Josie: What’s up, Josie and the Podcast listeners, and welcome to season three. I am Dr. Josie Ahlquist, and thank you so much for tuning in for this episode. The goal of Josie and the Podcast is to connect tech and leadership with heart, soul, sass, and lots of substance. Josie and the Podcast is sponsored by Campus Sonar, who is more to me and the show than a sponsor. They have been a true partner, which is actually their approach to the campuses they support through social listening.
You see, social listening is a modern higher education professionals’ tool to inform strategic, authentic, and consistent engagement efforts. Your campus will immediately see a difference, but the real value is over the long-term. It supports the higher education institution of the future, driving strategic efforts to help you reach your institutional goals. They have a new eBook, ‘The Higher Ed Social Listening Handbook’, and it’s my go-to resource. I’ve cited it in blogs, my book, and yes, even this podcast, which has tips to conduct social listening, including a strategic model, key metrics, and over a dozen campus case studies on things like crisis management, student engagement, brand management, influencer marketing, and audience research.
You can download it today at info.campussonar.com/podcast. Now, onto what you’ve tuned in for: this week’s guest. I am thrilled to welcome Dr. Sara Goldrick-Rab to the podcast this week, and excuse my nervousness on this episode as I kept my fandom at bay. Sara is a Professor of Higher Education Policy and Sociology at Temple University, and the founder of the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice. She is best known for her innovative research on food and housing insecurity in higher ed, having led the three largest national studies on the subject and for her work on making public higher education free.
The Chronicle of Higher Ed calls her a ‘Defender of impoverished students and a scholar of their struggles’. She is ranked seventh in the nation among education scholars according to Education Week, and in April, 2018, the Carnegie Corporation awarded her the Carnegie Fellowship. Beyond these accolades, Sara brings so much knowledge and realness into the work she does around college affordability, with an endless commitment and optimistic energy that’s fueled by hope. I really appreciate how Sara talked about the academy and its role to actually impact in a very practical way: the lives of our real students. It was also fascinating to see how she handles having almost 30,000 Twitter followers, and the good and the bad that comes with that.
While there’s lots to unpack in the episode, don’t let this episode go by just in the audio waves. Let us know you have joined us and have checked it out. Send us a tweet. Say hello. I’m @josieahlquist, and Sara is @saragoldrickrab.
Of course, our podcast has a Twitter account as well. You can find it @JosieATPodcast. We can talk about lots of good resources, and you can find all those in the show notes at Josieahlquist.com/podcast. Enjoy. I really appreciate you jumping on the podcast.
Josie: I know you’ve got so many amazing things going on, and hopefully, we can fit a number of them in this episode, but this podcast is all about technology, especially social media and leadership, and influence, so we got to talk about tech first before we get to some of that leadership stuff, specifically social media.
Josie: You might need your phone for this.
Josie: I want to know what your most recent tweet or Instagram or Facebook post was, and maybe tell us a little bit more about it.
Sara: My most recent was a retweet of some of the people who were at our #RealCollege conference, which was just about a week ago. These are folks from San Diego Mesa College’s food pantry, and they were thanking us for what they said was a wonderful, emotional and educational conference, which is awesome because that’s exactly what we wanted it to be.
Josie: Congrats on that entire initiative. Definitely going to bring that up in just a little bit. I know it was a huge effort, and we’ll talk about Hope College as well. Let’s also talk about way back before Twitter and social. Can you remember any early, early memories with technology?
Sara: Yeah. It’s funny, I grew up in Fairfax, Virginia, which is an extraordinarily wealthy county, and their public school system I think was pretty ahead of the game when it came to tech. I think now, it’s considered one of the East Coast Silicon Valley areas. I don’t remember what it was called, but I remember spending a whole lot of time on some little computer with a turtle on the screen. I think maybe it was Logos or something like that, making the turtle turn left and turn right.
I enjoyed that, and then I went on to Thomas Jefferson High School for science and technology, which was home to a supercomputer, and had laboratories that were better than those in the local universities. I was exposed to a lot of tech and had to take computer science and such way before that was popular.
Josie: Yeah. Some of those early experiences can really be formative in how we approach it today. Very cool. What are the tools that you tend to go to every day, technology, social media? What’s in your back pocket?
Sara: Yeah. I mean, I really have become pretty darn dependent on social media, I have to say, just to even do my work now. The first thing I do in the morning is open Slack to look and see what’s going on with my team and if anybody needs me for anything. The next thing I do is I check Twitter to see what’s happening on there and to make sure there’s no mentions that I need to deal with right away. I don’t really take the time to read beyond that though right away.
Next, I check in with Facebook, and again, I’m looking for anything time-sensitive. Then, I go right over to Asana, which is another test management software that my team uses to see if there’s anything immediate that needs to be looked at. I go to my email next, then I go to my Instagram, and I go to my LinkedIn, and that pretty much explains why it takes me about an hour to get out of bed in the morning.
