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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Student trainings fail to address college’s structural failures

CW: mentions of suicide and sexual assault

This summer I, like many of you, received an email from the college asking me to complete a new online mental health training course before returning to campus. The training touched on territory familiar to the Wellbeing CarlTalk, Mental Health First Aid, and the college’s other programs for mental wellness.

Discussions of mental illness, help-seeking, supporting others, it was all there, as usual. But unlike those other trainings, this online orientation took maybe forty minutes to complete. I can’t say what new information I took away other than a feeling of unease at the training’s unwarned discussions of suicide.

Instead of feeling enlightened, I closed the training’s congratulatory digital certificate with a feeling of extreme discomfort. This training, and its counterparts for diversity, inclusion, consent, and other subjects, failed at all but clumsy summary of its issues.

No amount of hypothetical scenarios or slick, tokenized, clearly staged videos will ever substitute lived human experience. I’m not sure it is possible to teach mental health, or consent, or inclusiveness, or how to talk about these issues, without talking about them as living people.

The online trainings, then, have always come off to me as a way for the college to cover their behind. They pretend that they’ve given students an adequate vocabulary and toolkit to discuss as well as address the social issues they’ll face, but these “trainings” are no more than formality.

CarlTalks ought to be a forum for them to move beyond this. Indeed, I am happy to see the CarlTalks have, in general, made changes over my four years at Carleton. The administration tweaks them every year, based on feedback from new students, peer leaders, and professional staff.

Sometimes these changes make complete sense; often they do not. Ad hoc adjustments to correct a past class’ concerns often lead to more confusion later.

My first year, the wellbeing talk was regrettably called What’s Your Best Available Choice? The following year, due to increases in alcohol-related transports, it changed to Flourishing at Carleton, with an emphasis on positive psychology and no mentions of alcohol or drugs.

Since then, the college has struck a middle ground, reserving discussions of substances for the retooled community standards talk. Students have rightfully criticized BAC and Flourishing, often because they haven’t seen these contexts around them.

Professional staff have stressed that CarlTalks are meant to be introductory, that students have four years and many more after to explore these concepts. But this is not always clear, and besides, the subjects remain urgent whether they can solve them now or not. That’s why they’re CarlTalks in the first place.

Their lack of transparency makes the college’s trainings for students difficult to parse. It is often difficult to tell whether a certain program exists to actually improve the community or to avoid certain liabilities (such as those that might come with student transports, medical leave, or Title IX violations).

I have worked with Title IX on several occasions, and I truly believe the office wants the best for students. But they, like the rest of the school, exist within a wide bureaucracy that often gets involved at many levels: say, the Dean of Students Office, Residential Life, the Chapel, Security, and so on.

Each tentacle of the bureaucracy is bound to know something that other tentacles don’t. Each is also bound to believe it has certain responsibilities, both to maintain and avoid. Since these conversations happen in isolation, going through any administrative process fast becomes laborious.

Even if the people involved want to be supportive.

No amount of training prepares students to navigate a bureaucracy designed to diffuse responsibility. Administrators will often say they don’t know what we mean by “the administration” because it’s so varied.

This is by design. When everyone has a tightly delineated role, anything that doesn’t fit within its exact limits must not be an issue.

By giving us strategies to cope with our challenging new environments, the college allows us to think that we’re helping ourselves. But this is the most conservative idea of reform possible.

The biggest challenges at Carleton are not ones we create. They have existed since before us, and if nothing substantial changes, they will continue to exist well after our graduation.

Finding a therapist, getting accommodations, navigating Title IX appeals, finding safe spaces at a college that’s 70 percent white where over half of students receive no financial aid, these are structural barriers that make Carleton hard to inhabit.

Telling us that we should sleep more or ask our friends if they’re OK in this context is absurd. No amount of interpersonal interaction with our peers will solve the root cause. Carleton wants us to meet their vast institutional problems on their own terms, not the terms we deserve.

If the college really wanted to prepare its students, they would not only give introductory education on these subjects. They would offer meaningful self-critique to show students that individual choice will not get us out of this mess without structural change.

They would likewise reform a compartmentalized and insular power structure, academic, social, economic, cultural, and otherwise, that places the burden of belonging on students rather than the school meant to educate them.

It is a deep irony of our education system that we claim to prioritize inclusion so highly. Inclusion is not something that only exists between two peers talking to each other. It requires active work on all levels of execution to ensure everyone belongs. By definition.

Carleton would do well to take heed.

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