In thinking about this blog, I reread what many contributors wrote and shared with readers. I read the entries about the need to discuss class, and the importance of understanding differently abled bodies and the cultures connected to them, and many other important ideas about social justice.
I wanted to write about love. As social justice educators, we preach tolerance, acceptance, understanding, and many good and important things. For many student affairs practitioners, the feelings towards students aren’t simply tolerance and acceptance. One student affairs practioner, Juan Astorga, loves his students. This is not a “how to” blog post. I wish to share with you how one social justice educator’s love for his students led me and many others to flourish.
I met Juan as a first year student when I applied to be an orientation leader. During the interview process, I was candid enough to admit that I was not orientation material. I am “kinda shy and not super friendly” as a person. I remember him smiling (and chuckling) and telling me that he’ll let me know in a few days. I remember walking back to my residence hall, thinking to myself that he’ll NEVER hire me. I’m just not the student leader type. I do not walk around with a smile on my face, and I never care much about popularity. For whatever reason, he hired me. Even now, I have no idea why he did. But that’s Juan. He has the ability to see something in all his students. He has the ability to give students who get overlooked by others a chance to fully be themselves.
As a first generation student, I felt so out of place with people who felt that college was a given. I felt so lost. But Juan’s office became an unofficial hang out spot for a lot of us. Looking back, I do not know what his ‘official duties’ were for his job. I knew he planned orientation, but he always made time for us. Looking back, I wondered how he juggled his responsibilities with checking in with all of us. As a socially just educator, how do you balance your listed responsibilities and your desire to actually serve students?
Juan would always ask how I was feeling. I would say, “Fine.” He would respond with, “Fine is not a feeling. Happy, sad, mad, hurt, those are feelings. How are you feeling?” I think it was one of the first times in my life someone asked me how I was feeling and actually wanted a REAL response. It became a learning process for me and other students to think about how we felt. Additionally, he helped me navigate the campus. He introduced me to his colleagues and always made me and other students feel like the administration building was a communal space for everyone. The campus belonged to all of us, not to the select few.
One day, he shared with me that he was leaving the campus. He would be working at another institution. I felt so scared. In some ways, I felt betrayed. I thought that this was the end of the relationship. He was one of the few “adults” that I had come to trust and to this day, one of the few men that I consider influential in my life. He told me that he would stay in contact. He gave me and some students his personal email address, a juno account. I remember laughing and asking him, “Who still has a juno account?!“ I did not believe that he would stay in contact. Why would I be important enough for him to stay in contact? Maybe to him, I was part of his job.
I was wrong. He stayed in contact with me and many other students. He provided me one of the most amazing opportunities I ever had working in an Upward Bound program. He wrote my letter of recommendation for graduate school so I could pursue a career in student affairs. He screamed with me when I gained admission into a graduate program. He cheered for me when he found out that I would be the graduation student speaker. He was one of the first faces I saw as I walked off the stage at my graduation. He looked at me with watery eyes and said, “I’m so proud of you. I’m so glad I got to see you grow and be you. Congratulations!”
To this day, I know Juan is a mentor but more importantly a friend. He continues to believe in me and others. As I continue in my social justice journey, I continue to ask myself, “How am I feeling? Am I happy? Am I sad? Am I tired?” I learned to ask myself these questions because of Juan. Because of him, I have learned to ask others how they feel and wait for their responses.
I am no longer a college student and I cannot simply walk into his office and chat. I no longer have access to a small mirror in his office that states ‘I am wonderful.’ But we continue to communicate through email, Facebook, and the occasional phone call. Juan reminds me that I am too wonderful, special, and unique to fit into a box. Therefore, I shouldn’t. I should be me, and embrace myself fully.
The more I formally learn about student affairs, higher education, and social justice, it becomes increasingly easy to forget about love. I understand there are many structural components that limit access for many people in their pursuit of higher education. Theories, concepts, and books fill my mind. At times, I feel so lost in the discourse and I feel tired in this social justice journey. However, I am reminded that I did not get here on my own. I owe much of my experiences to Juan and the many student affairs professionals who helped me. I want to give back to the community.
I share this story with you to remind myself and others of the importance of loving. To the incredible student affairs practitioners who work many long days and to the faculty member who responds to student emails or meets with students one on one, thank you for loving your students. For many students, they may not need a professional with the latest knowledge on White privilege or someone striving to deinstitutionalize systemic privileges of class. The knowledge and discourse is incredibly important in social justice educators’ journey and to create institutional change. But for me, I needed someone to love me and believe in me.
Juan, you are so wonderful. Thank you so much for loving me and countless students.
Joyce Lui is a doctoral candidate at Iowa State University, School of Education, Higher Education & Social Justice. She attended San Diego State University (Postsecondary Educational Leadership, Student Affairs) and University of California, San Diego (Economics & Sociology). Her research interests include Asian Americans, community college and transfer students, and Women of Color students. She was a first generation college student and she is the first in her family to pursue a doctorate. She grew up in San Francisco and she enjoys young adult novels and various forms of pop culture. She craves carne asada fries and in-n-out burgers.