What’s in a name?

I posted the following as a comment on The Student Affairs Collaborative Blog.  But, it ended up being so lengthy that I wanted to transport it here, as well.  The original post was about “the ones that got away,” and focused on lessons learned from less-than-positive experiences.

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In a previous position I was an academic advisor in Georgia. It was an incredibly high-volume office, charged with advising 5,500 students with an advising staff of 5! I had been in the position for a few years and had really hit my professional stride, or so I thought. But, I had also gotten formulaic and rote in my conversations and had probably stopped focusing on the individual students as much as I should have.

As the fall semester of 2001 kicked off, I was cruising along with my advising activities, seeing about 10 students a day and helping them plan their upcoming semesters toward graduation. Then the tragedy of 9/11 struck and we all had our worlds shifted in one way or another. But, I had an interaction with a particular student whose experience helped change me, professionally.

He was an international student from Turkey. He had never been to America before, and the fall semester of 2001 was his first in the States. Having never done it, I can only imagine how hard it is to leave one’s family and life behind to study in a country you’ve never visited. No doubt this is a difficult transition for any student.

Now imagine if your name happens to be Osama. In fall of 2001. In the U.S.

Yes, my Turkish student, who was already quite nervous and struggling with his new adventure, had the bad timing of landing in our country in 2001 with the name Osama, and he was absolutely terrified. I saw him a handful of times that first semester, not because he had academic or career planning to do, but because he needed to talk to a friendly face. I could only imagine his feelings, as he shared with me his struggles to retain his name — a big part of anyone’s identity — in a place where that particular name felt malignant.

As the 2001-2002 academic year ended I lost track of him. In the rush of helping the other 5,499 students, he faded from my memory. It was only later that I realized I had let him slip away. I don’t know if he remained at the university or in the United States at all. But, it taught me a lesson — these relationship that we form as student affairs professionals, even in the most high-volume of environments, have meaning only if we allow them to have meaning. And I want them to have meaning.

Gary Alan Miller

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