Student Voices: Pandemic Life as a Student Parent
Part 2: Parenting for Social Justice, An Interview with Erin Cross, Director of Penn’s LGBT Center and Mom
In the first blog post of this series, I talked about my journey as a student and a new mom during the pandemic. Even though my schedule is still very unpredictable day to day as I care for my son, writing in shorter chunks of time has helped with creativity and focus. In this post, I discuss what it means to be a parent who is committed to social justice, including the need to interrogate our privilege not only as individuals but as a family. Especially while my son is only a few months old, it is easy to get caught up in the immediate needs of diaper changes, naptime, and all those middle of the night feedings. But the bigger picture of what kind of parent I strive to be is also important.
In the book, Negotiating Critical Literacies with Young Children, Vivian Vasquez writes about what happens when she shares a critical literacies curriculum with preschool children who are three to five years old. Through discussion, drawings, read alouds, and other activities, the children explore social issues including race, gender, and age in complex and thought-provoking ways. Vasquez highlights that children most adults would consider ‘very young’ are actively engaging in critical inquiry related to how they experience the world. Such opportunities to critically engage should be an everyday process, not limited to a classroom unit, holiday, or museum visit.
To reflect more on this topic, I caught up with a former professor of mine at Penn GSE, Erin Cross. Erin is the Director of Penn’s LGBT Center, and also teaches a course on Gender and Sexuality in Education. On the first day of class, we went around and talked about why we enrolled. “One day, I want to be a mom,” I said. During our discussions, Erin sometimes also talked about her kids and their experiences with gender. We kept in touch and I am part of a group Erin facilitates for white parents who are striving to be anti-racist. I want to thank Erin for engaging with me so thoughtfully in the Q&A below.
Jen: What does it mean to be an inclusive parent?
Erin: Striving to have your kids exposed to as much breadth as possible of humanity and believing others lived experiences, including our kids’. We try to talk about all kinds of differences whenever moments present themselves, ensure their books go beyond the white, straight, middle-class, citizen narrative, have varied people in their lives, and discover new art, etc. together. That is not enough, however. I also strive to be an anti-racist parent. We do not sugar coat racism in our house, it would be such a disservice to our kids. It is important for them to see white people admitting they are racist and working on it instead of just saying ‘I understand what you are going through.’ We don’t; so we try to have other folks in their lives of similar ethnic and racial backgrounds to be there if they need them. They also see me and my wife working with communities of color as worker bees and using our white privilege to lift BIPOC voices whenever possible. Breaking the gender binary is also huge in our house as we have folks of all gender identities in our lives as well. I am proud our kids default to they or ask people their pronouns. Sure, they soak up cultural stereotypes because they are being raised in U.S. culture but we try to mitigate them as much as possible. It is weird to see one of our kids enact what he sees as masculinity as he tries on new identities though, because the current identity of ‘cool, macho boy’ did not come from us. It is his experience and he needs to figure out who he is; however, and I have to say it is fun to watch as much as it is frustrating at times.
Jen: You co-facilitate a circle on Campus for Penn staff on whiteness and anti-racism. The theme is raising anti-racist kids. What advice do you have for student groups on Campus interested in creating similar spaces?
Erin: If students want to create a space to discuss and process their whiteness and their role in racism, go ahead and do it. A good place to start is Layla Saad’s book, Me and White Supremacy. In the book, Saad describes specific activities you can work through together to start addressing your own racism, like keeping a journal where you can reflect on how your white privilege has protected you throughout your life. Also, know there are staff and faculty in White Educators Committed to Anti-Racism and Equity (WE-CARE) who are trying to do their own work and feel free to reach out.
Jen: When I took your class on Gender and Sexuality in Education we read X: A Fabulous Child’s Story, a fictional story about a child whose gender was kept secret. When X goes to school, the adults react with hostility but other children begin to imitate X and find freedom in rejecting gender rules. How does the fictional experience of X relate to your own real experiences as a parent?