Josie: That’s pretty average for college students too when I ask them that question, so yeah, you-
Sara: Good. I’m aligned with the people that I care about.
Josie: There you go. It sounds like you’ve got the deck spread, getting access to different tools, to help manage everything, so great. Those are really cool examples. You’ve been using different digital tools throughout the years to harness them, to amplify messages, to push back, to educate. How has social both been an asset and part of something that you’ve had to come to advocate around?
Sara: I mean, I don’t think I was one of the earliest adopters of Twitter by any stretch, although among academics, I think I was on the early side. I’ve come to really think of it as one of the best ways to do the work of breaking down the barriers between the so-called ‘Academy’ and the rest of the world. One of the reasons that I enjoyed it when I first started it was I wasn’t living on the East Coast where I saw people all the time, people in my world, people who were making policy and such. I was in Wisconsin, and so that seems kind of far away for some of the action. I used social media to try to create that bridge, and for example, found that if I was smart about carrying on a policy-relevant conversation on social media, that I could actually create chatter in Washington D.C., while sitting in Madison, which seems like a good thing, and it helped me stay connected.
Another thing that I really, really wanted to do was I wanted to really be able to hear what students were talking about, and to see them be candid and transparent about what their challenges were with regard to being in college, which is what I study, and I found social media amazing for being able to get a window into that world. What’s been more challenging is just the constant effort to think about the differences between personal and professional. I certainly … I think at this point, I’ve decided that there’s not much of a line there. It’s never really worked for me to have much of a line. The only real line that I draw at this point is I don’t tweet pictures of my kids.
I wish … I do talk about the fact that I have children and I have shared some things about them, but I have encountered enough hatred towards my work that I am a bit fearful for them, and so I have tried to keep their actual images and whereabouts out of the public eye as much as I can. Beyond that, I mean, I’ve tweeted about my wedding, I’ve tweeted about my amazing husband, I have talked about the dog, and I think that being human on social media is so much better than being a faceless bot or something else, so it’s been a learning experience. I’ve certainly had plenty of painful moments where I wondered if this was not something I should have ever done, but on the whole, I’d say nine days out of 10, that I’m on social media. I’m glad I’m there.
Josie: Thanks for sharing your framework behind what you share, that personal, professional debate, the struggle with the divide, and just maybe coming to that realization of the wholeness integration, the realness. I think that’s what I talk a lot about in here, but that again, you’ve really chosen to use this tool to again, educate and to challenge, and that there can be some realities of the internet that can be tough in sharing about your choice with your kids or not. “Yeah, I’ve never seen them on there.” I was like, “Oh, right. I’ve never …”
I think folks listening, I think are struggling and maybe thinking about those same pieces. You mentioned just lightly about your research. Maybe you can just give like a really quick background where that has come from and where that leads you today.
Sara: Yeah. I mean, I’m a sociologist by training, and so I’ve got a really strong interest in inequality. I’m glad that it’s been getting a lot more attention over the last decade or so. Clearly, people are having very different experiences in this country based on their socioeconomic, racial and gender backgrounds. One of the pieces of that inequality that I’m really fascinated by and trying to actually do something about is the fact that depending on what family you’re born into, your odds of getting a college degree can vary widely, and so we’ve known for a long time that even though financial aid is available, money still continues to structure who gets to actually finish degrees.
I’ve been spending a lot of time not only trying to figure out all the reasons why that’s the case, but what are some actionable things that we can do to change policy and practice, and educate the public so that that isn’t a reality for too much longer, because it’s really doing harm to this country, and it’s doing harm to the people who want so badly to get college degrees but can’t get out of poverty long enough to actually finish those degrees?
Josie: Awesome. I got to dive in deep with, I think a South by Southwest talk that you had and a few other videos that I can definitely share in the show notes for folks to get the full background of some of the research that you and your team have done. Looking at your Twitter bio really comes out, fruition like your philosophy and your passion to bring out this research and the inequities. It says, “I no longer accept the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept.”
Just scrolling through your feed, it’s clear you’re amplifying challenges like college affordability, financial aid, food insecurities, homelessness. When did you know that you had to act? You mentioned about realizing in Wisconsin, you could tweet to D.C. from your home, but when did this, I guess realization really come to fruition for action?
Sara: Everything my family tells me says that I’ve been like this ever since I was a little kid. That quote on my Twitter bio is from Angela Davis, and I was raised by people who whether or not, they called themselves ‘Activists’ really were. I’m Jewish, and there’s a long tradition in Judaism of being very committed to education, and also to civil rights. My grandfather has talked to me from a very young age about the importance of standing up for people who don’t have as much as you do, of also getting in the fight. He’s not somebody who’s ever shied away from a fight for something that he thought was right, and I have been asking why since I was tiny.
