Dr. Africa S. Hands on College Literacy for Nontraditional Prospective Students (Part II)

This is the second half of our interview with Dr. Africa S. Hands, a researcher and Professor of Information Science at the University at Buffalo. Through her current IMLS-funded grant Public Library Support of College Literacy in Appalachia (Project CLiA), Dr. Hands has been researching the role of the library in facilitating information access and student success, particularly for nontraditional students. If you haven’t already, be sure to check out our recent College Fluency in Context post about Hands’ scholarship, Project CLiA, and the relevance of her work to our CFCB project. The first half of the interview is accessible here.

Craig Nielsen: One of the areas of collaboration you suggest in your research is college staff and personnel going to the physical space of the public library and offering guidance to nontraditional prospective students. Does your research also work with local colleges to think about these potential linkages, or is it mostly just looking at the public library side of things?

Africa Hands: For right now, it’s mostly just looking at the public library side of things. But I’m always thinking, OK, so what next? That’s definitely on the list, to connect more with the college personnel, or the people who are doing admissions. When I worked in Admissions we would have information fairs, and info sessions in the evenings at the public library. I know that from a facility standpoint, [the library] is a place that people go and there’s upwards of 40 people in the room to hear the presentation from us as the Admissions team. Things like that help the library and the college personnel see each other as a resource. If you have the college folks come into the library, then you could have book displays and information. You can have computers set up where they may be able to do the FAFSA or the college application right there. Looking at what’s available in each setting, and how they can work together, and not necessarily take on all of it at once. But if you work together, I feel like there’s more room for each entity to get involved.

jean amaral: I feel like a corollary to that in our work is at the college level: the partnership is the library with student affairs, whereas the corollary in the public libraries, it’s the public library with the college personnel. Right? It should be a partnership; it should be these organizations coming together. A lot of it is relational; it’s the people and making that connection with people that makes the difference a lot of times in terms of this kind of programming.

AH: Absolutely. Even at the community college level, there is a transfer office. The library can partner with them to host something, or be a space where students can learn about the transfer process and start making cohorts of folks who are planning to transfer. Maybe that might take place in the library, or the library might be a hub where students can gather and get some of that information.

JA: You just really sparked something for me. We have not seen an example of a partnership with transfer offices yet, but now I’m going  to actively look for one. One of the things that we hear from our students in the community system all the time is that we do have a fairly robust, caring group in the community colleges. So, our community college students at CUNY get to the four-year colleges at CUNY, and they’re like, “Whoa! Why is everybody so cruel? Why is nobody answering my question?” Not that we’re perfect; we do have a lot of barriers. But for the ones who do find a place in an office, like maybe our cohort organizations, like Urban Male Leadership Academy or Conexiones & Connections for Hispanic students, if they find their home, they’re well taken care of. (And there are the students who don’t find their home who are not, and so [with them] we end up looking like the senior colleges.) But thinking about that partnership with the transfer offices to ensure that the college fluency is really solid, so that when they go after those four-years, they’re ready to know, “OK, I might not have the same help, but I understand the system, and I can advocate for myself in the system.” This feels very important.

AH: It’s like having a hand-off. It’s like, you’re with the financial aid person at the community college, and they can hand you off to their counterpart at the four-year institution, making these transitions a little more seamless. It’s about helping the students in their mind to say, “OK, this is what this thing means at this institution; the corollary is [this other thing] at this institution.” Kind of a mapping or crosswalk, so that the students know, because the terminology changes from system to system. Or maybe they don’t transfer to a CUNY school, but to some other school or private school in New York or the SUNY system. What does that mean in that system? What are the terminologies? Who is that point person? Where is that office? There’s definitely room for partnerships to happen in that sense, so that students have a softer hand-off.

CN: I’d like to talk about the resonances between what you’re doing on the public libraries front and the work we’re doing from the community college angle. Even prior to this interview, jean and I were thinking, what are the differences and similarities between these two terms, college literacy and college fluency? Of course, there’s no fixed definition of these things. But what can we as community college librarians learn from the research that you’ve been conducting, or from any preliminary conclusions that you’ve drawn? 

AH: I think both of the projects focus on the complicated information aspects of higher education systems. With my project, it’s more on the front end of navigating the convoluted entry process. Then, college fluency takes it from there. It’s focused on the knowledge and skills needed to get through the process: locating and using college services, programs, and resources. Both of the projects share an aim to support prospective and current students through information and agency. The more information you have, the more you’re actively engaged and involved in this higher education process. So, I think that’s definitely something that the two projects can work together on and learn from each other, in terms of how we might support students to be more proactive, to have more initiative, to feel more comfortable about the higher education system. 

