Education

Student aspirations key to change

Rudi Buys

True transformation in campus hostels will come from sharing goals and embracing differences.

Strong traditions: Student accommodation at Stellenbosch University. (David Harrison, MG)

Crucial interventions for racial integration and diversity management in university residences mainly include programmes for student recruitment and placement, diversity training and formal student discipline. But widely reported incidents of prejudice at campuses at regular intervals, as I wrote last week in the first instalment of this two-part article, question the success of this approach (“Hangover from a discarded era”, August 22).

The golden key to transforming student residences deeply is found in the hearts and minds of students themselves – that is, in their aspirations. These are the hopes and dreams students hold and often reshape during their campus careers: a complicated and emotionally charged process of maturing to adulthood, often compounded by the aspirations of their families and home communities.

Nobody holds a fixed list of hopes and dreams for their entire lives. People continually reshape their aspirations as they engage with other people and gain new life experience. Our strongest, most resilient aspirations are those for the acceptance, recognition and praise of our peers.

We want to be accepted and recognised for who we are and what we contribute to the world, and none more so than students who join campus communities during their most psychologically formative years, as young people often still undecided on issues of their identity, values and mission in life.

Residence life offers the social structures students use to design their own and their peer group aspirations. It is the combined power of peer and individual aspirations of students in self-authored traditions that sustains their hopes and dreams and, consequently, also their residence culture.

Over time a residence culture, through symbols and traditions such as rites of passage (including “initiations”), establishes strong hierarchies of power to maintain itself as the protector of assumed aspirations. Historically at South African universities, such hierarchies were most strongly established along ethnic-cultural, political or religious lines.

This happens in all types of student residences because a residence brings people together in some form of communal living, albeit with differing levels of intentional design by the residents and of involvement by the campus management. In the case of residences that historically show patterns of strong intentional design, transformation requires the considered redesign of the aspirations often unknowingly taught in residence life, and of the residence traditions that psychologically entrench those aspirations among residents.

Rejected by students
Interventions to change residence traditions are almost inevitably rejected by students, if they appear to them as attempts to nullify their best efforts at designing traditions that uphold and shape the aspirations they hold dear.

However, this aspirational power can be harnessed for good and holds the most potential for success in transforming residence cultures, as is seen when students discover new aspirations that promise clarity in values, identity and recognition among their peers. Then the residents find the courage and energy to support and lead their own transformation.

Both the aspirations students hold and the residence cultures that shape these develop from the moral values and principles that individuals hold, share with other residents and – as residence community members – adhere to. For this reason, the first and most critical step in transforming a residence is for its members to intentionally rethink its values.

Yet as we envisage change, there is a potential blind spot here – if a residence rethinks its values in a vacuum, apart from the broader student body and the university community. Residences’ rethinking must start as part of, and be continually linked to, broader student and institutional dialogues on values and aspirations. With student associations and other representative structures, residents must consider broader, and tested, views in deciding their core values.

Residents must transform hierarchies of power to communities of inspiration. This happens when residences seek to realise values of inclusion rather than exclusion, diversity rather than conformity, difference rather than sameness, discussion rather than instruction and individual brilliance as the foundations for group interaction.

The next step in transforming residence culture is the intentional design of shared goals for student achievement and recognition that will shape aspirations in line with core institutional values.

Content of their character
Students’ aspirations should be aligned with graduate attributes of exemplary scholarship, leadership and citizenship. This means, for example, that first-years should seek acceptance and recognition among their peers rather by the content of their character and their arguments than by seniority through initiation.

A third step in transforming the cultures of residences is the intentional and shared redesign of the symbols and traditions, the structures and procedures and various customary behaviours of the residence to reflect and promote its values and aspirational goals.

Students could decide on think-tanks rather than committees to lead the residence, dialogue forums rather than house meetings to bring residents together, and that senior students wear formal academic attire so their matured scholarship is recognised, rather than first-years wearing uniforms to learn conformity.

The last step in transforming residences is establishing management structures that will ensure residences regularly engage with other student communities. This is best achieved by establishing clusters of interrelated residences and student associations as learning communities that reflect on values, aspirations and traditions.

As students’ aspirations transform, so do universities, because transformed student communities can find the courage and resilience to demand that their institutions do the same. More importantly, when universities do, all our diverse communities may equally find hope and courage for change.

Rudi Buys is dean of student affairs at the University of the Free State

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