John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Trayvon Martin Could Have Been Me 35 Years Ago

John N. Gardner
President

The title of this posting, of course, is a statement that President Obama made in his recent news conference on July 19, 2013. When the history of his presidency is written, this may well turn out to be one of the most memorable, most important things, he said to us as our President.

Although the President’s comments are being used against him by some, they have been reassuring and moving to millions of others. It is not often we hear leaders of extraordinary prominence, power, wealth, knowledge, wisdom, and educational attainment, express such empathy for those who are far less fortunate, accomplished, polished, erudite, articulate and self actualized. And we have never had a President before who could express such empathy as an African American especially for African American citizens, and by extension all other citizens who may have been victims of prejudice, discrimination and hate crimes.

Of course, I cannot say, that I could have been, literally, Trayvon Martin at any time in my former life— for I have always been a white man of privilege. But, in a broader sense I can and I have said “That could have been me XX years ago…” And this was one of the President’s more fundamental messages to me. As a person of power, privilege, and influence, I have a responsibility to express empathy for my less fortunate fellow a citizens and then act accordingly based on that empathy.

I refer to my interactions with thousands of my former students and those of fellow higher educators, students who often do not start well in college; are at risk; who make unwise choices; who fall through the cracks; who are badly advised; badly taught; unprepared; immature; not yet ready for college; disadvantaged by a culture of poverty; and so forth.

When I saw a student that was homesick—that could have been me—that was me.

When I saw a student who had no study skills—that could have been me—that was me.

When I saw a student who was misadvised and taking courses that were not an appropriate fit—that could have been me—that was me.

When I saw a student who had no idea why he/she was in college, other than to please his/her parents—that could have been me—that was me.

When I saw a student who instead of getting invested in his/her new life pined away for a romantic interest back home—that could have been me—that was me.

When I saw a student who obviously was depressed but not getting any help—that could have been me—that was me.

When I saw a student who was experiencing immediate academic difficulty and underperforming—that could have been me—that was me.

When I saw a student who did not make wise use of the freedom college gave him, and, for example, overcut his classes—that could have been me—that was me.

There are many experiential bases, as well as intellectual and philosophical, for my eventual career as a spokesperson for low status first-year university and college students. But certainly the most powerful motivator has been that of acting on my empathy for the plight of underperforming beginning college students.

Most successful adults fashion a life built on their strengths. My success however is partially based on my weaknesses as a beginning college student—coupled with the empathy for recognizing and acting on the awareness that…“that could have been me.” And that was me.

As our new students are about to join us for another fall term ritualistic rite of passage, I invite, urge, all my fellow higher educators to act congruently with their empathy.

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