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TA: Mason should help underprivileged students, not just the elite

BY CHARISSE LEVCHAK - GUEST OPINION | APRIL 06, 2010 7:30 AM

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In a March 12 Daily Iowan article, University of Iowa President Sally Mason was asked about her interaction with students and made the following comment: “I’m in contact typically with lots of Honor students [and] our Presidential Scholars.

These are not the students who are typically worried about financing education … They’re managing it pretty well. It’s when a student becomes very stressed. … I’m not going to encounter them. They’re the ones that need our help the most, and they’re the ones that are also the hardest for us to identify and get to. Life is hard.”

Although Mason’s meeting with a select and elite group of students is good for public relations, I’m not sure that it’s good for all students in the university. Moreover, I am certain that superficial public relations are not good for the students who “need our help the most.”

In my opinion, the students who need the support of the university are not just students who deal with extreme stressors such as a loss in the family or a challenging course load. It is not only about focusing retention efforts on athletes or elite students. It is about helping all students, from all walks of life and backgrounds — and particularly students who come from underprivileged and underrepresented backgrounds. Underprivileged and underrepresented students require assistance in reducing stressors, especially during a time of national economic recession, intertwined with massive teaching-assistant cuts at the university.

Most minority students were courted by the university and were offered security, which is now being taken away during the recession. Mason made it clear that in terms of financial needs, the elite students are “managing it pretty well.” But it is clear that in light of the colossal cuts being made, a lot of underprivileged students may continue to face hard times without the support of university officials.

Aside from financial needs, emotional needs also need to be addressed. The concept of multiple jeopardy needs to be embraced in how student relations are applied and how university officials approach underrepresented and underprivileged students. In simple terms, multiple jeopardy can be defined as various forms of disadvantage and oppression that affect an individual.

Furthermore, students who face disadvantage and oppression outside of the university — and sometimes in the university — may feel as though “life is hard” and they do need “help the most.”

The UI has the power to challenge elitism, racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression, but change must begin at the top with our officials.

As an African American woman, I have suffered my fair share of multiple jeopardy in the university and beyond, and at times, those experiences have made life hard. Casual conversations with other students have revealed that they have also experienced multiple jeopardy, and in my opinion, those are the students whom Mason should make it a point to meet, know, and help.

Although the university offers on-campus multicultural groups and other resources for minority students, we need confidantes and advocates. We need powerful people when we can rely on to advocate for us when we face oppressive forces within the academy.

Minority students should be treated as more than tokens who help to bring “diversity” to the university. Instead, we need to be treated by Mason, our professors, colleagues, and students as intellectuals who have the potential to create innovative and groundbreaking scholarship at this university.

Charisse Levchak is a UI teaching assistant in the sociology department.


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