M State Fergus Falls started their new monthly wellness events with a talk by Kasim Abdur Razzaq, a St. Paul-based speaker, author, business owner and psychotherapist. He’s a licensed independent clinical social worker with a specialty in culturally centered intervention.
Victoria McWane-Creek, M State’s director of campus housing and residential life, explained the change from a single annual wellness event to a monthly engagement, saying, “We want to shift our thinking about what wellness means from this one-day event that we’ve been doing over time, into one that is more ongoing and omnipresent, where we’re thinking about students, the transition onto campus, the transition through college and into the next phase successfully and healthily.”
Razzaq spoke to students, staff and community members about some of the struggles students have when they arrive at institutions of higher learning like M State, especially students of color. He recounts his own experiences of how he arrived at Minneapolis Community and Technical College (Minneapolis College): He was an athlete in high school, focused on and committed to basketball, and had received offers from a number of schools with scholarships. Unfortunately, a surgery his senior year and the possibility that he wouldn’t be able to play in college meant that all those scholarships were pulled. In his first year at Minneapolis College, that October before the start of basketball season his father passed away. That December, his mother was in a rollover car accident that broke her neck. “As students are entering this campus, they’re coming in with a lot more than maybe people actually know,” he says.
Razzaq explained the Theory of Work Adjustment, which is how people coming into new jobs adjust to the change; for students, their new job would be school. If both a person’s needs are met and an environment’s (which doesn’t mean the physical space itself; it means the space and the people there, the faculty and staff) needs are met, then the match is perfect and there’s “correspondence.” This perfection isn’t typical, though, and adjustments have to be made.
Adjustments happen a variety of ways: A person might make internal adjustments to suit themselves to their environments; environments might make adjustments to better suit a person (for instance, Minneapolis College made adjustments that allowed Razzaq to bring his little brother and nephew to school with him while his mother recovered). On the other hand, people might force adjustments to their environments, or environments might force people to adjustments onto people. If needs aren’t being met and the adjustment is a failure, then a person might choose to leave or an environment might ask or force them to leave. In colleges, this can be tracked in graduation and retention rates.
If we look at M State Fergus Falls, the graduation rate for white students is 49%; for black or African American students, it’s only 14%. For comparison’s sake, graduation rates at M State Moorhead is still 49% for white students, 43% for black or African-American students. This was a concern for Razzaq, and in a meet-and-greet with students before his talk, students mentioned that while they typically felt safe and accepted on campus, there was some friction with the community.
Razzaq spoke about partial personhood. “When you marginalize the pieces of a person that probably are the most important.” For instance, a young woman might feel partial personhood in a classroom when she stays quiet during class instead of engaging in a louder, more upfront way like her male classmates. She might be told or conditioned to behave a certain way because she’s a girl. “These things start to wear on a person over time,” said Razzaq.
For young people of color who experience racialized behavior and racialized aggression over and over again, even on a tiny scale, it’s like small cuts building up, “until finally, it starts to become a problem, it starts to become something that is impacting your mental and emotional health.” Razzaq says, “This is something that we see a lot with students of color, in particular with black males, specifically black males on (predominantly white) campuses.”
Males of all races aren’t taught to properly cope with issues — Razzaq likens it to “quarterback syndrome,” they have to let pain roll off them and move onto the next play, always just move on to the next play. For young men of color, that means these little cuts are never examined, they’re allowed to build up until it begins to affect them. “We start to have racing thoughts, our mind is distracted, we’re not truly focused here on the classwork anymore because we’re thinking about all of these thousands of cuts that have happened to us,” says Razzaq. “Our energy becomes low. You just think you’re tired from having two-a-days, but it’s not the two-a-days that have you emotionally and physically tired. It’s these thousands of paper cuts that you’ve experienced.”
Razzaq’s talk was focused on getting students to learn how to recognize when that is happening to them and what to do, and getting teachers and staff to learn how to recognize when it might be happening to a student. A sudden drop in grades or unusual behavioral outbursts shouldn’t lead to labeling a student as lazy or disruptive, it’s an opportunity for someone to reach out and ask if things are alright. “For every student that enters this campus, it’s an adjustment, they’re having to navigate higher ed,” he says, and that might be easier for some students than others.
He spoke about his own children as an example, his sixth grade son was in the audience watching him. “I have an expectation that they get into trouble,” he said. “I have an expectation. Because I have an expectation that they’re human. To get in trouble means that you made a mistake somewhere and I always have an expectation that they make mistakes. And then we get to talk about how you can recover from your mistakes.”
Other suggestions for making spaces that are more welcoming, in addition to allowing fallibility and honoring full personhood, includes offering support, becoming an expert on yourself and accepting that others are the only experts on themselves and changing behaviors from doing things to people, to doing things with people, especially when it comes to the nature of relationships. “I’ve never seen a person be disenchanted when things are happening with them, because it means that they are informing the process,” he says.