Leaving Your Door Open
Coming to an office and shutting the door allows one to focus and get stuff done. But it also makes one unavailable, especially to the students we are called to serve. I got a good reminder of that today.
It’s Friday morning. I came to my office, shut the door, and began reviewing a book chapter. At around 10 am, I went downstairs to heat my tea, and when I returned, I left my door open (If you missed my previous post, I am spending time at the University of Johannesburg). My office is the first one in the corridor, and at the beginning of the week, a colleague joked that I should be prepared to answer student questions because they often mistake the first office for the secretary’s office (I thought it was a joke).
Thirty minutes after I came back, a student stopped by.
Student: Excuse me, sir. Can I come in and ask you a question? I need some advice on a situation I am facing.
Me: Of course, come in! (In my head, I am thinking….CRAP!! I Know Nothing! What can I possibly help with? It is my first week and I am still struggling to figure out where the bathrooms are on this floor!)
Student: Sir, I am a student on an SRC Trust fund (Student Representative Council Trust Fund). They usually assist me with meals,but today when I went, they could not help. They said they thought no student would be on campus since it was the last day before recess.
I did not know the SRC Trust fund, so I asked him to explain. He informed me that he is a student without parents, so the fund helps disadvantaged students at the university. The student continued to explain that he had not had much to eat since Wednesday. The offices he went to for help and to get clarification were not able to tell him what he could do since the school would be closed next week. I advised the student to go to the dean’s office for assistance and for him to come back and let me know how it went.
After 10min, the student came back up and informed me that he was given a contact to send an email to, but there is a possibility that he might not hear back until Monday. We continued to chat, and I asked him what he was studying.
Student: I am studying education. I was in a different faculty, but it didn’t seem to work for me. I want to go into education and teach students in similar circumstances. I want to show them not to give up.
In the end, I offered to assist him with food for the weekend. He took my assistance with both hands, with a shocked look on his face because it was clear that was not what he came for or expected.
Student: Sir…this will help me for the whole week!
The main takeaway and reminder for me is that at universities (and really at all formal schooling institutions), we have students who are suffering, hungry, and some who are barely hanging on. When they are in our classes, we often have no idea! Some are ashamed to speak up. It is a global phenomenon. Dr. Sara Gordlick Rab has spoken regularly on this (See example one, two, three) from a US perspective, but it is happening in Philadelphia as it is in Windhoek as it is in Johannesburg and Oklahoma. Education is viewed as a panacea, and as such, some sacrifice even the little they have to attend university because they believe that after obtaining their degree, they can be better off. However, there are still many obstacles, many of them embedded in a system to hold back the most disadvantaged.
To assist students in realizing their education dreams; we must see them holistically. I can come to the office, shut my door, keep my head down and research. However, I have found that often when I keep my door open, occasionally, students stop in and ask questions. About 90% of the time, it is for direction or some little things. Sometimes, as in this case, a student comes in with a need. In that moment of vulnerability, they share themselves in a way you rarely get to witness. Leaving my door open this morning led to getting to know and help a student. It’s a small action, but I can’t think of a better reminder of why one works in education.