The more you ask why, the more you find out that there is not a good why for the incredible injustices in this world, and so some years ago, I adopted that quote from Angela Davis. It is literally my mantra at this point. I think there are so many forces that tell us right now that we’re just supposed to accept the status quo. It is what it is.
Josie: Oh my gosh, I was just thinking about that quote.
Sara: Yeah. I mean, it is what it is, and people say, “What are you fighting about?” I mean, this is just the life. Accept it. We’re told this in higher ed all the time.
I just don’t buy it. In fact, as a scholar of power, which is something sociologists really like to dissect, I can see that it behooves the powerful for people to just accept that things can’t change. It’s what we also point to as part of an austerity agenda so that people will just come to accept that money will concentrate among the wealthy, and not among other people. I opened my remarks at the recent launch of the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice by leading the audience in reciting that quote with me because I think it’s very much empowering, I think it brings people hope because they recognize there is something they can do, and this isn’t a professional personality for me. This is just who I am.
Josie: That’s going to be the quote for the podcast. “This is not a personality.” Like, “This is it.” Right? “This is my life.”
Sara: This is it.
Sara: I don’t know. People either take it or leave it. I mean, at this point, I think in my 20’s and 30’s, I was like, “Oh, maybe I can craft an image”, and I didn’t even know what that meant. I think we should just be authentic and honest and play to our strengths, and in this case, truth-telling and an unvarnished, somewhat sharp tongue … I also got that one from my grandmother who used to quote Dorothy Parker all the time.
Dorothy Parker, one of her most famous quotes was, “I wake up in the morning and sharpen my tongue.” I think it’s functional. I think it works.
Josie: Whether if it’s online, or on campus, or at the hill with the sharp tongue in mind and bringing out injustices and education, what advice do you have for those that maybe haven’t harnessed that type of skill set, or especially if they approach Twitter, and the first tweet they get back from a troll or someone negative pushes them off the platform? What have you learned or what advice would you have for them about like the critics, and the trolls, and the online conflict?
Sara: Yeah. I mean, I want to first admit that even though I’m on there a lot and I get a ton of critique and trolling, I’m not going to pretend like that still doesn’t get through and hurt. I have an amazing husband who is there when something like that happens and says to me, “Give me a break.” Right? “You’re going to let that guy get to you.”
He reminds me that when a critic or a troll says something hurtful to me, they’re trying to derail my work, and if I let them, they won. I find that very helpful advice, to not allow that to happen and to stay focused, and to recognize what’s important is part of the deal. I also think though that you really shouldn’t be on Twitter if you don’t have at least somewhat thick skin. It’s too difficult a place. I think first is knowing yourself a bit, and knowing that you could easily get negative feedback, maybe also knowing in advance that the mute button and the block buttons are there for a reason.
I used to think that it didn’t behoove an academic, a professor to block or mute someone because everybody’s a possible student. I don’t think that anymore. I’m not even sure half the time that these bots or trolls are actual people, so I don’t feel that I need to treat them as a student. Moreover, it is very clear that some people just get off on harassing me, and so I have no need to tolerate that, and I just simply block them. You can express an opinion respectfully, and if I’m tired because you just continued to express it over and over, even though I’m not responding and not interested, then you’re muted, and if you’re obnoxious or mean or cruel or just there to put me down, then you’re blocked, that I got other things to do.
Josie: Is there any kind of framework or process you go about, or is it just kind of in your gut if you can tell like, “Nope. I’m going to reply or I’m not”?
Sara: Yeah. I mean, basically, it’s like I said. I mean, it’s whether it’s harassment, or at least as I perceive it, or whether it’s just … I mean, there are certain people who follow me who just always jump in and say the same thing over and over and over and over, and they never have anything new to say and they’re relentless. Those people are just muted because I’m …
Occasionally, I’ll dip back in and unmute them just so I can take a look and say, “Oh, maybe they’re saying something new”, but I mean, there’s a guy … I mean, there’s one guy who’s been trolling me since 2008, okay? 10 years trolling me, and this is his favorite thing to do. The fact is over 10 years, the number of his Twitter followers has not increased. It has been about 130 for 10 years, which tells you how boring he is. He’s an alumni of my prior employer, and which makes it even more egregious. He doesn’t seem to realize that his trolling has attracted the attention, the negative attention of people where, at the institution he graduated from, but this doesn’t stop him, and so, yeah.
He’s blocked because all he wants to do is put me down and denigrate me, make fun of my appearance, or otherwise be a schmuck, so he’s blocked. I mean, people just need to figure out what your own line is, and you don’t have to defend it or explain it to anybody. This is a free country as we continue to try to tell ourselves anyway.
Josie: Yeah. He’s a schmuck. I like that. Another quotable. I’m digging it.
I just looked at your Twitter account. You have 28,000 Twitter followers. Is that exciting to you? Does that feel like pressure like you verified?
