A month ago, the Futures Initiative hosted a collaborative panel discussion, Equity, Health and Learning: Social Determinants of Academic Success. As Futures Initiative Fellows with intersecting interests, Jessica Murray and I co-moderated and organized the event. Panelists included Peggy Groce, Former Director of Travel Training for the New York City Department of Education, Jesse Rice-Evans, Ph.D. Student and Adjunct Lecturer, and two professors from the CUNY School of Public Health & Health Policy, Nicholas Freudenberg and Chris Palmedo.
The event was a success! The room was packed with a lively audience of students, faculty, administrators and individuals interested in the topic. The panelists matched the excitement of the audience. They delivered thought provoking data about the health challenges and opportunities of CUNY students, grounded the discussion with critical reminders about the importance and need for transportation to move from point A to point B, and discussed the experiences of students with disabilities. Throughout the discussion, the panelists provided concrete examples about the reality of barriers to healthcare, transportation, housing and food access. How these challenges are further compounded for students with disabilities was not missed.
The discussion from our event highlighted the struggles that exist, but it also highlighted ideas for a path forward. For example, Palmedo’s research revealed CUNY students are often unaware of opportunities for health insurance enrollment. Other panelists and audience members spoke about the availability of social support services that are available on and off campus, including Single Stop, a national program that connects individuals with resources for food, housing, finance and anything else that might get in the way of academic success. Given that students may not know about services and their frequent exclusion from the decision-making processes for how information is shared on campus, I offered the simple advice of meeting students where they are. For me, that means including information about health and social support resources on the last page of every syllabus for courses I teach at CUNY.
Freudenberg and Rice-Evans spoke about the increase in anxiety and depression among some CUNY students. “This is a really hard time for many students,” Rice-Evans said. To combat some of the struggles that students experience, Rice-Evans suggested the importance of forgiveness and empathy when it comes to classroom policies and thinking “about expanding the ways people can participate” and “relating to students on a person-to-person level.” Compared to other faculty, Rice-Evans said her students might describe her in classroom policies about participation, attendance and learning as more flexible and not strict or severe. Freudenberg spoke about the importance of having a “culture of caring” at CUNY, while Groce and Murray underscored the importance of communication. Without talking to students about their challenges and needs, it’s impossible to know what they are experiencing, “students have factors outside of the classroom that we can’t always see, ”Murray noted. Freudenberg agreed, and shared that some students have to decide between purchasing a MetroCard and feeding their children and asked, “What would an equitable city look like?” for CUNY students. For example, individuals over 65 years of age receive a discounted MetroCard. If all CUNY students received a similar benefit, this may ensure that all CUNY students have transportation access to reach their campus, and other social support services.
At the end of the event, the Q +A from the audience revisited the idea that these discussions are critical for CUNY’s success, but it also raised many questions. After the event was over, my colleagues and I spoke about how much information was delivered in “the power of an hour.” Overall, I rejoiced that the event increased awareness of how transportation, housing instability, food insecurity, disability, depression and anxiety ALL impact learning, but I pondered the nagging question of, “Where do go from here?” For example, I wondered who else should have been in the room to receive the powerful messages from the panelists and audience about the social determinants of academic success. That is, what would be the impact of our discussion if more CUNY faculty, administrators and students were aware of the challenges that students face. Perhaps there would be implications for policy changes at a CUNY-wide level, within each campus, or in an individual classroom that might improve academic success.
As the largest urban university in the world, CUNY services and educates more than 500,000 degree-seeking and continuing education students across 26 campuses in New York City. Therefore, I believe it is not sufficient to merely talk about the barriers to academic success for students. While increasing awareness about a problem is an important first step for problem-solving, I recognize the danger and comfort of resting on this first step. With its broad reach and long history, CUNY is uniquely positioned to offer insight on identifying challenges and opportunities for reducing student barriers outside of the classroom to increase academic success.