Three Crucial Questions for Every Student

Kamilah Briscoe  








by Kamilah Briscoe, Director, Office of Student Success

In its name and mission, the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership pledges to “enable our students to energetically address the challenges of the 21st century” by “promoting the values of service, engagement, and leadership.” We believe a fundamental lesson of leadership is the idea of agency. The Office of Student Success begins teaching this lesson by asking our students three questions.

When do you graduate? We want this question to be a constant reminder of every student’s most basic goal, and we want our faculty and staff resources focused on helping students to make timely progress towards graduation. Our very first priority in every conversation should be to work with students to remove all obstacles toward graduation. How does this teach leadership? It reminds students that graduation doesn’t happen through an arbitrary process that they achieve through luck, happenstance, and the accumulation of enough waking hours in calculus class; it’s within in their control. If they aren’t finding a way to reach graduation on time, then they need to create one. And we’re there to help them do that.

What will you do once you graduate? This is a question we want to start asking the minute students arrive on campus. The answers may change over time (and as students develop a more sophisticated sense of their skills, aptitudes, and preferences, we hope that it does), but our ultimate goal is success to and through graduation. And that planning, dreaming, and building begins freshman year. More important than the answer to this question is the response to the natural follow-up: What are you doing now that will help you get there? Do you need a tutor for that statistics class? Do you know about Psychology Club? Have you taken that Child Psychology course that other students have found rewarding? Have you had an internship at Peer Health Exchange? Presented a paper at the Eastern Sociology Society conference? Students need to know—at every step—that there’s an activity, an opportunity, or an experience designed to help them take concrete, measurable steps toward their goal. Our job, as educators, is to make sure those experiences exist, and that they work well. If we do that, we create a community in which student agency is rewarded.

Who is helping you get there? Networks don’t build themselves. Seeking help, getting and staying connected—these are skills that some students have and others need to learn. As educators, our job here is two-fold: to ensure that students are talking to others about their goals and to make sure that students are talking to the right others. When students need help with a midterm, there must be a peer tutor that can guide them. When they need help writing a personal statement for graduate school, they need the attention of a faculty member. If they apply for a job in a government agency, they will ideally connect to alumni working there. When we help students leverage networks, we exponentially increase their ability to get where they want to go.

These are the core questions that drive leadership in every field and every capacity. We hope that as students move through their academic experience, they’ll be placed in opportunities that require them to ask more sophisticated versions of these same questions. We hope they participate in a student organization that requires them to ask: What are our goals as a student organization? How are those goals relevant to the broader CCNY student body? What are we doing now to achieve those goals? Who should we be working with? How do we work with others ethically and productively? At internships, we hope they ask: What is my team’s goal? How does it help the organization achieve its mission? How do we, as a team, work together to contribute productively? What does it take to be a good team player?  

We know from experience that these questions are empowering. We’ve watched students in our programs act, build, and grow from them. We know the potential these simple conversations have to create active, engaged learners who have a vision for themselves, understand the steps to enact that vision, and know how to work with others to reach common goals.

Of course, these and other questions about leadership begin in the classroom. There, students begin to build an understanding of how complex, modern societies are constructed, how power is generated and deployed, how wealth is accumulated and distributed, how our individual psyches help us construct worldviews; they explore the historical and theoretical underpinnings of social meaning-making, and they learn the writing, research, and quantitative skills needed to address society’s most pressing concerns. The fact that our curriculum has already embedded the core elements for understanding our social world makes it an ideal place to purposefully teach students about how to lead in such a world.

Our curriculum encourages students to evaluate their values and their commitments to ideas like trust, community, transparency, integrity, voice, rights, obligations, and responsibilities to others. We want them to understand the full complexity of these rather simple questions, to consider the full range of answers, to come to conclusions about where they stand, and to fight, responsibly and doggedly, toward their goals. By asking simple questions in the beginning, we prepare our students to answer the more difficult questions that lie ahead.