During my college freshman orientation, I was told to “look at the student to my left and the one to my right because one of us would not be here within the next five years.” The unnerving part of that activity was that I felt like everyone in the room was looking at me, one of a handful of students of color in the room. I felt like screaming, “I will graduate from college, you just wait and see!” Instead I turned my eyes from the imaginary stares.
Due to my good grades and ACT score, I had been admitted as a “regular” undergraduate vs. an “OPPORTUNITY” student. The OPPORTUNITY program was a moniker given to a campus initiative that, when loosely translated, spelled affirmative action. About 90 percent of the Black students at the university I attended were admitted through the OPPORTUNITY program, including all my friends. OPPORTUNITY students got room assignments with other OPPORTUNITY participants, tutors, financial assistance, and monitored study groups. As a “regular” student I was placed through the college’s regular matriculation system, which included no support groups, a random roommate, no scholarship funding, but rather a nice fat bill (my family income was deemed too high for financial assistance despite the fact that we had no college savings). Why wasn’t I told about the OPPORTUNITY program? I felt isolated. It wasn’t until my sophomore year of college, when one of my professors, Paulette Whitfield, a seasoned African American professor, took me under her wing, and pointed me toward my future. From there, just like ‘Lil’ Wayne points out in Strange Clouds, “I didn’t even need no directions.”
For students of color, the halls of higher education are often filled with earnestly liberal professors who take pity on their presence at best and those who serve as staunch slayers of “affirmative action” quotas at worst. Of course there are many exceptions to this rule, and minority students can find solace in educators who seek to inspire and uplift, issuing intellectual challenges that are intended as character building exercises and not as character deflating ones.
Though I play many roles in the lives of my students as an educator, adviser and mentor, I try to remember to pause once in a while to “take my students out On The Front Porch.” It’s a metaphorical and literal reference to my attempt to remember and/or affirm who they are — human beings in need of encouragement and reassurance on both an academic and personal level.
For starters, I have turned my office into a pseudo “front porch” by leaving my office door open the majority of time and offering drop in days twice a week. An image of a willow tree sits directly behind my desk, an image so large in depth and width that whenever I lean back in my chair, it appears as though my head is playing hide and seek between its branches. Its etchings are so intricate and detailed, it looks like it was painted by an artistically-gifted horticulturalist. In fact, students often tell me how much the painting makes them feel relaxed, at peace–just like I felt on Great Grand’s front porch.
The down side to all of this, if any, is the number of students that I meet with and the teaching load that accompanies my advising schedule. Add to that mix research, writing, committee demands, public service and consulting work, and for most professors, the time left to devote to student advising and mentoring, is limited. However, I do my best to make time for both because I am determined to “pay things forward” and give the same gifts bestowed on me. I am also reminded of Great Grand’s response to me whenever I complained about something growing up. “God didn’t stop making the world ‘cause of a little rain,” she would state matter-of-factly. I find it personally enriching to look into the lives of, and learn about the varied students I find myself in the position of helping. I have also enjoyed the challenge of making seemingly complex choices simple ones, particularly in the area of leadership, which I readily apply in transitioning my students from the classroom to the boardroom, with the first step taken On the Front Porch.
Shanita Baraka Akintonde is an associate professor at Columbia College Chicago. She is also President and Chief Visionary Officer of Creative Notions Group, a professional speaking and consulting company. Professor Akintonde will release two books, “Hear Me ROARR” and “The Heart of a Leader” in 2018. She’s for hire to inspire and will gladly share her rates for each of her uniquely crafted workshops, keynote addresses and/or seminars. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her @SHAKINTONDE and www.linkedin.com/in/shanitaakintonde