June 8, 2021

Bringing Humanity Back to School: Why Data is only Part of the Story

After the last notes of the graduation song play, and the last students exit the campus, we all breathe a heavy sigh of relief. This year especially, I know many of us need time this summer to recover after nearly 18 months of plans, pivots, and protocols. However, summer is also a time we lay out our plans to welcome our new and returning students for the Fall. Fall of 2021 will be unlike any other opening as we prepare for multiple classes of students, new and returning, who may have never set foot on our campuses. In order to prepare, we need to truly envision and consider these experiences, particularly those of all minoritized populations. 

Our second webinar, in partnership with NEBHE, the New England Council, and New Hampshire College and University Council, we dove deep into the data on international trends and enrollment. In particular, international students represent 5.5% of students in the United States, a high that was reached in the 2018-2019 academic year but decreased as much as 43% in 2020. Robin Helms, Assistant Vice President, Learning and Engagement from the American College on Education (ACE) called for a disruptive model to how we understand the international student experience.

As a researcher, I can appreciate the power of data. ACE’s report highlights the 43 percent enrollment decline of international students in 2020. THis is significant no matter which way you slice it. Data leads to models and allows us to see trends over time as well as set goals and measure our impact over time. We may want to measure enrollment, student success based on GPA and engagement, or understand students’ perspectives of resources on campus. 

As a practitioner, I use data for goal setting and accountability, particularly with regards to enrollment and graduation rates. However, when I leave work it's not the data that keeps me awake at night; instead, it is the stories of students who are have struggled, or are struggling, to fit in on campus. It is the stories of international students who are struggling with their mental health and wellbeing, but don’t know where to turn. 

In reflecting on her own undergraduate experience, one student shared - 

At that time, my mental health declined tremendously. I felt isolated, I stopped talking to my friends and my family, my social anxiety became general anxiety, I suffered from insomnia, and I became depressed. I struggled with staying focused at work since I could not pay attention for long periods of time and would experience dissociation. My relationship was affected by this as well. I would feel a rollercoaster of emotions every day. I would go from being happy, into being very angry and aggressive, to being anxious and depressed. Alex would have to deal with that on a daily basis. The haunting thoughts of not being good enough, not knowing how I would stay, nor accepting that I was in love with someone who could not help me achieve my dreams - all became too overwhelming. 

These stories are not new but we must keep hearing them. As we look to assess and analyze data from our own reports, we need to be mindful of how that shapes our goals and mindsets. Whether we find that 20 percent, 80 percent, or 100 percent of international students have experienced isolation or suffered from depression, knowing that even one percent have struggled should initiate a response on our campuses. Specifically when it comes to international students, we know they are extremely unlikely to report issues of mental health or seek help. Could we instead begin to set measurements of “wellness” or “have sought support from friends, family, or others” and see what happens when we start from an asset-based mindset?

Our approach in planning for Fall must truly be disruptive. We should use the data AND listen to student stories in our approach. This second webinar offers a number of reality checks on the work we must do. And while I know we are tired, let us remember that when we prioritize our most marginalized, all win.

About the author: Kelly Golden, Ph.D., currently serves as the Associate Dean of Student Affairs and Enrollment Regis College in Weston, Massachusetts. She has over 12 years of experience across areas in higher education and  always seeking ways to eliminate barriers for students throughout their lifecycle. Kelly is a member of the GAISA executive team.