I’m up extra early to do my column while preparing to wake up one of my daughters, who is starting senior school in a new institution. (She wanted to do the arts track for senior high school, which her previous school did not offer.) Bragging rights—another daughter is starting at the University of the Philippines next week. So much for my so-called retirement!
Bringing my senior high school daughter to school for her orientation day, I did get nostalgic, reminded of the milestones of starting school, moving up, and graduation ceremonies.
This time around, my daughters talked a lot about their new schools and I was initially surprised about how much anxiety they had, not so much about a new school than about making new friends.
The exchanges got me thinking about a long-standing concern I’ve had as an educator and administrator and this is student engagement. In the United States, universities and colleges (now numbering about 1,700) have been conducting an annual National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) since 2000. The survey looks at the engagement of students with fellow students, with faculty, and with the resources and opportunities offered by their school environment, which are then correlated with educational effectiveness and impact, and how well the students will do in college.
I’ve been following this NSSE on and off, which did provide me with additional insights into school life for my daughters, as well as those of a small college I’ve been handling for two years now, with all extremely talented but economically and socially disadvantaged students who don’t pay any tuition or living expenses.
For today’s column, because of the lack of space, I can write only about engagements at the personal level. Let’s not forget school engagement starts at home. I assure my daughters they can and should share with me about what’s happening in school, the joys as well as anxieties and tribulations, with schoolmates as well as with faculty and administrators. I do worry especially about bullying by fellow students or by faculty, including cyberbullying, and I tell them they should not be afraid to tell me if this happens.
Taking a cue from the NSSE, I tell my daughters and students that we should set aside the concept of exclusive schools. Instead, truly good schools, as the NSSE emphasizes, should be building diversity, asking about the degree of engagement students have with schoolmates of different ethnicities (we could use hometowns and home provinces), gender (more than two), religious affiliations (including no affiliation), and political beliefs. Diversity enhances learning and prepares them for working together in a multi-everything world.
I tell them about how I appreciated UP’s diversity and that it was a two-way process: after graduation, my friends told me how they appreciated me because I was so “different”—my clumsy Filipino, my being “Intsik” (and “white,” something I wasn’t aware of!), my being nonbinary (even if the word hadn’t been invented).
I encourage my kids to maintain multiple peer groups. Inevitably they will have a barkada based on similar academic backgrounds but a “transdisciplinary” barkada is important, too. In my school, I find our athletes and artists bonding and realizing how very similar they are, bodies and minds as animated as life is.
We get now to the engagement many of you are interested in. My daughters know I will support them in their choices—boyfriend, girlfriend, whatever. I do want to meet their significant other and warn about premature commitments, which means they should never, never tattoo the name of the “love of their life” because love is rarely forever, while tattoos are.
What’s important is that if they have a significant other, they’re free to bring him/her/them home, and I promise I will not interview to death … after they fill out an application form (joke, joke).
The NSSE findings through the years validate something very simple: learning is not just a matter of formal curricular content and teaching strategies; instead, learning is the product of a totality of college life’s engagements.