Faculty Perspectives

The REAL students impact all aspects of the Tufts community and faculty and staff wanted to contribute some words about their experiences and interactions with REAL students.

Dean Robert Hollister

Q: Dean Hollister, please tell me about your experience with the REAL program?

A: I have had students from the REAL program in classes that I taught and I have also had informal interactions with REAL students. On occasion I have gone to the annual luncheon for faculty and administrators involved with the program.

The students in my classes did good work academically and they added significantly to the quality of classroom discussions because they had additional life experience that elevated and enhanced the discussions. I think that was the primary thing.

I am not teaching now so my interactions are more informal. They include occasional contact with REAL students who participate in the Tisch College activities. One is Michelle Botus. I met her prior to her coming to Tufts. We were on a panel together about homelessness in Massachusetts. Also, the Tisch College sponsors a class called "Producing TV Shows for Social Change." The class consists of a group of students producing a short documentary. Last year one of those student films was about family homelessness and it featured Michelle and her family. It was an account of her experience as a formerly homeless woman. It was a very powerful experience. Michelle was eloquent and inspiring in her participation in the public screening at the end of the term. She is just another example of the way in which the life experience of REAL students contributes in significant ways to the education of other students at Tufts, both undergraduate and graduate.

Another student, Tina Johnson, has been a valued member of our staff here. And there is Anne Stevenson who is a political science major, very active in the Democratic Party. She has worked closely with two of our senior fellows, Alan Salomont and Tom Birmingham. And again, I have been impressed with her energy, insights and initiative.

Q: How well do you think the REAL program fits the Tufts philosophy?

A: I think it is a perfect fit. Tufts has a deep tradition of open access to higher education. I have always felt that the REAL program was an important expression of that broad principle. And certainly the current leadership of Tufts and President Bacow, who is a compelling advocate of need-blind admission, promote an institutional commitment to removing barriers to access.

I would also like to mention that the mission of the Tisch College is to prepare students for a lifetime of active citizenship. Our mission is consistent with that of Tufts in promoting democratic principles and the REAL program has successfully contributed to a broader representation of the population in the student body. In order to be a fully democratic institution, we need to attract and support a diverse student body. Diversity in its multiple dimensions includes age and life experience, as well as racial background. Also, a successfully diverse student body can result in a higher quality of education for everybody. So the theme of diversity gives another key rationale for the REAL program.

Q: What do you think Tufts should do to have a more diverse student body?

A: The main thing is to raise more financial aid. I haven't looked at the statistics recently but the proportion of the students who get no financial aid is well over half. I am very pleased that the top priority within the current Tufts capital campaign is to increase undergraduate financial aid. I think it is consistent with Tufts' philosophy--including the REAL program--to making a contribution to this area in terms of social purpose.

Q: Do you think that the REAL program is large enough within the university to actually make an impact?

A: That is a really good question. I would love the program to be a bit larger. I think it would take additional money to accomplish that. My advocacy would be to sustain the program in its current size and provide it with a stable financial base first. As a longer term goal increasing the size of the program would be very desirable. You could make a good argument that approximately forty students is not a sufficient critical mass. However, it is certainly better than if the program did not exist.

Q: Where would you like to see the program in the future?

A: I would like to see it at least as large as it is today. And I would like to see it fully endowed with that level of stability. I would also advocate for more visibility of the program internally and externally. This project that you are making now can be a contribution to that. Also, the other regular communication vehicles on campus might help. I am impressed, for example, with the number of faculty who know about the program. Maybe there is some way that the facultyfs support could be reinforced. Or just be more creative, like the documentary about Michelle. She had a profound impact on the couple hundred undergraduates who saw the film. It would also be a positive thing if a few more trustees of the university were champions of the program. To find a way that the governing board of the university could be fully supportive of the program is an important part of the puzzle.

Q: You have mentioned that you were surprised by the number of faculty who were knowledgeable about the program. Do you have any kind of feedback from the professors about the program and its students?

A: What I pick up informally from my faculty colleagues is that they are glad that the program exists; they have had positive experiences with the REAL students in their classes. Another thing is that a lot of faculty have concern that much of the undergraduate population comes from a background of amazing privilege and there is a strong interest in having an impact on a broader group of people. Because that is their value system, wanting their teaching impact to be something more than just to help privileged people do well in life.

