My first twenty minutes of college were going great.
I was chatting it up with my new acquaintances in their residence hall during student orientation week. As rapport built, I glanced around the room. First year students stood in clusters, grouped by what local high school they had attended. I did not recognize anyone; I was the only representative from Hillcrest High School in Jamaica, Queens. All had blonde or brunette hair and blue eyes abounded---quite a shift from what I was used to. Everyone seemed to look, speak and act in the same way. With my brown skin and long, jet-black hair, I felt oddly intimidated, as if they were the white hunters and I was their dark prey.
I remembered an incident in my senior year of high school. In pursuit of financial assistance, I applied for a scholarship. Although all my West Indian friends and I did well on the interview, had high SAT scores and excellent GPAs, we were passed over. As they had done for many years the company only chose white students. This bitter memory of being seen as less than was “homeostasis upsetting,” and I flipped into a self-defense mode (Gordon, par. 2) based on FEAR: False Evidence Appearing Real. I did not know if my peers were biased against my background, but I did not want to create a barrier; I wanted to remain open. However, as more and more students shared their stories, I noticed the majority would be boarding. I dreaded telling them I was a commuter student. Was it my fear that they would view me as less serious or was it my own secret apprehension that as a commuter I would receive less of an education? Since I am the only Guyanese-American (with a Hindu mom and a Christian dad), would I be overlooked or unaccounted for in this university community? Unlike Woody Guthrie’s lyric, “This land was made for you and me,” I wondered if I belonged on the Hofstra campus. Little did I know at the time that the people in the Office of Commuting Student Services and Community Outreach (TOCSS&CO) would set me straight.
The process began with an introduction to my official commuter peer mentor and quite a role model. TOCSS&CO pairs peer mentors with students based on experience. For example, a transfer student will be placed with a current transfer student. Mentors are provided for students on the commuter track, transfer track, student access track and the global track. “Call me Chena,” Myrtchena Antonie said as she shook my hand (DeBarros). A senior and a proud woman of Caribbean descent, she showed me that as a person of color I was not an outcast but a part of something greater. Moreover, her encyclopedic knowledge of Hofstra’s many student services and multiple degree programs put my mind further at ease. When I told her that she was defeating my fear-based dual misperceptions of racial exclusion and that resident students receive more and commuting students receive less, she said, “We are all paying tuition to go here; there is no exclusion because we are all in the same boat” (DeBarros). In subsequent meetings I would come to learn just how academically, socially and civically engaged she has managed to become in her time at Hofstra.
According to Lawrence Kohlberg, one has reached the final stage of moral development when dignity, respect, justice, and equality are one’s guiding force behind one’s decisions in which “morality is based on the principles that transcend mutual benefit” (Kohlberg 1). To bring about my own change of mind and heart, I had to figure out how Chena achieved Kohlberg post-conventional moral levels 5 and 6. First, I acknowledged that I was limited in conventional level 4: I could take orders, follow rules and consider societal expectations. But Chena was able to think beyond the convention and communicate effectively with others regardless of their background, status or mindset. She had overcome any notion that she wassubordinate as a woman or as a person of non-white heritage. She recognized that social rules can be changed when it is necessary and inspired me to become more open minded and less defensive about those who are different from me. She helped me embrace the diversity of the Hofstra environment. When I learned that “research from the Carnegie Institute, Harvard and Stanford all reveal the same percentages for career success: 85% are people (soft) skills; only 15% are technical (hard) skills” (Gordon, par. 3), I realized that Chena combined these skills in a highly personal and compelling way. For proof, see her essay on Taking Giant Steps Press blog. The title alone, “What Do You Do with Trash: A Review of Walkabout & The Gods Must Be Crazy,” reveals her charming yet no-nonsense style.
As I grew these skills I soon learned that students may feel like outsiders for all kinds of concerns beyond color, gender and heritage, and that I have the power to help them feel more included. I also learned that many who commute often feel underrepresented because they do not board. Likewise, many resident students cannot call Hofstra their home because they are not comfortable here for myriad reasons. As Chena put it, “They don’t have a sense of belonging. That’s why we are here: to advocate for you, mentor you, and help you grow as a person so you can be your very best here at Hofstra” (DeBarros). I realized they guide and provide services for all students. I am truly grateful to Chena for her helping me unmask my issues and by modeling the change I needed to become, but I am equally grateful to Anita Ellis, who directs TOCSS&CO.
I first encountered her at Welcome Week. During the commuter presentation, Anita was engaging, funny, informative and very involved in making sure we have the necessary tools to make commuting life easier. After I met her for a one-on-one session, she was even more helpful and kind beyond my expectations; she became a friend. I often visit to see of the new events coming up or to just say hello. Her office is a place of community for commuting students, off-campus students and resident students because she provides a safe, supportive, and comfortable space for one to thrive. Anita makes sure that throughout the day, students can access free tea and coffee. After renovating the commuter lounge, she is in the process of adding comfortable couches for students to lounge around or study.