Sara: It’s terrifying. You know what? It’s … Oh no. First of all, I mean, come on, if I didn’t want it, I wouldn’t be there. I mean, I like it.
Look, I mean, one of the reasons I got a lot of them is because I entangled so to speak with Wisconsin Governor, Scott Walker when he was running for President, so I did pick up a bunch of Twitter followers just because these people are watching for me to do something stupid or put my foot in my mouth, right? I’ve noticed that you can get more Twitter followers with negative attention than with positives, so I don’t take it as a badge of honor, but I do recognize that it is a source of power, and so I’ve been working very hard, especially over the last four years or so to exercise that power very carefully. If I disagree with someone or critique someone, I got to remember I just did it in front of 28,000 people, at least. If I want to boost something somebody said or I retweet it, I always have to try to remember that people are going to … They are going to view that as an endorsement.
That’s difficult because saying something with the following of 5,000 people versus saying something with 10,000, saying something with 20,000, these are very different things. What I really recommend to folks is that if you are somebody whose profile is growing and the number of people following you is growing, you need to have some check-in points with yourself, where you think about, “How does my behavior, how does my use of this medium change as the number of people listening to me grows?”, because it gets harder, and it means they’re not just your friends anymore, and so I didn’t really recognize that, I think for a long time, and now, I do and I’m watching that 30,000 number in my head thinking, “All right. That’s another checkpoint, and once it happens, I’m going to have to again think really hard about the value of that profile and what I can use it for, and what I shouldn’t use it for.”
Josie: There was just a neat example the other day that you tweeted asking for, “Hey, who are some social media managers in higher ed that should get some more praise?”, and I got thrown in on that thread, and that was going for like … I think it’s still probably going for days. There’s-
Josie: I mean, so again, using your platform for a variety of different ways to celebrate, to again like amplify, that was fun to see.
Sara: Yeah. It was interesting. I didn’t expect it to do all that it did. I actually, I had a motivation. I had two motivations for asking that, that I think it was taken as celebrating people, which is lovely, right?
That’s not though what I was after. In a very functional way, I was looking for whose work might we look to as my team does more communications work, because I’m very … I mean, we were just coming off the #RealCollege conference. There was a lot of discussion about, “What are good marketing strategies? Who is really thoughtful about reaching students?” That’s one, and number two to be perfectly honest with you, I’m hiring, and so I’m also looking …
Josie: Yeah. There you go.
Sara: I mean, right? I’m looking around. I didn’t figure necessarily the people that were named would be people we could hire, but these are the kinds of people who I should share the ad with, and so this is an example of where you can get a lot done with extremely little effort. A single tweet yielded bunches of good stuff both for professional reasons, and then it was lovely to see the community of people who responded, praising each other and lifting up each other’s work. That was awesome.
Josie: We’ll definitely share folks your job advertisement for sure. I think with university accounts sometimes, the folks running them behind the screen may be, they’re kind of the … They’re not ghosts, but that they’re not different in centers, so that was fun to celebrate.
Sara: Right. Yeah.
Josie: Something else to celebrate is the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice, which we hinted to at the very beginning is something that you had retweeted lately, so congratulations for all these efforts, and thank you again for squeezing me in during this very busy time.
Sara: Yeah. I know. Thank you.
Josie: I pulled a tweet from, I think it was the day around the Convening that happened. It says, “My entire professional career has been leading to this moment. The Hope for College is my attempt to reshape this country. It’s modest and likely to fall way short of my standards, but I’m giving it my all. Tomorrow, we launch #RealCollege. Not going to miss my shot.”
There’s a lot going, like a lot of exciting things in that tweet. Again, that realness really comes out, which I think is the reason why people are so attracted and drawn to you online, offline, wherever. Tell us all the amazing things that you’ve been cooking up?
Sara: Yeah. I got to say, sometimes I’m like, “Man, that sounds like me”, and I didn’t even think that out. That was just one of those things I said, and I mean every word of that, including that you can read my insecurities. I mean, look, I feel like I just had a baby, and I’m realizing now that it’s what you call a ‘Brain child’, which I’m really digging that word because I have two children of my own, and I remember when I finished my first really big study that became my most recent book and when I finished working with the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, I thought, “That was another child.” That was child number three in a sense, and the Hope Center is child number four.
I think that there are lots of university centers out there, and lots of them don’t … They do things inside the academy. I don’t think many of them reach outside the academy in an effective way and actually affect regular people’s lives. That’s our ambition here. We are not primarily focused on doing research for research’s sake.
We’re not primarily focused on publishing journal articles. There are some really broken pieces of higher ed that have not been talked about, and it’s led to things like homelessness among our nation’s college students. We’re trying to change three things. We’re trying to change practice, including things like helping colleges and universities implement what we call a ‘Culture of caring’, which is a totally different way of doing higher ed. We’re trying to change policy to make it so that financial aid is not the only thing we talk about when it comes to helping ensure that people have the money to pay for college, because financial aid doesn’t really get it done.
