At Western Technical College, #RealCollege Supports Poverty Informed Practice

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Author: Chad Dull, Dean of Learner Support & Transition, Western Technical College

Every Barrier That Can Be Removed, Should Be Removed. That’s the philosophy and call to action behind Western Technical College’s Poverty Informed Practice, a solutions-based approach that guides the work of the Learner Support and Transition Division. This work is inspired by the national #RealCollege movement. It expresses an awareness of how tenuous life can be for all of us. Meeting students where they are, rather than insisting they come to you, while removing the stubborn obstacles (often of poverty), benefits everyone. Students experiencing poverty who have the courage to pursue education deserve a place that meets their basic needs, creates belonging, and accelerates their progress toward their dreams.

I grew up poor. I was not homeless or destitute but had a clear sense that I did not have the resources the people around me had. This has fed my lifelong interest in how others overcome poverty, and how poverty intersects with educational success.  I’m a dean at Western Technical College, a medium sized two year college in La Crosse, Wisconsin, a Midwestern city of roughly 50,000. Western is an open-access learning institution, which means it has a chance to be a perfect engine of change for #RealCollege students and a site of Poverty Informed Practice.

Much like the culture of caring enacted at Amarillo College in Texas, ours is a person-centered approach, borne out of respect and kinship, and works for all students but looks vastly different for each one. Support must be normalized and de-stigmatized—everyone needs access to help at different times. I often say our students with the greatest barriers teach us how to improve like other students never could. So where to begin?

We have two core beliefs. First, belonging is a fundamental human need, near the base of Maslow’s Hierarchy. Second relationships are powerful in helping individuals from poverty succeed. Many of our students are exceptionally interdependent and reliant on one another, and we needed to take advantage of this amazing strength they bring to their pursuit of their dreams. That’s why our project needs to create a sense of belonging at every opportunity and build on the relational strengths of the population we support.

We began our work with what I call a “No Audit.” Our audit assumed that everything “speaks.” Our facilitates, signage, behavior and everything else on campus is constantly telling students whether they “belong.” Unfortunately, too many of our students have been getting messages for much of their life that they don’t belong and are “less than.” Imagine those messages, no matter how subtle, piling up for a lifetime.. and then you come to a college campus.  Anxiety and fear are natural in that setting and it is often an act of courage just to cross the threshold to campus.

So, we started looking for places we were inadvertently delivering the wrong message. The truth was a bit disheartening. We found signs in all capital letters saying STAFF ONLY, even though the door was already locked. We found test booklets labeled Do NOT Write in This Booklet; not very friendly and frankly a little confusing. Before we had even begun to examine our behavior, we found our materials were telling our students to stay out and implied they didn’t know how to use an answer sheet. Once we begin to see unintended messages, we really could not “unsee” them and now notice them everywhere.

I was overwhelmed by the results of our audit. It was time to get to work. Part of our program is an email that I write every week called “Poverty Informed Friday.” These emails are used to create an understanding of “why” we are doing this and to start listing “what” can actually be done. After an email discussing our idea that “everything speaks” and tells our students whether they belong or don’t belong, two teachers’ aides decided that should extend to room decor. They decided that the classrooms that serve the most vulnerable students should not look like they were furnished from a rummage sale, so they spent a day going to every classroom and making sure that furniture matched, bulletin boards were fresh and professional, mouse pads were clean and accessible, and created a list of materials that I should order because their students deserved it. Needless to say, I was moved by this level of personal accountability and caring for the very students we are trying to invite in.

People in the crisis of poverty have some remarkable qualities. This includes generosity and a sharing culture that I remember from my childhood and admire to this day. Food in our lobby is a small way of acknowledging that we value those qualities and that we welcome you to our “home.”  Surviving poverty requires an interdependence and means when times are good you help others, because when times aren’t good, they will help you. This is our way of saying “times are good for us and we know it’s our turn to help.” We do so without judgment and without question. We do it because that is what people do.

Food creates community and watching people stop by for a snack before class and engaging them in conversation is just another opportunity to build a relationship. We believe that relationships are paramount in being poverty informed and food helps that happen. Oh yeah, and people are hungry, The Bowl (as our students have grown to call it) gets filled five times a day.

There was an interesting post on Dr. Donna Beegle’s Facebook page recently. It said “What does someone have to do to be worthy of your help? Reflecting on this question will help you identify subconscious bias.” Earlier, well-intended, discussions about student hunger had produced emails about making sure food is “just for students in poverty.” But that doesn’t feel like building community to me and how would we verify? There is so much judgment around poverty and food. A recent graduate working her way out of poverty shared with us that she was grocery shopping and bought a bunch of fresh produce. When she pulled out her EBT card at checkout, another patron remarked it must be nice to be able to afford that stuff on the taxpayer dime. The same student shared that if she had come up with a cart of cheap junk food, she would have been judged harshly for that as well. Poverty can be a no-win proposition. Our food is simply for guests.

2018 was the year we put what we believe into concrete action. We have used guiding principles to create an environment that works for #RealCollege students. These principles include: no judgment, no screening for services, create a sense of belonging,  remove all barriers possible, say yes as often as possible, and be inclusive and responsive. These principles have led us to new practices and exploration of more every day. We established emergency funds that require no judgment and no hoops to jump through because everyone deserves help. We laser focused on Credit for Prior Learning (CPL), because #RealCollege students bring experience to our classrooms, and granting credit for that experience creates self-efficacy (“I’m a college student”) and validates that their life has counted. And we made sure that no one goes to class hungry.

Let me finish by telling you about Fred, a recent HSED graduate who earned 11 college credits as he completed high school. Fred shared with us that he had returned before elsewhere to try and complete high school. He said that it didn’t work out in part because he dreaded having to explain why school hadn’t worked and it always felt like they were going to have to “fix” him. A poverty informed program doesn’t “fix” anyone. It honors the strengths, life experiences, and resiliency of students. We do that by being relentlessly future focused. Fred told his teachers that he thought his success here was because everyone here “talked about my future, until I believed I had one…” We want to do the same for every #RealCollege student. Poverty Informed Practice is our commitment to making that happen. Our students teach us every day.

Email Chad to continue the conversation

Learn more more about poverty and strategies with these resources:

Donna Beegle and Communication Across Barriers

PERTS: Social Belonging for College Students

Surviving Poverty by Joan Maya Mazelis

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