John C. Hammock, February 28, 2006

This is what Tufts gets from the program:
  • Older students in the classroom with broader and different perspectives. Look at the students in the REAL program and you see students who are motivated, who have real life experience and who bring all this to the classroom and to the student body. They are freshmen with experience; they enrich the academic experience for the whole student body.
  • A premier program that shows Tufts is involved in the community and in the civic life of its community. Look at the students in the REAL program and you see students who come from diverse cultural and economic backgrounds who participate actively on and off campus and who go on to be global citizens.
  • A program that produces ambassadors for Tufts' social commitment and responsibility. The university is taking a leadership role in promoting good citizenship and the civic participation of its students. This program embodies the spirit of this commitment by the university itself—not just by its students.
  • A showcase program that could generate positive public relations and funds for the university. This program is a winner; it has produced college graduates of people who never thought they would have the opportunity.
  • A program that provides outreach to minority and disadvantaged communities. This program has brought in people from El Salvador and Haiti; it has opened the door to students in a lower socio-economic status than the typical Tufts student. This diversity enriches Tufts.
  • A program that is doing the right thing in an era of cuts of programs for the disadvantaged and those who need a hand. This program illustrates the moral and ethical leadership of this university.
This is what the students get out of the program:
  • A first-class education from a premier university. This is often not even a dream for many of these students.
  • A ticket to upward mobility and a job.
  • An opportunity to become a very grateful member of the Tufts alumni body. REAL students more than most are eager to talk about how great Tufts is and to help their alma mater. They are enthusiasts for Tufts.
This is what the community gets out of the program:

Let me explain this through an example. Luis is from El Salvador. I mean from rural El Salvador. I visited his family in their two room home, mud floor, tin roof with chickens and lots of kids running around. This was poor—and I have seen poor throughout the world. Luis left this home, traveled to the United States, worked virtually as an indentured servant, worked his way into a job at MGH and eventually an education at Bunker Hill. He did this through sacrifice, true grit and single mindedness. As soon as he got his legal papers he applied to the REAL Program. He was now thirty. No one in his family had even been to high school in El Salvador. None of his Salvadoran buddies in Boston were doing anything except cleaning buildings or washing dishes. He was an outcast. And yet, he finished his degree at Tufts in December. Unlike most of the Salvadorans of his class who are at Tufts cleaning, he now has a Tufts University degree. What does this mean to his community? In El Salvador he went back and gave a talk at the University of Central America; he was on the radio; he participated in a panel of experts at an international forum. Here he was--a peasant from rural El Salvador who was the wrong color and from the wrong background. But he was a Tufts graduate. He was listened to in places he would not have been allowed into just a few years earlier.

What does Luis' story mean for the El Salvador community here in Boston and in the United States? We cannot totally know for he just graduated. But last year he went on the Board of Centro Presente, the leading Central American advocacy group in Boston. He was now accepted as a leader, as a person who stood out and is now ready to have an impact on his community. He is poised to use the chance Tufts gave him to serve his community and his new country.

What Tufts did for Luis has given hope to many that they too can strive to be educated, that they too do not have to clean floors and wash dishes. It has also helped to dispel the notion that immigrants from rural areas cannot do the work, do not have the brain power or the English to make it. Tufts, through Luis, has provided hope to many. And the Tufts image in the immigrant community and in El Salvador is enriched.

Molly Mead

On the R.E.A.L. Program

I had been teaching for ten years at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. I taught in the program that was specifically designed for adult learners. I loved teaching in that program for a few different reasons. One was that I really saw how adult learners have a sense of purpose about their education that is just amazing in the classroom. And the second was that I could see how I could make a difference as a teacher. I could help somebody who was very motivated to get educated but who also probably lacked some confidence.

It was very exciting to help someone gain that confidence and understand oneself as capable of learning. And then I found out that once I could help someone to get through this, afterwards it was like the sky was the only limit. It was so exciting. But that school was really designed for adult learners, students were giving each other support since a lot of the students had kids, many of them were working part-time if not full-time, they were juggling a lot of serious responsibilities. Not just the problem of whether or not to have a beer or do homework.

When I came to Tufts, the first thing I noticed was the overwhelming number students who were between 18 and 22. I like to teach them, but I was missing the basic experience adult learners bring into the classroom. And when I started to learn about the REAL program and started to realize that I had a REAL student in my class, it was so exciting to kind of pull together things that I had learned from U Mass Boston. The experience and maturity that adult students bring is broadening and can really add to the classroom experience.

For me, one of the things that is important about the REAL program is that it creates a peer group of the students; they talk to each other and help each other. "How are you juggling school and a full-time job? How is it feeling to be sitting next to 19 year olds who tend to be faster learners? "I was glad to learn that there is the REAL program to offer the students support."

I honestly think that the program should be larger. I just signed the consent form [for this interview] and it seemed that the focus was on the students and the benefit to the students of the REAL program, but I want to say that there is a real benefit to Tufts and to the other students in the classrooms. I would love to see two hundred REAL students. I taught a course called "Advocating for Children" and I had two REAL students in my class who had had jobs doing child advocacy. They could talk about the experiences in those jobs, whereas the other students were just reading about it. It is so exciting for the teacher to have people who can say: "Well, I actually worked for the department of social services. I worked for the department of transitional systems. Or I worked for a shelter for women and families who are victims of domestic violence. And this is what I have experienced in this area. How does this theory relate to the my experience that I had?"