The third part is to change public perception, and that means that I want to think about a family sitting there with a sixth grader in the living room turning on the television and seeing something about what happens after high school that is realistic, and is nonetheless something they’d be interested in. I think right now, they turn it on and they think they see something like Harvard. They watch ‘Grown-ish’ and they see UCLA, a luxurious state flagship. Most people in this country are going to go to colleges at places like our nation’s community colleges and the state universities we don’t talk about. These are the places we call ‘Real College’, and we need people to not only know about these places, but to value them and to hold them in high esteem, and therefore, to vote to resource them. Those are our modest ambitions for ourselves and our expectations.
Sara: I feel like it’s a really difficult time in this country, and creating something new, and creating something hopefully, and creating something that is focused on the work is probably the best contribution that we can make right now.
Josie: I love just the word choice of it being the Hope Center as you had mentioned, sometimes not feeling it when you turn on the TV or scroll through your timeline, and there is a really, talking about you all putting some communication, marketing efforts behind, amplifying your message, you all have a very cool, little video on your Twitter account for the center that I’ll make sure to include that really clearly articulates what those values are, what you’re intended here to do outside of the academy, and yes, like praise be the journals are broken. We don’t need to just publish in academic journals. Maybe you all need to pitch here in my backyard. I’m in Los Angeles. We need to pitch some new TV shows.
Sara: We’re trying. That’s actually one of the things I’ve been working on. Yes, I have a TV show, and if somebody would like to talk to me about my script, I’m very happy to talk. I am really not messing around here. We need all forms of media. We need to really rethink the comm strategy for higher ed at large.
We need to think about what we do with data and evidence. I think a data and evidence-driven television show would be amazing, and I think we’ve seen this. I mean, you think about what ‘ER’ and ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ did for people’s knowledge of what happens in hospitals. I think there’s so many good examples of that. I think that we have the capability of doing that for higher education.
Josie: Okay. You mentioned your husband earlier, so I’ll mention mine. He does work in the entertainment industry.
Josie: I’m going to connect the two of you. He’s pitching all the time. Would love to share the love.
Sara: Love to talk.
Josie: That’s amazing. I love it, and I … The work that I do is on that macro level too, wanting to have those touchpoints wide and making it super practical and immediate, so I love it. Another practical piece of the Hope Center and #RealCollege is a … Let’s call it ‘Conference’, but you call it a ‘Convening’. You just had that, I think it was last week when this will come out.
Maybe it’s a few weeks after that, which focuses on the struggles, triumphs, and realities of what it means to be in college today, and the Hope Center was launched at the same time. You had some celebrities there and big campus leaders. tell us about the event, highlights, and then how can folks learn about the event for next year?
Sara: This is something we call ‘Real College’. Again, #RealCollege is an idea, it’s a movement, and yes, it’s also a convening. This is something that grew out of an op-ed that I co-authored in The New York Times several years ago. The response to that op-ed, which was about hunger and homelessness in college was an outpouring of people all over the country who were trying to help students going through these things, and they really were disconnected from each other. We had a person who’s running a single program and helping seven students in one part of the country has no idea that they have a counterpart, maybe even 30 minutes away who’s doing the same work, and so we started bringing people together because we thought there’d be power in that.
This was our third year. The conference has grown. The first year, it was about 125 people. The second year, it was about 400 people, and this year, we had 560 people registered. We would have many more if we had room. We’ve been constrained every time by our location, our facilities, and our budget, which has been very lean just as it is for the colleges that we talk about and the students, but this was a very exciting event because I know most meetings are still, continue to be kind of lecture style.
Many meetings continue to be places where you get talked at, and this was not, so this was a two-day working meeting here in Philadelphia. There were all sorts of sessions. There were panels, and there were discussions, and there were workshops, and there was a film series, and we had Igniter talks, and we had lots and lots of opportunities for people to get together, and have working meetings, and all that sort of thing. This was also really cool year because we did have some really notable folks who decided to join us. We had people from all over the country in the room together, and we were so fortunate that Melissa Harris-Perry also decided to be in that room, really call us to action, really call out some of the racial justice issues in this work, and she brought a really wonderful energy.
She also came to our launch party and gave a toast to that as well. I think this is something we’re going to continue doing. We have a website for it now at Realcollege.org, and we are going to be hosting this event again next year, on September 28th and 29th. At this time, it’s going to be moved to Houston, where it will be held at the Houston Community College. We’re doing that.
We’re going to try to take it on the road. We think there are some really good things happening in Texas around these issues. There are many students on the border who want to be part of the discussion who cannot travel far, and so while Texas is controversial for many reasons, we think it’s actually really the right place to hold next year’s conference, and we’re excited about it.
Josie: That’s great. You are also on the road. Every time I’m on LinkedIn, you’re with another group, like a president, or like college students. Is that part of, I guess your efforts to getting to different campuses and conferences, sharing this message?
