do some of these things, merely that I could not find specific examples of such. So, I decided instead to focus on the small things that the University Libraries could do, if we do not already do them. Things like using less technical jargon and using more plain language, as well as trying to avoid duplication of efforts, which requires talking with other departments and being transparent and vocal about what your dept. does and the services it offers. Other important aspects to keep in mind – are we keeping in mind how best to accommodate the populations we serve when thinking about and planning renovations (e.g., the library’s renovation, the new student success center, etc.)? Are we keeping diversity and representation in mind with regards to collections? We use the slogan “libraries are for everyone,” so do we have welcoming policies? One of the goals in the University of Arkansas’s Strategic Plan includes “recruitment and retention of underserved student populations in Arkansas,” so how are we supporting this goal and the resulting enrolled students? Do we avoid using the “deficit model” of thinking with regards to students? What sort of outreach programs do we have, and are they clearly advertised to the appropriate people or in a prominent space?
This book overall deserves considerable praise. No matter your interest or focus, there is useful knowledge to be gleaned in almost every chapter. The idea of the library as a petri dish is apt; the university library really is a sort of “sandbox” where things can be tested to figure out the best ways to serve the university community’s many components. The lessons imparted in this book, learned in the “sandbox” of the university library, can absolutely be applied across the entire university setting. It bears repeating that not only does representation matter, it is vital; there should be a continued focus on diversity and inclusion. Actions such as sharing our stories and how we came to be where we are from our humble beginnings can be a motivator, a connection, an encouraging story for students. As the book states, such actions are “…outside of traditional library duties,” (p.14) but build more valuable relationships with students. The library is a vital component in the higher education chapter of a student’s life. It is imperative to show our sincere desire, specifically by putting actions to our words, to help students – all students! – succeed in the higher education setting.
So what is the take home message? These strategies can certainly serve as models to copy and implement, but they are also a great jumping off point for discussion and creative critical thinking. Meeting the needs of today’s students requires assessing those students’ needs, thinking creatively, tailoring programs, and building relationships, which should be ongoing, continuous work. By truly serving today’s students, we are building the bridge to becoming tomorrow’s library.