Erin: Although I love the story and it still serves a purpose, it is also very much so stuck in its time and the gender binary. Moreover, since X does a bit of girl and a bit of boy and it is early in life, their actions and appearance are not tied to assumed sexual orientation. What if X really did stick to non-gendered activities? First, it would be impossible and I am guessing many of them would actually be masculine. But, really no reason to speculate I suppose. Kids today have more leeway in terms of gender expression, although it is important to note there are still very binary spaces in the US as well (based on faith communities, ethnic backgrounds, SES, etc.). I was not in my kids’ life when they were young but from stories it was quite interesting. I know now we do our best not to work from gendered notions of things but we also know it seeps in from other spaces. That said, I love hearing how one boy at their school wears skirts and loves to twirl and the school and students are cool with it.
Jen: As a new mom, I love to read to my son. I know you have been a teacher and are a mom as well. What are some of your favorite kids’ books?
Erin: So many. I also asked a few other pals who are educators and moms.
- Julian is a Mermaid
- Hands Hands Fingers Thumbs
- The Day the Crayons Quit
- Professor Wormbog in Search for the Zipperump-a-Zoo
- Liza Lou and the Yellerbelly Swamp
- The Day You Began
- A Snowy Day
- Chicka Chicka Boom Boom
- In our Mother’s House
- Today I Feel Silly
- Tell Me Again About the Night I was Born
- I Love My Hair
- Tikki Tikki Tembo
- Peter’s Chair
- Whistle for Willie
- I Am Enough
- The Very Hungry Caterpillar
- Tomie DiPaolo books – Strega Nona in particular
By Jen Kobrin, Learning Fellow and Learning Specialist
Student Voices: The Year of Why
For the 2018-19 academic year, the Provost’s Academic Theme is the Year of Why. “The concept of asking “why?” is key to advancing knowledge; philosophers and thinkers build on historic foundations as they move forward with new discoveries. We often associate inquiry with technology and scientific advancements, yet it exists in every aspect of our intellectual culture. Above all, asking “why?” is a central aspect of Penn’s history and identity: founded by Benjamin Franklin, one of history’s great thinkers, Penn was designed from the outset to be different from other schools of its day by inviting examination and discussion across disciplines” (The Year of Why, 2018).
At Weingarten, we asked some of our own students, who represent various disciplines and schools, and range across undergraduate, graduate, post-graduate, professional and executive programs – why they use the Weingarten Learning Resources Center. Here are some of their responses:
- Senior, School of Arts and Sciences, AND 1st Year, Masters of Bioethics, Perelman School of Medicine:
“For me, I think that using Weingarten Learning Resource Center (WLRC) has been one of the biggest advantages to my academic career at Penn. This group not only wants what is best for each student but also knows how to work with each individual’s strengths and weaknesses. There are many reasons for a student to use WLRC, but I use this space in helping me be true to myself. What do I mean by “being true to myself,” you might ask? Well, sometimes as students we are not realistic with how to manage our time. In fact, my first draft of my weekly calendars never have time allotted for eating, grooming, or other “arbitrary” tasks. However, not taking into account the walks around campus or other duties that come my way throw of my ideal–yet semi-robotic–schedule. The team at WLRC teach me how to not only be realistic and but also the importance of not doing work 24/7. Using this resource at Penn has made me realize the importance of mental well being and has proven effective in my successful academic career. Aside from helping me “catch my life,” I know that the people I work with truly care about my success. I feel fortunate to have a piece of my Penn family in WLRC, and I will forever be grateful for what they contributed to my academic career. I always recommend WLRC to my peers because there are hundreds of reasons to stop by.”
- Senior, Wharton Undergraduate Program:
“Going to WLRC is one of the best decisions I made at Penn. I go at the beginning of every semester to define my priorities and set a schedule. Over time, I learned effective time management techniques, improved at prioritizing and imposing self-deadlines, and grew to be more proactive and intentional about how I want to spend my time. I also went during overwhelming time crunches and received great help. WLRC is a judgement-free environment. No one will judge your priorities or blame you for not starting an assignment earlier. Instructors are here to support you, and you may develop great relationships!”
