Advising College Students

What Tara Westover’s Book “Educated” Taught Me About My Students

I recently finished listening to Tara Westover’s book Educated. And holy guacamole, I am blown away by how good this book is. I’m normally not one for memoirs or biographies of any sort but I heard so many good things about it that I had to read it lest I suffer from eternal FOMO (fear of missing out). The book is about Tara and her less than conventional upbringing. A quick summary courtesy of Amazon:

“Tara Westover is an American author living in the UK. Born in Idaho to a father opposed to public education, she never attended school. She spent her days working in her father’s junkyard or stewing herbs for her mother, a self-taught herbalist and midwife. She was seventeen the first time she set foot in a classroom, and after that first taste, she pursued learning for a decade. She graduated magna cum laude from Brigham Young University in 2008 and was subsequently awarded a Gates Cambridge Scholarship. She earned an MPhil from Trinity College, Cambridge in 2009, and in 2010 was a visiting fellow at Harvard University. She returned to Cambridge, where she was awarded a PhD in history in 2014.”

Once I got a few chapters into it, I knew this would change my view on the privilege that is education. What I did not expect were the endless tales of abuse she suffered at the hands of her brother. Not only that but the denial she had to endure by her parents, who attributed her brother’s abuse to simple tomfoolery. Her parents not believing her, coupled with her father instilling in Tara a general distrust of anyone and anything outside of the family, made her ripe for the belief that she couldn’t ask for nor accept help or support from anyone.

As I got further into the book, I would be exasperated again and again by Tara’s refusal to accept help from those around her. At one point, a chipped tooth that fractured and had been rotting for years, required a $1400 dental procedure. She did not have the money. She barely had enough money to pay for her textbooks. The church she was a member of at the time, offered to pay for the surgery so that she could continue her schooling without suffering in agony. She declined, citing that she couldn’t possibly take money from the church. Her bishop offered to pay for it out of his own pocket. Again, she refused. This instance, among many others, made me think of my own students.

I meet with students on a daily basis who refuse to seek out or accept help, whether that’d be in the form of tutoring services, counseling or meeting with me. When I ask why they don’t ask for help, the answer is usually the same:

“I should be able to do this on my own”.

Upon further prodding, they tell me that everyone else around them can do school on their own. When I ask what evidence they have of this, they usually come up empty handed. Finally, I realized that one of the reasons Tara’s refusal to accept help was so incredibly frustrating is that she reminded me so much of my own students. And now, I see that my students’ inability to seek out or accept help may run much deeper than I initially thought.

Our students come to us already formed and influenced by their upbringing, their previous environment, their families, peers, prior schooling and more. To expect them to cast aside some of their most intrinsically held beliefs about the world and society is unfeasible. If Educated taught me anything, it’s that I need to work much harder on meeting my students where they’re at. Simply telling them that they need to go to tutoring is not going to make much of a difference. When possible, I need to get to the root of their firmly held belief that they need to be able to do life on their own. Then, begin gently challenging that belief.

I have started doing some of this challenging already, which is made easier by the fact that my student population is interested in entering the healthcare field. Thus, I usually get through to them by asking them how on earth they’re going to help others if they are unwilling to accept help themselves?! However, I know that this strategy won’t always work and I know that it certainly doesn’t work for everyone right now. I may get a weak nod in agreement while they’re seated in my office, but I know from experience that a lot of them don’t follow through once they leave.

I believe that I will need to do some more research of the literature on this. When I have found the magic formula, I’ll be sure to let you all know.

Unless, of course, you already have it. In which case, please leave it in the comments below!

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