As a professor, I am slightly embarrassed to admit that I had earned a 2.5 grade point average (GPA) my second semester in college — a bit lower than the 3.1 of my first semester. I was placed on academic probation in my scholarship program, the Meyerhoff Scholars Program at UMBC, because of my poor academic performance. I also had a bad attitude to match my bad grades. Initially, I fell in love with the Meyerhoff program, which is why I chose to go to UMBC over the liberal arts colleges I so badly wanted to attend. But, my first year was somewhat of a disaster because I had recently come out (and was dealing with the resultant family drama) and was unhappy with my major (math).
I could have been — and probably should have been — kicked out of the Meyerhoff program. I met with my advisor Anika Green — then-assistant director of the Meyerhoff program — about my performance thus far in college. I swore to her I would change, that my grades would improve because I would be more focused. Ms. Green (as I knew her then) did not smile and say, “oh, of course you will!” She did not coddle me. Frankly, she did not seem to buy my excuses for my crappy grades. She simply demanded: “Prove it.” Wow, ok.
That summer, instead of working or interning, I took a few classes that would count toward general requirements. I suppose there was something calmer about the summer, which allowed me to buckle down and focus. I earned As in all four of those classes. My parents rewarded my hardwork by buying me a new bike. One sunny afternoon, I gleefully rode my new bike around campus. I happened to see Ms. Green leaving her office. I stopped to say hello and show off my new bike so I could tell her the good news. I cannot remember her response, but it was not one of celebration. In essence, it seemed as though she was unmoved by that summer’s 4.0 GPA because I should have been getting As. Why reward what is expected? I was disappointed that she was not happier for me — something I was accustomed to with my parents (as an only child).
For the fall of my sophomore year, I retook a critical course for my major in which I earned a C, along with other general required classes. I could have taken more electives for my major in math, but was already beginning to doubt that I would keep the major. The tricky matter was finding a new major, for leaving the STEM fields meant leaving the Meyerhoff program and giving up the full scholarship. This, unsurprisingly, was a major source of conflict with my parents. They made clear that if I decided to give up a free ride that they would not be able to fully support me. I applied for a few external scholarships, but set my sights on leaving in hopes that I would be awarded a scholarship that was not specific to a particular major. Frankly, the misery to that point was reason enough to take the risk.
So, I marched my 19-year-old self, with only a few hundred dollars to my name, to the Meyerhoff office to announce I was leaving the program. Mr. LaMont Toliver — the program’s director, who sadly passed in 2012 — encouraged me to consider an interdisciplinary major that brought together sociology and statistics as a way to stay while also pursuing my interest in social science. That was not enough for me. So, I stood firm in my decision to leave. I am so fortunate that Mr. Toliver (as I knew him) provided the scholarships office with strong recommendation to award me a full scholarship from the university. I wish he were still living today so that I could express my deepest gratitude. Thereafter, I double majored in Sociology and Psychology with a certificate in Women’s Studies — earning As in all but one of my classes for the rest of college.
A Note On Tough Love
Earlier in this post, I mentioned that I probably should have been kicked out of the Meyerhoff program. But, even with low grades, an occasional bad attitude, and clear signs that I was not committed to my major in math, Ms. Green and Mr. Toliver did not give up on me. They supported me — but did not coddle me — because I was struggling in school (and, to some extent, life). As a part of that support, they did not accept excuses for failure nor putting in anything short of 110% of one’s efforts and attention.
This kind of tough love helped to propel me as a scholar and activist. Initially, it forced me to stop making excuses and to begin taking responsibility for my own education. To date, I am still uncertain whether Ms. Green and Mr. Toliver and other program staff knew that that would mean finally realizing my passion was outside of the scope of Meyerhoff program (i.e., STEM fields). Either way, I was forced to examine the real sources of my misery and poor academic performance. I needed to change my major, resolve family struggles, and see a therapist to work internally. After my 1.5 years in the Meyerhoff program, and even well beyond college, I have been aided by this early tough love to effectively navigate subsequent challenges and difficult decisions.
Why “Tough Love”?
Finally, I want to explain my use of the term “tough love.” I feel I have made the tough aspect clear in this post. But, what about “love”? Some may think it strange to suggest that these mentors love me or other students. We associate love with intimate and romantic relationships, which, in turn, we don’t associate with relationships in professional and educational spaces. We respect that teachers love their students, but raise red flags if they love a particular individual student.
By love, I do mean that Ms. Green and Mr. Toliver loved me, as a student and mentee, in some ways like they would love their own child, or maybe a nephew. I feel there is a loose familial connection with members of one’s own minority group, no matter the individual connection. These mentors, I suspect, feel a sense of responsibility and care for any student of color because of the history and contemporary practice of racism in higher education. (Indeed, these particular mentors worked for a minority scholarship program!) Their love for me was tough because they realized I had to perform exceedingly well as a student to overcome racial bias and discrimination; also, this “tough love” was unwavering because they recognized that students’ failures may be the direct product of it, as well.
I have had other professors, mentors, and advisors that have been tough, but who did/do not love me as a student/mentee. Their support can be easily lost if I fail, with little offer to understand my failures in the context of the barriers I face as a brown queer scholar. It may be tough, but it is a kind of toughness that simply feels mean-spirited, or elitist, or even offensive because there is no deeper, unwavering concern about my well-being or success nor sense of responsibility for me. US higher education, like the rest of the country, is home to an individualistic mentality. Too often, instructors give up on struggling and/or failing students — the very ones who actually need more support to survive and thrive. There is much more tough disdain or lack of sympathy than there is tough love.
I am so grateful to have Ms. Green and Mr. Toliver as tough-loving mentors. Because of them, I am now able to start dolling out tough love to my own students and mentees. I cannot imagine any other effective approach to support them.