- 2nd Year, GSE TESOL Masters Program:
“I have already used WLRC services for more than one year and I have gotten so many benefits and help in learning and obtaining learning resources. In general, I attended several workshops held by WLRC and booked appointments with the instructors there also. I always made appointments with a particular Learning Instructor and she gave me lots of helpful and beneficial suggestions for my academic writing. Overall, I think I have made big progress on my academic writing skills with the help of my Learning Instructor and become more skilled at polishing my writing pieces as well. The valuable help from the Learning Instructors there is the most essential reason for me to keep using this service.”
- 2nd Year, Wharton Executive MBA Program:
“The Learning Instructor from WLRC services has been a tremendous mentor to me. Coming from educational non-profit background, I was not very confident going into my Wharton program, which is known to be quantitatively focused. She and I met regularly throughout my first year – she not only provided practical tips but also helpful encouragement. As a result, I was able to excel in my first year!”
- Doctoral Candidate, GSE Reading/Writing/Literacy Program:
“As a part-time student, the WLRC helps me manage and balance my time with school, work, and life. Being able to listen and share strategies for reading, writing, and overall organization is a tremendous help. I’ve found the WLRC staff from the front desk to advisors to be incredibly welcoming and encouraging.”
- 2nd Year, Wharton Executive MBA Program:
“I started using WLRC services at first because I wanted to improve my communication skills (i.e. speaking with confidence and eloquence). Now that I have been using this service for over a year, I use WLRC services beyond just for improving my communication skills. I get to talk with a great coach who helps me think through a lot of professional and personal issues and questions. For example, I learned that, in order to improve my communication skills, I need to learn to become more confident of my capabilities and skills. It wasn’t just about my communication but more about the perception that I have about myself. From this perspective, it has been an educational resource for me academically and personally. The Weingarten Learning Instructor is a great coach and a mentor, and I believe more students should use this service not just for trying to learn a certain topic but for broader purposes that the WLRC services offer.”
- 2nd Year, GSE TESOL Masters Program:
“WLRC has been my favorite place at Penn, because the Learning Instructors here are so helpful and caring. They have been good friends to me, giving me constructive feedback on my essays, as well as useful advice about studying abroad. I feel so blessed to have found this place, without which my study abroad experience would not be this rewarding.”
Welcome Back PENN Students!
By Staff Writer: Min Derry, Learning Fellow & Instructor.
The Year of Why. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.nso.upenn.edu/theme-year/theme-year-2018-year-why
Student Voices: Sharing Stories at the Penn Faces Speakeasy
On Thursday, April 5, Penn students, faculty, and staff braved the unseasonably cold, windy, and chilly weather to share and listen to one another’s stories on Penn’s College Green. This event was organized by the student group Penn Faces, which has been supported by the Weingarten Learning Resources Center since its inception.
Penn Faces is a “project that is the product of collaboration among individuals who came together with the common goal of creating a site to foster resilience and encourage honest conversations. Its vibrant color is a blending of Penn’s red and blue, highlighting both the spectrum and the unity of our experiences.”
The Penn Faces website provides students, faculty, and staff with a space to present their stories to the broader Penn community in the hope of breaking down the expectations of perfection that can be found on Penn’s campus.
The PennFaces Speakeasy is an annual event, organized by the PennFaces Student Advisory Board, that is held to provide the Penn community a space where they can share their stories with a wider audience.
The speakers exhibited strength through their vulnerability while sharing their personal stories of facing setbacks, experiencing loss, finding different paths, and building their resiliency. Here are some of the speakers from the event:
As an audience member, what stood out to me were some common themes that connected the different stories.
- While each person shared their own individual stories of facing challenges, feeling like they needed to hide who they were, or believing they needed to conceal their struggles behind a mask, what made a difference for each person was finding an individual or a community with whom they could speak and connect with.
These ideas spoke to me about the need to find community and make connections here at Penn.
Too often, I can feel like I just really need to zone in and focus on my academic and professional work while I am here, but we all need to make time and space for our personal lives.
