Due to COVID-19, my summer plans did not necessarily turn out the way I had initially intended. I had planned on helping my organization, Power of We, transition to a new director, finishing up my research, and interning. However, I was not able to do an internship due to to unforeseen complications brought by the COVID-19 pandemic. This, however, turned into an opportunity to dedicate more energy to projects that are important to me. The Power of We director transition turned into much more than a transition of leadership, and I was able to add new elements to my research on students with learning disabilities.
When Power of We was first formed it aimed to address issues on campus, like student polarization, retreating to echo chambers, and the overall absence of a comprehensive framework for diversity and inclusion (D&I). We wanted to help aid a proactive cultivation of campus culture rather than reacting to outbursts of polarization, both on and off our campus. Today, FSU has many D&I efforts and the way the university and students approach it is now vaster and encompassing. That left us wondering where Power of We could currently best serve FSU.
Finding a stable and permanent infrastructure to remain under as the Office of the President changes hands has been a long-term goal of mine, and this summer the Honors College gave us that chance. Dr. Schwabe, the director of FSU Honors College, saw the value in our mission and in creating a permanent partnership with Power of We, so the summer was dedicated to preparing the launch of PoWE 2.0. Each week, I met with stakeholders, such as the new director, Mimi, Power of We’s founder, Inam, and Dr. Morret and Dr. Schwabe. With new voices at the table, we scrutinized our internal circumstances and external environment, and then reset the team vision and strategic position. These conversations were not easy for me. As the most recent director, I had to occasionally remind myself that the organizations shortcomings do not all rest on my shoulders alone. The growing lack of engagement did not start with me, and my goal in these discussions was to make sure that it did end with me, even if it came down to the very last hour of my involvement. We discussed some of the deeper issues we were facing, like the impact of misinformation and heightened personal feelings have on engagement. We have always faced a dilemma in our pursuit to be seen as unbiased when it comes to providing information or “teaching” students, and having people not share the same level of knowledge of a situation get frustrated during discussions. This led us to consider the following questions: How can we promote awareness of social issues without being labeled as one-sided or misinformation? How can we create space for people to form their own educated view point based on reality?
It was decided that an honors college class on D&I research would help create a system of knowledgeable students with the resources to put on events and reach students like Power of We has. This cohort of students coupled with the traditional Power of We team would be ideal. Once this was decided, and Dr. Morret agreed to take on the class, we had to outline criteria for who would make up the class. A diverse selection of 20 bright and motivated honors college freshman and sophomores were personally invited to apply, then interviewed before a cohort of students was chosen.
The coexistence of both the class and the traditional Power of We team had more at play than we expected. I updated everyone on what the team does over a semester, and what a typical meeting involves. The original team that I, and the directors before me, led usually plans two to three main events each semester, with individual team members taking on smaller projects as well. The main events, including Longest Table and Shared Spaces, host over two hundred guests at a time. This involves a lot of daily organization and planning, leaving little time and energy to give to keeping up with researcher and reading articles on the state of polarization like our founder had envisioned for us. Being less aware of the state of polarization as an academic group impaired our ability to plan insightful events, so we had the idea of bringing the information and thoughtful discussion back to the team through the honors cohort. We decided that the main role of the original team would be to plan the events based on discussion with the students in the class and would then be able to develop more in-depth events. Each student, in the class and on the team, would create their own student engagement opportunity so that they could learn the event planning process from the traditional team members. After the structure was decided, the course work that would be taught was discussed and prioritized.
Outside of Power of We, I was able to expand my research on the academic experiences of students with learning disorders and its impact on their decision to continue or discontinue their education. America’s current public-school system is ill-fitted for students who do not learn well in the traditional classroom setting despite numerous laws that mandate education for all, including those who require different or specific types of instruction. The purpose of my research is to explore the experiences, academic or otherwise, students labeled as having a learning disability have in school, and what impact those experiences may have on their future educational attainment. I conducted varying analyses on existing data from a national survey, and then I added a survey and in-depth interview elements that helped round out the picture my research aimed to show.
Analysis of the data collected from the survey responses and interviews reveled a more colorful description of what the national data says. LD students are less likely to have a well-rounded educational experience in high school, and less likely go onto college. Data has always shown that despite an IQ on the same level or higher than many college bound peers, LD students do not succeed in academic achievement anywhere close to the same level as others. My surveys and interviews showed so many ways the high school public school system set LD students up for distress and failure, and LD students that do chose to go on to college see it as a slight, an action against their former teachers, rather than because of them.
Overall, my summer and fall experiences have been rewarding and challenging. Listening to my interviewee’s experiences in high school was disheartening and sad, but it left me with more drive knowing the importance of this kind of research. It was hard doing so much of the work for my research by myself at home, when I had previously had been working alongside an amazing professor. The interviews really invigorated me to keep going, serving as a solemn reminder of why I decided to start this research almost a year ago.
I had also been unhappy with where I was going to have to leave Power of We, after three years with the organization I felt like I had not lived up to my own expectations as director by the time the pandemic came and cancelled our spring events. This was able to change over the summer, and I am grateful that I found a way to leave it in a better place and expanding it’s existence. Although it was not easy picking apart the organization I had just led for the year, it was worth every critique to see it flourish as a more dynamic and multi-faceted organization.
During my time as a Social Science Scholar, I became a better, more strategic, leader. I believe the class helped me accept the things I needed to in order to improve Power of We and get out of my own way. I was pushed out of my comfort zone, applied to so many internships, faced rejection and cancelation, and was encouraged by Dr. Taylor and Dr. Mayo’s remarks that this year reflects our cohort’s resilience more than anything else. I am grateful to have been thrown into the challenge of being a social science scholar at such a difficult time, because of the reminder that progress doesn’t stop when the going gets tough, but I never had to go alone.
Emma Jo McAuliffe is a 2020 Social Science Scholar and a Project Intern at 621 Gallery. Emma is currently pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in English and Sociology. You can learn more about Emma here.
The feature image is from Pexels.