Sara: Yeah. It’s funny. I mean, it really started as a book tour, but it’s never ended. We’re two years in, and it’s been growing. I know. I’m getting requests now for next fall, and frankly, I’m not accepting them right because that seems hard to be planning a year out, but yeah.
I mean, it’s really become kind of a form of technical assistant. I do tend to give a keynote, and colleges are being really strategic. For example, they’ve brought me in to do a professional development day for the entire institution or they’ve brought me in to support fundraising efforts, and they bring their board in, but it’s usually more than a keynote. It’s usually been some sessions with the Chancellor or President, talking about the basic needs, concerns and their programming. It’s often some additional sessions with local policy makers, local media, and it really has run the gamut from … Let’s see, I spent three days in Los Angeles at the end of September.
I was with the Los Angeles Community College District, I was with the Southern California Grantmakers, I was with the California Community Foundation, and I was also with LAHSA, which is that city’s homelessness services provider, that it gives you a sense of kind of the breadth of work that we were able to in three days before going on to San Antonio and spending time with college there, so it’s a really rewarding part of the work. It also is a little bit of research as well, because I’m getting to do a lot of kind of gut checking in different parts of the country, hearing from practitioners, the extent to which they resonate with what I’m talking about and seeing it on their own campuses is actually really helpful too.
Josie: Boots on the ground, like seeing the actual work or work that needs to be done. What’s some of the consistent messages or challenges that you’re giving to campuses for someone listening that may not get you on their campus or at their conference? What can they do?
Sara: Yeah. I cover a couple of things. One of the first things that I always recommend and always talk about being really important is listening to students. One of our #RealCollege T-shirts has a statement on the back that says that, “Students are Humans First.” That’s incredibly important, so I do a lot of work to try to drive home the point that it’s hard to be a learner if you’re not first treated as a human who has basic needs, and those basic needs need to be met, so tuning colleges in to just starting with the really basic things is actually a bit of a challenge because so many of the higher education reforms that are out there right now are not about those things.
They’re about changing the curriculum, or telling the faculty what to do, or about putting technology into place. “Do these students have enough to eat? Can they actually get to class, and do they sleep?” The second things is that I do a lot of work to try to broaden people’s understanding of why college doesn’t feel affordable to students right now, and to make that discussion go beyond tuition, not just to talk about living expenses, but also to talk about how families are so strapped, how they’re having trouble getting ahead, how many of their bills are going unpaid, and how that falls on their students. I also emphasized the importance of the changes in our labor force, and in the job market for what students are able to do on college. It’s not just that college is important for later work, it’s that students these days can’t even really work their way through college because part-time jobs don’t pay well and they’re inconsistent, and that’s a big deal.
I also try to help people understand that we can’t just talk about typical higher ed policies, but that we need to talk about things like the farm bill, that we need to be aware of changes to programs like food stamps or what’s called ‘SNAP’ so that our students can actually have access to those supports. Then finally, once I describe what has really happened here on the ways which we have forgotten Maslow, the extent to which people don’t have enough to eat and they don’t have a safe place to sleep, then I walk through a set of different potential solutions. I work really hard to move people from thinking only about Band-Aids, to thinking about preventative work. I want us focused more on institutional change than on nudging our students, because we’re going to get to far more students faster if we actually change how we approach the students and how we serve them. I also encourage institutions to really think about how everybody on that campus relates to one another.
If you don’t take the time to care about your employees or think of them as humans, you’re not going to be very likely to think about your students as humans either. That’s the basic gist of what I’ve been spending time on.
Josie: Yeah. I mean, just a few serviceable things like-
Sara: I really like the light stuff. I mean, I do have to say it is really notable to me that …
Josie: Oh my God.
Sara: I don’t know. I mean, I’m 14 years post-PhD, and I’m talking about stuff that I could explain to kindergarteners at this point, right? Like people need to eat, right? People need to sleep.
Sara: This is so basic, and so many times though, it feels revolutionary, and that’s crazy. I mean, I’m really eager to get to the moment where everybody goes, “We know Sara, and we took care of it.”
Josie: Yeah, please.
Josie: Right. Yeah. Make this simple stuff come to fruition.
Josie: What’s also so interesting, you talked about like pitching a show to Hollywood to get on TV, like how much of this is not just institutionalized, but baked into our culture, like to not sleep as a college student as not a problem.
Josie: That’s just like part of reality, or like why do we give free food …
Sara: Oh, yeah.
Josie: Like looking down on giving free food out at programs as not something substantive, but actually, no, it’s really significant why we might need to do that.
Sara: Right. It’s crazy. I mean, think about this. Yeah. If I say hungry college student, you think, “Do they not know where the pizza is, or do they not know about ramen?”
