Wednesday, October 26, 2016

History of Professors: Stories to Connect with Students, especially First Gens. Pt. 1

California State University Channel Islands (CI) enjoys the opportunity to compete for millions of federal government dollars as a designated Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI). Since 2007 over $26 million dollars have flowed into my campus via daedal grant proposals grafted by student-centered Science and Social Science professors. In addition to the augmentation of the university’s capacity to serve all students, the advancement of recruitment, retention, and graduation initiatives with HSI money is key, especially for those who are the first in their family (a.k.a, first gens) to pursue a baccalaureate degree. One way professors can undergird this errand is for them to share their life narratives as a means to tether their experiences with that of their students.
As a first gen university graduate, the family histories that my professors shared with the class allowed me to connect with them as persons with resonating tales of family trials and triumphs. For example, as an undergraduate at California State University, Fresno, Dr. John W. Bohnstedt, in a lecture on the rise of the Third Reich, shared how his family were German refugees prior to the start WWII. As a journalist married to a patriotic German Jewish woman, making his two children (Johann and his sister) Jews, Professor Bohnstedt’s father anticipated the lethal pogroms of the Nazis. Hence, as a former WWI prisoner of war in the United States, impressed by how well his captors treated its enemy, he sought refuge for his family in America. But our nation restricted the entrance of such refugees. But eventually, the Bohnstedt family entered the US in 1940 via the backdoor of Latin America, Panama specifically.

Immediately upon his matriculation into a Minnesota school, the young Johann Wolfgang Bohnstedt was no more. To commence his Americanization, campus officials renamed him John W. Bohnstedt. In 1945, he entered the US Army and eventually earned a higher education by way of the GI Bill.

These stories intrigued me. So I eagerly attended Professor Bohnstedt’s classes to hear other sagas of his ethnic, immigrant, refugee life. His German mannerisms and accent also fascinated me, especially when he addressed me with a deliberate, “Hallo, FRONK.

As he lectured, he periodically paced from each side of the classroom, slightly bent forward due to his scoliosis. In the contemplation of an idea, he placed the thumb and index finger of one hand on his chin and the palm of the other on his hip as he pulled back one side of his coat revealing the buttoned-up vest of his three-piece suit.

During a lecture on European Communism, he drolly recounted why he disliked, actually hated, communist. Apparently, when Johann was a boy, his mother and father, in need of a respite from parenting, he said, vacationed without him and his sister. So the Bohnstedt parents placed their children in the care of a nanny whose husband was a German communist. Each morning, Johann ventured to the kitchen of his caretakers for his favorite treat—a slice of headcheese. But one sunrise someone emptied the headcheese platter. Professor Bohnstedt then averred to the class, with practiced timing and a sonorous German enunciated English, “I was angry that my treat was gone. Then I thought to myself, ‘That god damned communist ate my headcheese.’” The class erupted and he smiled.

Therefore, Dr. Bohnstedt professed a history that ventured beyond the often prosaic narratives in books, or, worse, scholarly articles. His family’s story brought the events of the past to life. The movements of the World Wars of the 20 century and the era of Otto Von Bismarck, for that matter, in the 19th did not seem as distant in time as I was in the presence of a person whose grandparents most likely lived in 1870s Germany. I also learned of an immigrant experience other than that of my family’s. German Jews of the early twentieth century, similar yet at the same time different from Mexicans, were also the unwanted other in the United States who, overtime, would be incorporated into the nation’s polis. Anti-Semitism highlighted by Kristallnacht (the Night of Broken Glass) took on a powerful resonance due to the privilege of hearing from a professor whose refugee origins was an associated result of nationalized hate.

Consequently, to capture the imagination of my students, I share my stories, when fitting, based in a family of mixed citizenship and immigrant residency. As a first gen, I share how my US born dad and Mexican immigrant mom promoted a college education to their children. At the dinner table, my parents directed me away from high school shop classes where the majority of Mexican origin students had been tracked. Their expectation for me were college prep courses.

But once at the university, I discovered I was not fully prepared for success. I recall one afternoon on the fourth floor of the Fresno State library. I agonized to write the first sentence of the first paragraph of the first page of a research paper. I broke down emotionally and contemplated dropping out of school. Simultaneously, however, I could not quit. My parents had sacrificed too much for me to fail. As a result, I completed a sub-standard research paper that earned an F. Thank god I did well enough on other assignments and attended each session without fail allowing me a passing course grade. From then on, my academic habits and skills steadily improved as did my grades as I learned how to apply the same energy invested in my collegiate sport, wrestling, to academic learning. This story of struggle resonates with students. I know this because they tell me so.

So to hook the imagination of students, teachers need to share their stories. An honest window into your life history will not only inspire your students but also tie them further to you and the campus on their path toward graduation.