We can have a richer, happier, and more fulfilling experience if we can be our whole selves on Penn’s campus.
Further, some acknowledged that every resource on campus is not for everybody and that the first resource you reach out to might not be the best for you.
The speakers touched on ideas that reaching out to others and asking for help is a process, but that when you find the right place, it can make all the difference.
Whether who you reach out to is your friends or family, or a designated resource here on campus, these stories remind us that there are people here who truly care, and that there are people here who may be struggling too, even if they don’t always show it.
The speakers and advisory board hope that one day an event like the Speakeasy is not needed at Penn, because we will all feel more comfortable speaking about our fears, difficulties, and struggles openly in more spaces. For the time being though, PennFaces highlights a real need at Penn for students, faculty, and staff to remove our masks and to share our stories.
If you are interested in becoming more involved with PennFaces, go to Penn Faces to find out more.
For more resources at Penn, here is a helpful guide:
Additionally, here are some other resources students have found to be helpful:
- The Tutoring Center
- Marks Family Writing Center
- Resource Librarians
- Professor and TA Office Hours
- Campus and Community Houses (La Casa Latina, Makuu, Greenfield Intercultural Center, LGBT Center, etc.)
- Your college major Advisors
Wherever you build your sense of community and decide to share your story, ask for help, or to find camaraderie, know that the Weingarten Center is here for you.
By Staff Writer: Kelcey Grogan, Learning Instructor & Research Fellow
Student Voices: Creating Positive Environments
College is advertised as a place where students can learn, grow, and interact with their peers. The college setting is known for bolstering interpersonal relationships in virtually every setting, including college dorms, dining halls, and even group study rooms in open spaces.
Before coming to college, both of us had imagined a college experience that would challenge us to explore the unknown, meet unfamiliar faces, and succeed academically. This image of the perfect college experience soon became dependent on the people in our immediate surroundings. From the friends with whom we became acquainted, to the professors with whom we interacted, these key relationships provided a strong and positive foundation for our now flourishing college careers.
Interpersonal relationships are an important part of students’ academic success. We have found that surrounding ourselves with the right people, inside and outside of the classroom, is an essential component of achieving academic success.
At Penn it is easy to be consumed by the daily pressures brought on by academics or extracurriculars. However, Rani and I have found that the constant positive reinforcement of a persistent friend or a model mentor can make these daily difficulties easier to withstand. Whenever I am concerned about a class or overwhelmed with responsibilities, I can turn to Rani to encourage me to get the job done and to put my best foot forward even if I am burnt out and ready to give up. Through my friendship with Rani, I have learned how essential it is to have these constant cheerleaders in my life. Not only have these motivators given me the courage to persist through adversity, but they have also given me the confidence to know that I am capable of achieving the goals that I have set out to accomplish.
Our relationships outside the classroom are critical for thriving academically, but the attitude we have toward our coursework plays a role as well. Contrary to what we had expected, sometimes, campus culture can also include negativity about schoolwork. It is normal to hear people around you discussing how pointless the class is and refusing to do the homework. During exam week we hear people saying how they are going to fail the exam, and it affects not only their focus and productivity, but it affects others as well. It can be very difficult to do well in a class if one internalizes this type of mindset.
Chieme and I have adopted an attitude of positivity. When we have classes together, we sit near each other and our comments on the coursework classroom material are usually positive and hopeful, if there are any at all. In classes where I don’t have friends like Chieme to foster a positive attitude, I try to sit with quiet people or those who also have a similar outlook on the material. Surrounding oneself with positivity seems to supply the courage and energy necessary to attack the material in a more productive way.
* * *
Overall, we have enjoyed our college experiences. Our friendship, work ethic and positive outlook have gotten us far along our respective paths.
- So, try to find people who push you towards the goals you have set for yourself.
- Try to find those constant motivators who will encourage you to think beyond the campus culture and to embrace positivity.
- Look for ways to create constructive friendships and in-class interactions that will promote academic success.
Contributed by PENN Students: Chiemela Ohanele and Rani Richardson