If I say hungry third-grader, you immediately understand why we have a free and reduced price lunch program, why there is such a thing as a free lunch in this country, and how we all benefit from those children eating. If I say that somebody’s couch surfing and they’re 20 years old, you think, “Oh, well, they got a new boyfriend.” Right? “They’re staying with somebody fun, or they’re just hanging with different friends.” If I tell you that a 13-year old is couch surfing, you immediately understand that that’s not okay, so we have these cultural beliefs, and they’re not accidental.
They’re formed in part by people who want to keep higher education as a privilege, not a right, and they’re also formulated by elite institutions that wants you to spend tens of thousands of dollars sending your kid away to be ‘Raised’ by them, while they take on student debt, and so this is why the back of one of our #RealCollege T-shirt says, “It’s not all about Harvard”, because we really want people to … I’m not saying don’t go to Harvard, but I want you to know that most of college is not like Harvard, and most of us have no access to Harvard whatsoever, so we don’t need to be spending so much time imagining what that place looks like, and we don’t need to be spending so many philanthropic dollars, that’s for sure, donating to places like that when most Americans will never be able to use them there.
Josie: Right. I got a university down the street for me, USC that has more money than they’ll ever know what to do with, so they just keep-
Sara: They have food-insecure students, and so does Harvard, so in that sense, let’s talk about that, right?
Sara: Let’s talk about how you can be an institution with a massive endowment and receive all these taxpayer dollars, and yet, still not manage to cover your students’ basic needs. I mean, let’s talk about that, but let’s not put those schools on a pedestal where they’re glorified as if you’re not really in college if you’re not at a place like that.
Josie: Are there any institutions or examples that are starting to embrace these philosophies and practices?
Sara: There’s lots of them. I mean, one of the most exciting parts of this work is finding out how many of them are turning towards this. I think that they’re not the places that most people pay a lot of attention to. I mean, here, while some of the UCs are doing this work, and they’ve been funded too, which is I think unusual and pretty cool, but nonetheless unusual, a lot of the Cal States are doing this work and deserve to be praised for it, and deserve that attention. The community colleges all over the country are starting to wake up to this and turn into it.
My team just wrote a long report about the transformation of Amarillo College, which is deep in Trump country in the Panhandle of Texas. Instead of saying, “It’s poor people’s fault if they can’t get through college, and the bootstraps aren’t working correctly”, Amarillo actually said, “We don’t benefit from that philosophy. We benefit when people in our area get degrees and contribute to the economy, and so we’re going to work really hard to make sure the poverty doesn’t keep them from that.” They leaned into that work in a way that very few colleges have, putting not only money behind it, but putting real leadership behind it, and it does seem to have worked, and the number of their students who were utilizing services that can help keep them in school has grown dramatically. I think the fact that we see more and more colleges showing up at #RealCollege without us even asking them to be there is a good sign.
The fact that we’re seeing very, very large systems and districts, everywhere from New York, to Chicago, to all sorts of parts of Texas, to Portland, Oregon, and Washington State, turning to these questions, if they can do this work, they’ll affect not just tens of thousands of students, but hundreds of thousands of students.
Josie: Yeah. I’m so excited to get you on the podcast. Not like you need this podcast to get your message out, but I think this kind of topic and your energy, and again, your approach to social is really for me, what I … You’re included in my book. I’ll get your approval, don’t worry, but like setting a new standard like not being hesitant of pushing for results.
Even if there is resistance or if there is conflict, how to set some frameworks, but to do it in like a really practical and purpose-driven way that I think it really connects with folks all across higher ed. Last couple questions for resources, of course, we have to plug your book, ‘Paying the Price’. Is there any other resources you would suggest to folks that I can include in the show notes?
Sara: I think that certainly, RealCollege.org is set up to be a resource, and we’re putting more material on there for people who are interested in addressing students’ basic needs. As you mentioned earlier, we worked really hard on the Hopeforcollege.com website, and the explainer video on there is helpful, I think for people who are curious about what a center like this would do. I also have my own website, which has for learners who really like to just turn to video or to podcast, or those sorts of mediums for learning about various topics. That’s the home of all my videos and other radio and all that sort of thing. Those would probably be the main ones.
Josie: You had mentioned that you are hiring, and also just collaborating, so if someone wants to apply to work for you or just support you, or get involved somehow, how can they connect?
Sara: Yes. Yeah. I mean, first, I’m on Twitter obviously, and I do use it regularly. However, I would say that our website at Hopeforcollege.com under the Contact Us page is where we’re putting the job postings. There’s also, there’s on the front page, there’s a place to sign up if you want the newsletter, and there’s also an email on there if you do want to reach out about potential collaboration.
Josie: Okay. Two more questions. This brings us back to the very beginning as we got talking about your use of social media and life, and realness, and hope. It’s questions I always ask all my guests at the very end. If you knew your next tweet was going to be your last, what would you want it to be about?
Sara: Oh my goodness. It’s funny, I just saw “A Star is Born.”