Also, both projects aim to demystify the college process, the college planning process, and the college-going experience, especially for those who don’t have the social capital and the cultural capital of continuing generation students. Students who can’t just call up their parent who has a PhD or something, and knows how to get through the process. I think there’s definitely lots of overlap, even though we’re using the different terms, fluency versus literacy. There’s definitely space for us as we’re talking even right now, learning from each other, and kind of bouncing off of each other and what we’re doing with the projects.

JA: I really like that thought, Africa, of it being sort of a continuum. Public libraries before entering, where just understanding even the application process is complicated. And then, the hand-off to the community college, with college libraries continuing that process of encouraging students to better understand and then advocate for themselves. 

You had also mentioned agency, and I think that’s a really important goal. For us, working with students is to create those spaces for them to get that information, to really be able to embrace agency, and not just have things done to them within the system. I think so often it feels that things are being done to them, so information that allows for self-advocacy is so important.

AH: And really, to build the community of people who are like them, who have the questions and they can be a resource for other incoming students and helping them to navigate the systems, which are just very complicated. Unfortunately so. And even if people are working in the systems, it’s like, “I didn’t know that office existed.” You know? So, I like what you said you all are doing in terms of helping faculty to be more knowledgeable of what’s going on in the university and what resources are available.

JA: Africa, I don’t remember if you remember, back in our very first board meeting, I touched on something that I’d be curious to get your insights on now. I think I talked about having a little discomfort with this research, in that it feels a little like a deficit lens. As in, our students come in, they don’t have something, and we’re going to provide them  with that something. And you see that in  the academic side of the house all the time, like, “Our students are the problem; they can’t do this.” 

To some extent, I feel that the flip side of this is asking our students to learn this exceedingly bureaucratic system. Where might we change the system rather than change the students? Also, if we think of higher education in the United States as a very white space, what does it look like if we interrogate that and we make changes? Why is it such a ridiculously hard system to navigate? Why aren’t we making changes on the system side? So, I’m curious if you have any insights and thinking about the other side of the coin for this.

AH: I have been at conferences with librarians and college personnel folks who talk about the need for colleges to become more student-ready, to break down some of these barriers. But change happens very, very slowly in higher education, so that’s going to be kind of an uphill battle. Regarding the deficit lens, yes, research has tended to focus on what certain populations don’t have or don’t know compared to dominant culture. However, there are things that we all don’t know. I see what we’re doing as filling that gap within the convoluted systems that already exist. That doesn’t mean that we don’t chip away at the systems and the barriers. We still gotta get people ready to navigate them. I try to see it as a “both-and” and not necessarily thinking of it as like, “I’m on high, and I know all this stuff, and I’m filling your cup.”

In terms of the deficit thinking, we know that the students come with other sorts of capital to help them navigate these systems and to help them build community and succeed in college. So, I like to see it as we’re working on both, knowing what we know about the system and how complicated it is. We have to equip people to work within the system. And we also have to introduce these people to the folks who are making the systems and say, you know, this doesn’t have to be that way. I think probably all three of us are advocates in that. We are not sitting silently in a meeting and not bringing up the issues of those who are impacted by these systems.

JA: I definitely appreciate that “both-and” framing, absolutely. And I take your point that change within the system of higher education is very slow, and I am going to think more about that in terms of the deficit. Because there are asset pedagogies like trauma-informed pedagogy, which, depending on what you do with it, you can come at from a deficit angle versus coming at it from a really asset-based angle.

AH: I’m still wrestling with that, placing something in a deficit mindset. I sometimes think of it as, the deficit is thinking of someone as not being capable, like, “You can’t do this. You won’t learn this.” That is serious deficit thinking. But I also know that there’s lots of assets and different ways of getting at something that you know. I’m not thinking, “Oh, you’ll never learn the admissions process.” No, “You will, and it’s complicated. And here are some resources.” I guess I sometimes think of deficit as thinking that someone can’t do something. And that’s not the way that I’m approaching this. 

It takes maybe a bit of reframing. Nontraditional students come with work experience and life experience, and all the things that are happening in their adult world. And sometimes, you know, reframing things like, “OK, so you do this in your in your regular life. Well, this is the academic side of that.” This is what that looks like. Like, you pay your bills every month, and this is the academic side of paying tuition on a payment plan, or whatever the case may be, kind of helping them to see that they have the skills and assets. You’re just retooling them into this different context. But some of the foundation is already there by your lived experience. 

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