Khristian King — Reimagining How Fredonia Supports Its Students

Khristian King (right) and members of Fredonia Counseling Services receiving SUNY’s Outstanding Student Affairs Program award for “Let’s Talk.”

“We get students with a lot of problems; they’re a full package. If we don’t see them as a holistic person it’s going to be hard to be successful.” ~ Khristian King, Executive Director, Intercultural Programs and Services

Khristian King

Khristian King is at the forefront of a cultural change in student support at Fredonia, one that asks, “How can we be ready for Fredonia’s students?” rather than, “How can we find students ready for Fredonia?”

King’s initiatives include the Crowned Rubies, a support group for Fredonia’s women of color, and The Men of Color Summit, which we were discussing in her Thompson Hall office before we drifted onto broader campus issues:

Khristian King: It’s a powerful place because you see students having conversations that they don’t usually get to have. One of the students even mentioned in his review of the program, “I never outwardly talked about mental health issues before, but the fact that I was in the room with like-minded people wanting to talk about it.” I saw them challenging one-another: One student said, “I can’t do this,” and a speaker was like, “Nope. Nuh-uh. I’m not giving you that.” He challenged him back and said, “I’m here for you. You have me now.” And to have a panelist sit there and say, “After this you come and talk to me,” I think that’s the environment we’re trying to create at the end of the day: They feel supported, they feel valued, they feel encouraged, and they feel like they’ve left with the tools and resources they need. And to be honest, this all started from a student coming in here and telling me that when he graduated from here he was not going to be successful in his career, and he couldn’t be supported. He couldn’t see himself being able to do that. What I pulled from that conversation was that he couldn’t see it for himself because he didn’t see anyone who looked like him who did it. We don’t have the greatest diversity in faculty and staff on this campus, and I don’t have time to wait for that. So that’s how we came up with the idea of bringing them here and getting them engaged. I hope the program grows beyond me and really takes on a life of its own. I do think there’s potential for that, but it’s getting the word out and getting the students to a place of expecting that type of support. I don’t know if our students always expect that level of support.

Ryan Maloney: Is that fair on their part?

King: I think that’s a fair assessment of them feeling like they don’t. So an example that I give is that there aren’t very many places for a man of color to get his haircut around here. If you’re a black man, if you don’t have your hair cut in a proper method you can get really bad ingrown hairs and it can be painful. I had a student say to me, “I never had hats until I was at Fredonia because I can’t get my haircut.” So that’s why the Thursday before the Men of Color Summit we bring up a barber for them to get their hair cut. If you think about it, something as simple as a haircut–your physical appearance affects your confidence, and if you have to go to a job fair that the Career Development Office is putting on, and you don’t have a haircut–that’s a small thing, but there are larger things that happen that students feel like folks might not understand their circumstances. So we have students who are still responsible for taking care of home, and sometimes home isn’t close. What does that look like? We have students who, if they out themselves for their sexual or gender identity, they are homeless. We’ve had to help some students through homelessness. And so there really isn’t as good of support as we could have. I will say that. Obviously there’s support because we were able to help them, but I think that there are times when certain issues come up in which they may not feel comfortable sharing their experiences–their fear of being invalidated. I’ve been invalidated on this campus, so I know that can happen. In some higher education research it’s been found that, compared to other support programs, men of color benefit greatly from mentoring support services. For that group it’s mentoring that’s the biggest one. We don’t have that.

Maloney: You are that (laughs).

King: And if you haven’t figured out, I’m not a man (laughs). I can only understand to a certain point, and then it doesn’t exist. We don’t have true LGBTQ services on this campus either. Anything that’s LGBTQ+-related the Pride student group does. There isn’t one support service other than the Chosen Name Policy—and that’s a policy change, not a support program—I’d be hard-pressed to name a program that’s put on by the campus, unless it’s from the Gender Studies Department.

Maloney: Is it typical for other campuses to have mentoring services and LGBTQ support services? (King nods). What does that look like?