Josie: Me too.
Sara: For some reason, that has me keep … I keep thinking like, “What if this was the last?” I don’t know why, but … I mean, I think if I thought it was my last, I’d probably reiterate that quote, right? I would probably say something like, “Stop accepting the things you cannot change, and start changing the things you cannot accept”, because I just think that this whole country would look different if people took that approach to their every day, and so given what we’re all going through here, that’s probably what I’d say.
Josie: For now, you’re about to hit 30,000 Twitter followers.
Josie: You’re creating centers and helping campuses and systems, and honestly, students, right? It’s not just these things. We want to help real people who happen to be students. What do you want your digital presence to have an impact on the world? Like why do you log on to Twitter? What do you hope because you are on these platforms that it’s doing?
Sara: Yeah. I mean, I really want students to feel less alone. I want them to know that the problems that they’re having right now are not their fault, and I want them to be given much more support, and so I think that ultimately, I certainly use Twitter as an educator to try to lift up and teach, but I also am using it to inspire, and I’m hoping that people will see what I’m saying there as cause to create some change, make some good trouble, stir the pot, have wonderful board members who all talk about making good trouble.
Josie: I love that.
Sara: Yeah. I think it’s really powerful. I think that the students benefit when we challenge the norms and we try to make an educational system that looks much more like what they actually need, and so I love it when students respond to me on Twitter, and I absolutely love it when they’re willing to speak out and tell their truths and hope that, “I’m going to get to be even more of a vehicle for doing that.” So many of them are just not heard, so even whether it’s just a retweet or whether at some point, I don’t know, maybe I could give them my account for a day, and they could tweet, I really want to pass that microphone.
Josie: Wow. It seems so simple, but so significant of just listen to your students, give them some space to tell their real stories.
Sara: Yeah. They’re worth it.
Josie: Thank you so, so very much for coming on this podcast. So inspirational. Lots of resources that we’re going to include, and please just keep causing some good trouble. Sara, I am such a big fan and appreciate everything that you do.
Sara: Right back at you. Thank you so much for having me on.
Josie: As you can hear, Sara is beyond passion about her work, serving real students. I also appreciate her candor since someone in her esteemed position could become also guarded hearing some of the stories, even about Twitter, but she remains warm, open and honest. Social media has become critical to Sara’s work. It has allowed her to learn, connect and advocate no matter where she is. What she said about her perspective on social was powerful.
I’ve come to really think of it, social media, as one of the best ways to break down the barriers between the so-called ‘Academy’ and the rest of the world. She spoke about lobbying in D.C. when she used to reside in Wisconsin, and she’s been able to raise her profile through engaging strategically on Twitter. She doesn’t take this lightly, and I’m a huge fan of how she holds space for reflection in how she will intentionally show up online, even as her followers grow. She recognizes the responsibility she has and wants to make sure uses these platforms for good. Another reason why Sara activates platforms like Twitter is because she doesn’t just want this work to exist within the academy.
This includes the work with the Hope Center and moving beyond the echo chamber center that we tend to reside in even in academic journals. She wants to get on and take action to make a real impact. She shared, “There’s lots of university centers out there. Lots of them do great things inside the academy, but not many of them reach outside and affect regular people’s lives”, so I really encourage you to engage with the resources on the Hope Center’s site and start listening to your students and their real struggles. We can do a lot to make a big impact.
Sometimes, that’s just even with the small acts of care and taking things like a student telling you they didn’t sleep last night as not just part of the college experience, it is actually something more serious. Sara, thank you so much for your leadership, influence and innovation, and of course, that good, old realness. Hope is a strategy, and heck, hope can even be applied on social media. You are a higher ed powerhouse, and I’m so thankful you are committing to this very important work. I can’t wait to see what you and your team do next.
I’d like to close with a call to action using Sara’s own Twitter bio that has been a driving force and explanation of her leadership, which is a quote as she shared by Angela Davis, “I’m no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept.” For you, what is that one thing, the smallest of things, even the macro, a big picture global that you know needs you, your knowledge, your expertise, or your voice? I hope you can use the inspiration from this episode today to make that act. This could be making sure you use real conversations with the students who serve and the willingness to act and maybe cause what we talked about at the end, some good trouble.
Please subscribe to Josie and the Podcast so you don’t miss any future episodes, and click that share button to share with your colleagues, friends, heck, maybe even your family. I would also be thrilled if you enjoyed the episode to leave a review in iTunes or any of your favorite podcasting platforms. If you’re interested in learning more about my speaking, coaching or consulting work on digital leadership in higher ed, or my research or publishing, check me out at Josieahlquist.com. Find me on Twitter or Instagram @josieahlquist. You can also connect with me on Facebook and LinkedIn.
Just search my name. Sending digital hugs, loves, and waves to whatever corner of the world you’re listening in from. This has been Josie and the Podcast.