The Politics of Social Justice in the Shadow of Hegemony: Student Persistence and Degree Attainment as Social Justice Issues by Vijay Pendakur

As a speaker, consultant, and student affairs professional, I have had the privilege of visiting numerous colleges and universities throughout the country.  Most of the institutions that I’ve visited have a few staff members, or a full department, in their division of student affairs that focuses on issues of diversity, multiculturalism and social justice.  Places with greater resources often appear to tackle both multicultural programming and programming around issues of privilege, power, and oppression and I am always excited to see a strong balance between the work of culture and heritage and social justice education.  Rarely, however, do I see student affairs practitioners involved in diversity and social justice offices working equally hard at persistence and degree attainment programs for low-income students, first generation college students, and students of color.  When these types of programs exist, they are often discreetly tucked away in academic affairs with a narrow focus on academic achievement.  With so many passionate social justice advocates in the field of student affairs, this gap gives me pause to ask, “What’s going on here?”

After some reflection, I think that one of the factors that might lead to social justice efforts being seen as separate from retention, persistence, and attainment efforts is how we frame the need for each of these important interventions.  The social justice educators that I’ve met seem committed to “the work” because systems of power, privilege, and oppression produce deep inequity in our society that hurts everyone.  Issues like patriarchy, heteronormativity, and White privilege fuel our sense of urgency and we develop fabulous tools to change hearts and minds and, eventually, dismantle aspects of these systems to make the world an incrementally better place.  Alternately, the yearly persistence, and competitive graduation, of higher-risk college students doesn’t seem to spur the same call to action that the classic social justice issues produce.  Perhaps, we haven’t taken the time to cast retention, persistence, and graduation of low-income students, first-generation college students, and students of color using the tools at our disposal as social justice educators and theorists.  Hmmm…

If we know that higher education, from its inception, has been a hierarchy-enhancing system designed to educate the sons of wealthy, White, land-owners, then we should be very concerned about the experiences of subordinated group members in our hallowed halls.  While college has changed immensely since we wrote the Student Personnel Point of View, much remains the same…particularly for higher-risk students.  Institutions, within hegemony, serve the role of reproducing hegemony.  Colleges and universities are key points for the dissemination of master narratives and are structured to privilege those who act and think like dominant group members.  Within this hegemonic system, “risk” can be understood in narrow academic terms…such as when a student does not have the required content mastery necessary for a certain course.  However, when glimpsed through a critical lens, risk can also be understood broadly to include any subordinated group members that do not have the required social capital to effectively manage the unfair system of collegiate life.

As social justice educators, we are experts in the application of critical theory to the politics of identity.  What if we applied this knowledge to how we understand student risk?  When a low-income student enters university life, we know the deck is stacked against them.  Even if they manage to persist yearly through to graduation, the privileged student that can afford to live in the residence halls, take unpaid internships and campus leadership roles, and study abroad has an enormous advantage in how they can leverage their baccalaureate degree in the hyper-competitive labor market.  This is a justice issue.  Take that same low-income student and imagine that they are not White…the compounded risk is even greater, as many students of color lack the social capital to successfully “brand themselves,” navigate huge job fairs, or network in the business world.  This is a justice issue.

Hegemony is constantly adapting to our efforts to create more equitable systems.  The solid work that has been done on college-access since the 1960s has resulted in a massive uptick of higher-risk students attending baccalaureate-granting institutions.  However, in a hegemonic system, not all degrees are equal.  We, as student affairs educators, know the value of the co-curricular transcript more than most.  What a student does outside of class has the ability to enhance their college experience and dramatically improve their marketability in the labor market.  Often, higher-risk students are deeply under-represented in the high-impact learning experiences that make a huge difference in yearly persistence and meaningful graduation.  As social justice educators, the deeply inequitable outcomes facing higher-risk students when compared to their privileged peers should be one of our main issues.  I’m not saying that we should ratchet-down on classic social justice education efforts…after all, the world is still ripe with oppression and unjust hardship.  But, we need to expand our focus to include student persistence and competitive degree attainment…because these are social justice issues too.

