Blogpost: Place and Narrative…A Coherent Guide for Action

By Cassie Barnhardt, Ph.D.

Over the past year I have been partnering with the National Forum on a Ford Foundation funded research project evaluating the contexts where college access and opportunity for undocumented immigrants emerged as a matter of public discourse and debate, and subsequently required some resolve on the part of campus administrators.  Our efforts have yielded an array of insights, and provide a more precise picture of the landscape in which higher education leaders find themselves as they go about responding to lawmakers, community members, faculty, and the undocumented students themselves.  Among the most interesting findings is the one that sheds light on the power of place with the power of narrative in the saga in creating educational opportunities for undocumented college students.

Through our case study work we’ve discovered that the stories that inhabit particular spaces inspire tangible actions that create opportunities for undocumented students to attend college.  Hillborough College (a small, prestigious liberal arts college), defined itself by being an institution that offered two things: unparalleled participation in research and academic internships, and preparing students to be global citizens.  These themes were pursued under the shorthand of “student achievement” and functioned to focus and guide educational and administrative practice across campus.  When it became apparent that undocumented students (on account of their immigration status) were unable to tap into the core educational opportunities that Hillborough offered, administrative leaders were motivated to seek and make changes to create inclusive practices because this inconsistency violated the cohesive student achievement narrative that defined Hillborough as a place.  Moreover, Hillborough instituted inclusive practices on their campus that resulted in simultaneously supporting educational achievement for undocumented students and all students at the College.

Similarly, Cantwell University (a suburban, private, Catholic institution) defined itself by its history, a history that included cultivating its student-body from the working-class neighborhoods that comprised the perimeter of the University’s physical location, and the larger city to which it was adjacent.  This sense of place coupled with its religious mission, and its commitment to serving the nearby communities and parishes, set the priorities for Cantwell regarding creating opportunities for undocumented students.  Faculty, clergy, alumni, administrative leaders embraced Cantwell’s commitments and got behind its efforts to generate financial aid for community members first – who happened to be undocumented students.  These efforts at aiding local students in earning their degrees were not construed as benefits to the student alone, but rather providing such opportunities benefitted the whole community and the communities to which Cantwell devoted itself.

In these two examples the defining features of the campus, as a particular type of place, served as a guide for action.  Their unique campus narratives fueled decision-making and administrative action generally across all domains of the institution.  Therefore, when campus leaders prefaced their discussion regarding providing assistance to undocumented students as an extension of the broadly agreed upon commitments and priorities of the institution, it was interpreted as wholly compatible with organizational values and viewed as a strong reason to take inclusive action.




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