King: You will find some campuses have a full professional staff for it, or some combination of professional staff and student staff. The student staff do a lot of the outreach work because they’re more relatable to their peers. They do things like Lavender Graduations. I believe the University at Albany has gone so far as to list LGBTQ-friendly jobs and health centers on their website. Then they also intersect it with other identities. So for example, “If you’re a veteran and you’re LGBTQ, here are some things for you,” or, “If you’re an athlete here are some support services for you,” and taking it further, not narrowing it to one identity. Erie Community College has a program for men of color called Men of Merit, and specifically what that program does is actually matches students with mentors, so a student can be matched with a professor or a professional in the city of Buffalo. You will find that there are multicultural offices that have all of those services. We are a smaller campus so it’s going to be more work to try to do that, but that’s the goal. Our department developed a commissions report, in which we proposed to make some of these changes. We are currently in the process of exploring opportunities for growth. We have to take it further. I have had multiple students, like one that stopped by the other day saying, “I don’t have a space for my queer, person of color identity. I don’t completely fit with this group, and I don’t completely fit with that group. I’m going through things that each group can’t identify with.” What does it mean to be a person of color with a very homophobic family, for example? Those are tough things to have to work through, that students need.

Maloney: I talked to Bruce Simon in the English Department about retention in general. He told me that community colleges have had to be more innovative in terms of retention. So when I hear you talk about the innovative things ECC does, maybe now we’re starting to get some of those students, and we’re not prepared.

King: We’re not where we need to be yet.

Maloney: Talk a little bit about how we need to prepare for that.

King: I think there’s a bit of an identity issue, that many of the bachelor’s degree institutions are having to face, including us. We get students with a lot of problems; they’re a full package. If we don’t see them as a holistic person it’s going to be hard to be successful. We’ve never really had to do all that support work. Community colleges have had to because a lot of their focus is on building the student up so they can be successful throughout their four years. We [meaning most bachelor’s degree granting colleges] have this mindset of, “Well, if you apply for us you should be ready for us by now.” We can no longer afford to do that. We can no longer afford to say, “If you’re not ready then…so what?” There are students who I know who have below a 2.0 GPA here, but in high school they were high-90’s and in AP courses. That math doesn’t add up; that is not an academic issue; that is a social support issue. And if the student doesn’t feel like they can communicate it, then how do you help them? Currently, we don’t have a student success model. The University at Buffalo, for example, has an undergraduate academy which is designed to provide all of the support services in a central location. Academic advising may do some sessions in there; the diversity office might do some sessions in there, and the caseworker who’s there is able to sift through and give a full, holistic view of that student. This is the support that EOP and FOP students get, but not every student can be EOP or FOP, so what happens to that mainstream student that doesn’t fall into one of those groups? They don’t get that type of support service, and an undergraduate academy can be that for the general student. Those are the students that keep me up at night. It’s not the students that I work here with, the ones who see me and know me. I worry about everyone else.

Maloney: The ones that you don’t see.

King: Yes. do we really know them.

Maloney: I would imagine it’s those students that are responsible for the drop in retention.

King: Absolutely.

Maloney: A couple of weeks ago I was talking to a colleague and she told me that lately she’s been seeing a lot of students of color in her office who just want to get away from this campus. That was shocking to me.

King: We’ve done a student opinion survey and it came out that students wanted to get off campus more. So that’s a big question that needs to be asked: “Why do students want to get away from campus?” I don’t have the full answer of what that is, and that’s why with the Crowned Rubies group we did a lot of off-campus events, but for the greater campus we don’t know why that is. That’s something we have to find out. We haven’t done a climate assessment on campus for that. Another comment that came out on surveys is students feeling like they don’t belong. So we need to ask why. We don’t actually know why students feel like they don’t belong, and we stress a lot that it’s not just coming from students of color. There was a student who was a white male who said, “Fredonia makes it inconvenient to be yourself,” and that is such a strong statement. And this is a student who is involved, more than what the normal student is, and for them to say that.

Maloney: I was a student here ten years ago, and I perceived it very much the opposite. I don’t know if it’s changed or if it has always been that way for some people.

King: I think it has changed. I don’t think it’s something that always was. I don’t hear those kinds of comments from alums. To hear today’s students say things like, “I don’t feel like I belong,” and “I’m not sure I’m going to be successful,” even when I came here that was never the impression I had of the campus. So I don’t know. I don’t know why that is. Obviously there are students who feel like they belong, and those students are likely part of some type of specialized support–maybe that’s athletics and you have a coach to oversee you. But even some athletes still don’t fully feel like they belong. I don’t really know.

Maloney: I don’t know either.

King: And that’s scary. That’s a real problem that has to be fixed yesterday, because if we don’t address that it’s going to be difficult to keep students. Using students of color as an example, a lot of support systems that are effective are not here, for example black sororities and fraternities—we don’t have that here. Sororities and fraternities have a long history of providing really great support and mentorship for students of color; it has been shown that they help retention. I know the representation in faculty and staff here has been critiqued. You can count, on maybe one or two hands, men of color who are faculty and staff.