Here’s a helpful checklist to start your analysis of social justice persistence and attainment issues at your institution:

  • Does your institution have a comprehensive, first-year retention initiative?  Many do…is yours identity-neutral or identity-conscious?  How is the work of creating an excellent first year being done differently with first generation college students or students of color?
  • Do you have career-preparation programs that focus on enhancing the career capital of higher risk students?  These students are the least likely to voluntarily use your campus’ career services office, and are less likely than their privileged peers to not matriculate from college into their desired segment of the workforce.  For example, do you offer workshops for first generation college students or students of color to teach them how to deliver their “elevator speech” at a bustling, fast-paced job fair?
  • Do you have gender-based empowerment programs that specifically address social capital issues in higher risk college men and women?  For example, do you have a program for women of color that offers them a leadership development curriculum that is relevant to their unique experiences in college and in the workforce?
  • Do you offer identity-conscious financial fitness programs?  For example, a money management workshop for men of color that takes racialized masculinities into account in how the curriculum is designed?

This is just the start of a list!  Please leave comments with examples of social justice-infused persistence and graduation programs at your institution!  I’d love to get the conversation started so we can all learn from each other.

Author bio:

Vijay Pendakur currently serves as the Director for the Office of Multicultural Student Success, a department charged with increasing the retention and persistence of low-income students, first generation students, and students of color at DePaul University.  He holds a B.A. in History and East Asian Studies from the University of Wisconsin – Madison and an M.A. in US History from the University of California – San Diego.  Vijay is also an experienced trainer and facilitator on issues of social justice and diversity education and has worked with colleges and universities throughout the country.  His primary research interests are Asian American college students, Critical Race Theory, and the implications of “post-race” politics.  Vijay is currently in the doctoral program in education at DePaul University and will be defending his dissertation, titled, “Making Racial Meaning in an Era of Color-Blind Racism: A Study of First Year Asian American College Students,” in the fall of 2013.  You can reach him at http://www.vijaypendakur.com.

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2 thoughts on “The Politics of Social Justice in the Shadow of Hegemony: Student Persistence and Degree Attainment as Social Justice Issues by Vijay Pendakur

  1. I saw the link to this post in my Twitter feed and am so glad I did! Thank you for your thoughts and words. I agree with the need for more efforts connecting social justice work to student success outcomes of persistence and degree attainment. I find that attempting to balance social justice education opportunities for the entire campus (often intended for majority students) and identity development programming (often intended for underrepresented and under-served students) creates practical challenges for the intentionality needed to connect these efforts to larger campus wide retention initiatives. Working toward a shared understanding of how promoting student engagement in cultural capital building activities among “at risk” students would seem to be a step in the right direction and one worth prioritizing in student affairs.

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  2. I was a second generation Portuguese/ Irish immigrant in a small fishing village full of small/closed minded fearful wash-a-shores in a new country.
    I may not have recognized it in college I went in my late fifties and worked full time while at Umass. at the local wet homeless shelter . Got as much education there as I did in college for sure. What I noticed in the work place was many excuses not to pay me for my new education, ie: you don’t get a raise because your at an entry level in your job as a new graduate, though I’d already been working in the field for ten years. I was angry but I didn’t know what I was angry about. The injustice that I knew nothing about. brought out all my insecurities which I also didn’t get, my anger grew and grew and I lost myself in the confusion, feeling I was inadequate, tapping all my not good enough stuff. The biggest part of the problem is I just never understood what was going wrong. My own family acted like I was trying to be better than them and were mad at me too. I still carry those very deep scars in my being that taints my thinking sometimes. I have to stop and think what I should do and separate my past from my present day beliefs. This behavior is taken as not being sure of myself and is detrimental to my image as a capable worker. This is a huge break through for me personally.

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