Monday, July 15, 2013

It Takes A Village to Develop Men

They say it takes a village to raise a child. Well, the same can be said about developing men on our campuses.

I recently had the privilege of hearing a young man at my institution share his story of manhood. Sitting across from me in the steamy non-air-conditioned office, he maintained a calm and cool confidence that only a fourth year senior can personify. He had been through a lot in his life and that was before he even started his college career. Growing up in Mexico City, he had the distinct challenge of navigating his sexual identity as a queer man in a machismo culture. When he came out to his parents the night before he was to board a plane for college, his world was thrown into disarray. His parents did not understand and could not accept that their son was gay. Not only did he lose the support of his two biggest fans in his parents, he was forced to reevaluate his own identity as a man when his father asked if he had unknowingly raised a daughter instead of a son.

This question spun inside the head of this student as he left his home in Mexico to start his life as a college student in the United States. He had come to terms with his sexuality, but had never questioned his identity as a man. As soon as he touched down on campus, he began his search to better understand the complexities of gender in conjunction with his other intersecting identities. He began dancing and taking Women and Gender Studies courses. He picked up books about deconstructing traditional notions of masculinity by authors like Michael Kimmel and William Pollack. He also got involved in the gender center on campus, organizing a campus White Ribbon Campaign and lobbying for sexual assault prevention and support for all students. When he wasn't actively seeking out opportunities to explore his masculinity, he carried these thoughts and experiences with him all across campus as he interacted with staff in the registrar's office, career services, residential life, Greek Life, and others. Needless to say, his quest to understand his own masculinity led to a rich and meaningful college experience that didn't end when he left the doors of the gender center.
The occasion in which this student was sharing his story was somewhat serendipitous. As he sat on a panel with three of his peers, his misty eyes looked out into the audience to discover many of the staff and faculty, including Dr. Michael Kimmel who was visiting for a campus lecture, that had helped support him in his journey listening attentively to what they already knew to be true. He had come full circle in his search for defining his own manhood and in his pursuit, he brought along a band of supportive mentors that helped facilitate his journey. Not only could he see the full scope of his development reflected back by the people in the room; each person who worked with him was pulled into the world of men and masculinites work through supporting his process.

Whether we work directly with a men's program or gender center on our campuses or somewhere completely unrelated, our work undoubtedly influences the development of men. To illustrate the point, consider a few emerging truths about men at college…
  1.  Men's recruitment and retention at our institutions is slumping.
  2.  Men's engagement on our campuses is low.
  3.  Men's behavior on our campuses is risky.

Given these trends, the time is right for staff and administrators of all functional areas to start considering how to engage men more actively. From attracting more men and keeping them on our campuses to engaging them in and outside of the class as a means for alternative choices to unhealthy behavior, higher education professionals are no strangers to the unique dynamic men bring to our institutions. Students like the one who shared his story on the panel are shining examples of how different areas across campus can work toward supporting a college student's male development, but they are seldom that obvious or direct in their purpose. As educators, we need to be intentional in all of our work about how we engage the men on our campuses.
Here are just a few ways that you can work toward supporting men at your institution, regardless of what area you work in.
  •  Support the male students who walk through your door. It might seem like an obvious one, but decades of social justice training that has informed us about the problems of male privilege can sometimes influence our ability to affectively support male students. Certainly male privilege is complex and problematic but it doesn't mean that men on our campuses don't still need our support. When working with men in your area, start by meeting them where they are at and work toward challenging them after you've had a chance to build trust.
  • Reach out to male student on your campus. Given that nearly all spaces on our college campuses are safe spaces for men, very little programming tends to focus explicitly on the specific needs of male students. While they may generally be taken care of given the predominance of their identities on campus, men experience unique challenges around many issues from academic achievement to mental health. Reaching out to men and providing programming and support that meets their needs may be one way to ensure their success at college.
  •  Support gender equity efforts on your campus. No matter what area of campus you work in, there are opportunities to challenge tradition notions of gender and provide equitable solutions for both women and men. Whether it be creating gender neutral bathroom spaces in the residence halls or using inclusive language in your departmental handbook, gender equity benefits all genders on our campuses. Men feel restricted when they are limited to fitting a rough and rugged stereotype just as much as women do when they are told they must be passive, quiet, and sensitive. Start by making small efforts toward gender equity in your functional area and branch out by getting involved with large scale programs on your campus like the Vagina Monologues, Take Back the Night, The White Ribbon Campaign, or others.
We may not all directly engage in developing men on our campus through the many different functional areas we work in, but with a bit of intentionality we can actively work together toward creating campuses where men can be more successful, engaged, and healthy. This collaborative "village" approach in developing our male students will not only serve to benefit them, but will also serve to make our communities stronger and our institutions better.

This post is from Kyle Carpenter, who works at Dartmouth College as the Director of the Center for Gender and Student Engagement.  You can connect with Kyle by email

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