With a strong and improved sense of community comes new relationships. Chena stated, “My friends that I have met here at the commuting office have influenced me the most at Hofstra” (DeBarros). Developing friendships is crucial to becoming socially engaged. I can relate to Chena’s experience because I made new friends at the commuting office who now travel with me on the Long Island Rail Road. I have also been amazed at the number of resident students who face similar issues as commuters. In addition, regardless of housing status, TOCSS&CO gives students an opportunity to become members of the Commuters Student Association (CSA), in which students work with the commuting office to prepare events for the Hofstra calendar. These include tips on healthy diet as well as yoga and morning meditation. I always check with CSA to see what upcoming events I would like to be a part of. I follow them on social media and occasionally visit their web page to see what is new. Another program is Peer Mentoring, which has influenced me to become more involved in the HU community and caused me to want to become a mentor for incoming students. Anita states, “We encourage all of our students to integrate with their neighbors and attend our office programs” (Meet the Director). Her overall goal is to let students know that they are part of a community that will support them throughout their academic career by allowing them to become socially and civically involved.
Along with building community comes the opportunity to lend a helping hand. I have found that community service is a fun and meaningful way to become civically engaged and learn new life skills. TOCSS&CO hosts many annual community service events: Shake a Rake in which students rake leaves and help local community members; Nursing Home Bowling in which students assist senior residents of the Holly Patterson Nursing Home at the local bowling lanes; Pride, Paint, Plant in which students help the elderly plant flowers in their yard and paint their fences. Chena told me, “These events, which usually happen right around the community of Uniondale and Hempstead, are open to all students, residential included” (DeBarros). As Paulo Freire conveys, learning comes from first-hand experience: “Education as the practice of freedom---as opposed to education as the practice of domination---denies that man is abstract, isolated, independent, and unattached to the world; it also denies that the world exists as a reality apart from people. Authentic reflection considers neither abstract man nor the world without people, but people in the reflections with the world” (Freire 8). Simply put, knowledge is mostly gained from a learn-by-doing experience and “from learning about the people in your world, rather than learning about the world apart from them” (Parker, par. 4).
Perhaps the best thing about TOCSS&CO is its constant flow of valuable life skills. “Liberating education consists in act of cognition, not transferrals of information” (Friere 7). In order to be fully confident in my studies, I seek to acquire knowledge that reveals my full potential rather than just attain information that I will be tested on. Like Chena, I have found that “the commuter’s office is basically home for us” (DeBarros). Information is sent out via email, text and ads around campus. Chena noted, “It can be very difficult to get involved in the programs offered since commuters are constantly caught up in the run from home to school and don't have time to stop by the office. This is why we try to work around student schedules and make everything convenient for students. We stress communication, getting involved, taking part in the discussions and staying informed on what’s next” (DeBarros). On the more practical side, the office provides train schedules, shuttle schedules, free parking, lockers, information on commuter meal plans, tenant services for off-campus commuters, office programming, bulletin board information, car maintenance tips, transit tips, and FAQs.
Although Chena strikes me as someone who really knows what is going on, I was blown away to discover that during her first two years at Hofstra, she did not go to TOCSS&CO at all. She stated, “I did not do anything at school at all other than go to class” (DeBarros). She was caught in the fixed pattern of commuting to class and then returning home. She then addressed a problem that most of us students have. We do not reach out to the office as much they reach out to us. When asked how students can improve as learners, she said most emphatically, “We must improve our communication skills and lose the idea that seeking help or service is a bad thing” (DeBarros). By reaching out to her, I have become more independent, involved, and able to contribute to the Hofstra community. The Office of Commuting Student Services and Community Outreach has opened my mind, inspired me to be socially and civically involved, strengthened my academic skills and helped me become more well-rounded and better informed. I have come to find, like Woody Guthrie’s song, this campus was made for you and me.
Antonie, Myrtchena. Taking Giant Steps Press blog. “What Do You Do with Trash: A Review of Walkabout & The Gods Must Be Crazy.” 4 March. 2017, http://giantstepspress.blogspot.com/2017/03/what-do-you-do-with-trash-review-of.html
DeBarros, Chelsea. “Interview with Commuter Peer Mentor Myrtchena Antonie.” 3 Oct. 2018.
Freire, Paulo. “The Banking Concept of Education.” PDF, 5 Nov. 2018
Gordon, Paul Kirpal. Class Syllabus. 10 Sep 2018.
Guthrie, Woody. “This Land Is Your Land.” The Asch Recordings, Vol.1. Feb. 1940
Hofstra University, “Meet the Commuting Student Services Director.”
www.hofstra.edu/studentaffairs/commuting/commutingstudent/commutingstudent_director..html. Accessed 9 Oct. 2018.
Kohlberg, Lawrence. “The Stages of Moral Development.” PDF, 9 Oct. 2018
Parker, Morgan. Taking Giant Steps Press blog. “Gettin' Queer for Dope: Learning How To Learn about LGBT Identity,” 4Feb. 2016, http://giantstepspress.blogspot.com/2016/02/gettin-queer-for-dope-learning-how-to.html