I’m writing today to share my experience working in a graduate assistantship (or GA) at Slippery Rock University’s Office for Inclusive Excellence (OIE). My goal is to reflect on what I’ve learned in the past year but to also shine light on the experiences of working in a multiculturalism-based GA. If you’re considering a GA in this functional area or would like to learn more, keep reading!
Prior to this GA, my experiences with underrepresented student populations included volunteering for two summers with the Hispanic Scholarship Fund’s Youth Leadership Institute and during the last two years of my undergrad as a model and then executive board member for SPIRIT Fashion Show, a show formed out of the black student advocacy organization at Carnegie Mellon University. Not to mention that I identify as Mexican-American and grew up in South Texas!
When I applied to Slippery Rock’s program and searched through their webpage of available assistantships, this one was my top choice early on. After eight different interviews and three offers in my hand by Spring Break, I chose this graduate assistantship because I knew I had so much more to learn.
At Slippery Rock, the OIE develops programming year-round to address issues of social justice and inclusion on campus, oversees all multicultural student organizations, and hosts a high school to college transition program called the Jump Start. I mainly work with students in Jump Start, which serves first-year and transfer students who elect to move to campus a week early for an orientation on campus resources and who are matched with peer mentors who meet with them once a week to support their academic, social, and personal transition to our university. Here are the three main lessons I learned in my first year in my role:
The importance of having a space. I had not understood the importance of a safe space, a space where students from historically marginalized backgrounds can congregate and relax, until my assistantship at SRU. Not because I couldn’t imagine how a space like this could be beneficial, but because I never had been exposed to and active in one — and I honestly never needed to be. But seeing the Student Development Suite (where the OIE is housed) in such a prominent part of campus is so impactful. It makes a statement. It’s important that these spaces are accessible and noticed while still protected by professionals looking out for the cultural, social, and mental well-being of our students who need and desire the space.
How to make a good first impression. As a GA, I supervise 15 students individually on a bi-weekly basis, a pretty different supervision experience than I had before. My goal for our initial meeting was try to set myself up as someone who may not understand an experience or an identity first-hand, but could empathize and provide a supportive space. During the first one-on-one of the year, I asked each mentor, toward the end of the conversation, if there was anything that they thought I should know that would be helpful for our relationship. The responses ranged from uncertainty about counseling and mental illness to preferred method of contact and “I’m just a really chill person.” This one question opened many doors and truly helped me connect with students, allowing me to better remember their individual needs and preferences.
Getting deep and learning about the lived experience of students. In addition to my daily interaction, supervision, and advising, I had the opportunity to interview a few students to learn more about their personal and cultural backgrounds. Through my Environments course, I was encouraged to a create a semi-structured interview to better understand a specific student subculture’s perception of their learning on campus and create programming ideas. In this blog, I detailed what I learned from three African-American students at a predominately white institution. Ignoring the focus on the university environment, I learned a lot about each individual students’ background, how they felt they fit within overall campus culture and black campus culture, and again, the importance of the Student Development Suite as a space to be supported as themselves. I enjoyed this deep one-on-one experience, which brought me to developing a new philosophy: I work to learn without demanding an education from my students and I am dedicated to supporting them.
My Next and Final Year
This year I’m coming into my second year with more of an understanding of the various experiences and identities that interact within our campus community as well as the different goals our mentors and first-year students want to get out of the Jump Start program. I’ve built great mentoring relationships and friendships on campus that I’m excited to continue as August soon approaches. These relationships are the best part of my work and I’m excited to come in and meet this year’s incoming first-year class. Thank you for joining me and let me know what else I can share!