Maloney: Wow. I never thought about that.

King: You’ll be hard-pressed to name many. I think there’s more women of color, but not many. I’m not only talking about faculty and staff of color, we don’t have many international faculty and staff compared to other campuses, or LGBTQ+ that are out. We also don’t have strong minority faculty-student associations, where faculty support students. Those associations give out scholarships on other campuses; they do programming; we don’t have a very strong one here, but we also don’t have that population of faculty and staff.

Maloney: I went through your Safe Zone training last year–which was great–but there’s also the idea of “safe spaces,” which have been heavily critiqued in the U.S. On one side there’s issues of student belonging that we’re talking about, and on the other side there’s a group of conservative thinkers who think the American mind is being coddled. How do you balance these two poles of thinking? I think about it when I work with my students: How much safety should I give them, and how much pressure should I be giving them?

King: It is a balance. You know, sometimes I give the hard truth whether they like it or not. I think both have valid points. Whether we like it or not we’re going to have to give more support than we’ve been accustomed to. I think that’s going to have to happen. And it’s so easy to say, “Well, in my day,” but in your day you didn’t have social media. In your day you didn’t have easy access to all these stressors. Students today are experiencing things that you and I didn’t even experience in undergrad or high school. But I think there is also some need to have those tough talks. But the problem is, if the student I’m talking to doesn’t feel like I am here for them, any tough love I give them will not be received. You have to have both. I have students in here who are looking for me to tell them things, but because I’ve established trust with them I can say, “No, you’re going to have to get over it, and that’s life. And this is how you’re going to work through it, and I will help give you the tools to get through it, but you don’t get to cry about it.” Or, “I’ll give you today to cry about it, but tomorrow we’re going to work through this.” I have a lot of those conversations: “Yes, this is wrong. It’s bad that this happened to you, and the world isn’t fair. Absolutely. But here’s how I’m going to help you through it.”

Maloney: So it’s very individual.

King: Yes. And how I speak to the Crowned Rubies group may not be the same way I speak to my interns, for example. I have a stronger relationship with my interns so I can push them way more than the women I may only see twice-a-month. But I do think you have to have both, because if I don’t feel like you have my best interest at heart I’m not going to trust anything you say to me. How can we push them to be their best selves if they don’t feel like we have their best interest at heart? I think we have to work at both, and I do think there are some students who have lost some sense of reality–and there’s a little bit of entitlement, don’t get me wrong–but have those students really been supported? If someone has let them go through their life thinking, “I am going to go to grad school with a 2.3 GPA,” and no one has had that conversation with them of, “No you’re not, not right now. But here’s how you can do what you need to do.” If no one has that conversation with them can you really say that that student was supported? Now, yes, we all know there are some students who are told that and they still don’t get it, but then there are some who have been told it, but they didn’t trust the person who told them: “Why would I believe you?”

Maloney: So it’s a tough-love support rather than a hug support.

King: I do both. I literally have students who come in and say, “I just came in for a hug.” Literally. I’m here for that too, and that’s fine. And there are some who will walk in and say, “I need you to tell me if I need to get it together.” And usually I do need to say, “Yeah, you need to get it together, and here are some things to help you get it together.” At the end of the day every person on this campus, as far as faculty and staff, are educators, and we are here to support students. Even if you’re not in the classroom you’re teaching something to these students. I think it’s remembering that they’re still learning. It’s an iterative process. We can’t continue with this mindset of, “If you apply to us you should be ready to go.”

Maloney: Is there anything else you think is important to mention as it relates to this conversation?

King: When working with students I think it’s important to remember to ask questions first. And I say that because I think–and I’ve had to check myself with this–it’s easy to assume certain things about students. But a lot of our students are such dynamic people, and they have so much going on, and they have a lot of talent that’s untapped. So taking the time to get to know students a little bit more makes the work easier. I am really fortunate to work with an amazing group of students. I commute an hour-and-a-half each way to work; I have to love my job to drive that, and I’ve been doing it for almost three years. I love being here; I love working with the students. I also know that, while the campus has its challenges that are no different than other campuses, we’re in this environment right now with a lot of folks wanting to come together and say, “Okay, how can we figure this out?” I’ve been in so many conversations like that within the last six months, and it’s so encouraging, and it’s so exciting. There are some who may need to be convinced, but I think there’s a lot of opportunity and potential here, and that’s what makes me excited about trying new initiatives.