REAL students can bring experiential knowledge to the classroom, and their maturity can also rub off on the other students. When students realize that there is a REAL student sitting next to them and realize that this student is struggling to get to class, to do their homework, it causes some of the students to stop and realize: "Wow, I am complaining it is too much reading, but I am sitting next to someone who has a job and kids and she is not complaining about the reading and gets it done. Maybe I need to look at myself a little bit more and ask myself how serious I am about being here."

Q: You have mentioned that a lot of the adult learners lack self-confidence. Where do you think does this comes from? A previous educational experience?

A: Yes. Typically for many of the students you could trace it back to elementary school. Some teacher would look at a student and say: "You will never do math. You are hopeless. You will never learn how to write." So, for some of the folks it is a deeply humiliating experience. Maybe the student compensated well enough to go through high school, maybe he or she even started college, but when they are expected to perform to a higher standard, they suddenly remember that the teacher said: "Oh, you will never succeed." And on some level these students internalize it and say to themselves: "Yeah, I have been kind of faking it so far, but now the truth is revealed. I am not that good a student." Also, I think in some cases if you cannot afford to pay for college, it is a little easier to say you were never meant for college anyhow.

Q: To what extent do you think the family plays a role, their family background, relatives not going to college, etc.?

LA: If they are the first people in their family to go to college they feel an enormous pride, and on the student’s best day, the family is proud of them as well. But in the student’s worst moments, the family can drag that person down too. You know, "I didn’t go to college, why should you? Things are good enough for me, they should be good enough for you too." Sometimes it even becomes: "Are you trying to show off in some way?" It is also very expensive to go to college, so it takes a bit more sacrifice and also the acceptance of the family. It takes their support. Otherwise they can become an obstacle.

Q: Do you think that colleges, especially high tiered schools like Tufts, do enough to support adult learners? We do have community colleges, but how about universities?

A: I think there is a big difference between what public institutions of higher education do to encourage adult learners and the private institutions. Certainly at U Mass Boston there was more encouragement of older students. Here at Tufts, it is much, much less so. It is this cute little program on the side rather than the core institutional part.

Q: Do you think that Tufts should do more?

A: I do. I would like to see Tufts doubling the size of the REAL program and basically say: "We believe in Tufts' education. We think it is a fantastic education and more people should have the opportunity to benefit from this education. More adult learners should have the opportunity. We think that our institution would be more diverse if we had more adult learners."

Q: What do you think could be done on the secondary level, but only the secondary, for a lot of students to encourage them to consider college?

A: That is a really good question. I know something is done but I don’t think it is nearly enough. Tufts has a number of different programs where they bring students to the campus one time. It is good. But there could be deeper things happening. To me, it would be great if there would be more mentorships between college and high school students. Probably it needs to start with middle school students so that middle school kids would come regularly to our campus. And summer programs where high schoolers have an opportunity to come here and take one or two summer school courses and try to do some scholarly work would help. They would see that they have the capacity to do the work and get excited, get fired up by that learning.

Q: What do you think is possible beyond these kinds of programs on the secondary and middle school level to enable more students to see the path towards a college education? Can the federal and state governments do more?

A: One thing that occurred to me is that a lot of people go to college but they don’t necessarily stay in college. So, right now the participation rates in higher education are at the highest level they have ever been in this country. The problem for a lot of people is what I call the revolving door. They come in but they don’t really succeed. They get revolved out. And some of the reasons they don’t succeed are financial, some are that the institution is not set up well to support them. What can be done from the policy perspective? One thing is sure. We would need to invest more in financial aid. Right now we are doing the opposite, we are investing less. And the other thing is to have more programs designed to support students when they come in so they can succeed.

Q: I know that Tufts has a high retention rate. The premise of the REAL program is that we have to have some credits before applying to Tufts. Some of us are coming from community colleges and some had the university experience early on and left for various reasons. What do you think the universities could do in order to keep these people? Not just in financial aid, but other support as well.

A: When I taught at U Mass Boston, the particular college I taught in was focusing on small classes, lots of interaction between the teachers and the students. I have an analogy and I hope not to be offensive in any way, but it is like having someone who tries to quit smoking. You are going to have a lot of failures and the trick is to just hang in with it. I think that there is some similarity to higher education. There is this group of people who for a variety of reasons are going to come and are not going to be able to stay at that moment in their life. If that could be treated not as a failure or big mistake, or having to face how to get back in, it would be great. We should make it easier to say: "Ok, for this or that reason you are not ready right now. It is ok. Come back and we maintain your record of your credits."