All posts by Amber

Not So Divine Revelations

Over the weekend I had a kind of personal and academic break through, though I’m a little worried for what it means for my thesis timeline-wise.

This weekend was an unveiling of the driving force behind why trauma informed care is such a soapbox issue for me – something I have hidden from myself for a while now. Like most of us when we discover our “why” beneath the surface of our passions, it often hinges on things that hurt.

The rough working title of my thesis is “Failure to Care” with a back up title/subtitle “The Power of Proper Tools”. My big revelation this weekend was how not having the proper tools to care for others has been one of the biggest failures of my life. And it may seem like that would be a depressing thought, but it was a massive relief when it came to me.

A Digression into the Personal

I am about to digress into some religious and personal talk, much of which is revealing the past me. If you would like to skip over it, please scroll to the end of the white boxed text. I will include the more technical side of my thesis plan after this section.

Just for some extra context to what I am about to share – I am what Paul refers to in 1 Timothy 1:19 as one who has a “shipwrecked faith.” What Paul fails to mention though is that even when one is desperately clinging to a piece of broken ship, drifting aimlessly in the vast ocean, there is God – just not in the same way I was taught to believe growing up.

In the Christian world there is a lot of talk about what “gifts” a person has and how this gift should be used to serve the “body of Christ” (i.e. the church):

For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.” Romans 12:4-8 (NIV)

My whole life, my “gift” was that of service, or at least that is the one I most identified with. I didn’t want to be a “prophet” or a leader or a teacher, I just wanted to be a conduit for the love of Jesus and for that love to be what helped heal others. My worth became inseparable from my ability to “help” and “love” others. Only when I was “helping” did I feel worthy.

As I sailed out into the seas of doubt around faith in my 20’s, and more specifically left the institution of Evangelicalism, I still maintained the old habits of giving endlessly to only be left empty, the result being I would hurt both others and myself. I did discover some tools along the way (yay boundaries), but I didn’t fully understand the connection between my unhealthy “helping” and my lack of tools until I started to work at the mental health organization I was at before I came to Jersey.

It was here that I saw that proper tools of care are your life source, and when you don’t have them, THAT is when burnout will grab you and drag you deep into the pit of hell. It doesn’t matter how much you “care,” if you aren’t caring skillfully, you will hurt more than you will help. I was lacking the proper tools I needed to care in sustainable and proper ways and it resulted in more harm than help.

This brings me to equity centered trauma informed care.

So many of the service professions – whether is it is counseling, medicine, teaching, or, yes, financial aid – draw people who want to make a difference in other people’s lives; these are usually people with the gift of service. But what is often missing in these professions is the proper tools and training for how to properly care and serve others; “proper” meaning that which maintains your sanity and actually helps the person you are serving. Setting proper boundaries, understanding the forces at play in society, being able to connect with the human that is behind the person before you – these are all desperately needed tools of care, but they are too often missing and can lead to harm.

SO – my long windedness for this thesis blog will end with a first draft outline of my thesis. The tentative plan is to create a series of short essays that use my idea of combining different styles of writing to draw out the tension of calloused care, lofty policy, and practical human experience.

The first section will always start with a reconstruction of the mental health notes I had to write in my old job for each of my appointments. These were always emotionless and relayed the bare facts of complex, human situations (i.e. callous care). This will be followed with a discussion of the academic and policy related issues, so this would be more like an informative article to give context (i.e. lofty policy). Lastly, I will end the section with an essay that draws on a related piece of my journey of “failing to care” (i.e. human situations). All of this should culminate in a project that shows how my journey brought me to my academic claim that equity centered trauma informed care is a model that needs to be integrated into all higher education institutions, with a special focus on financial aid to offer a specific example of how this would function/why it is important.

[One more note that is specifically directed to Dr. Zamora; I know that part of this “revelation” was no doubt inspired directly by reading some of the work you and Dr. Bali are doing on care, and so I expect I will need to discuss this further to make sure I am giving proper credit where it is due when it comes to these ideas. My ideas are built on the work of many, and I want to pay my dues to as many as I can.]

Thesis Outline:

  1. Reconstructed Mental Health Chart Note
    1. Why FA?
      1. All of higher education needs equity centered trauma informed care, but FA offers a unique lens to explore the way that a department that is often see as more “policy” based and technical is one of the most in need of something like equity centered trauma informed care.
        1. Movie Star Ranch
          1. If anything from my childhood captures this idea of toxic care, it is the idea I had for a ranch for movie stars to come to in order to recoup from their stress. My “care” was the treatment.
  2. Reconstructed Mental Health Chart Note
    1. Policies and their Shadows
      1. What are some examples of FA policies that state one thing but have dark implications or applications?
        1. Driving Decisions
          1. I made a decision one day when I was driving home after talking to my grandmother that I would go into psychology and counseling because I wanted to help people like her and I.
  3. Reconstructed Mental Health Chart Note
    1. But There are Tools for This…Right?
      1. What is the training and education that is given to FA professionals around dealing with the human behind the student?
        1. Everybody’s Everything
          1. Most of the time, I rode on my ability to pour myself into peoples’ issues and to break off pieces of myself to try to plug up their holes.
  4. Reconstructed Mental Health Chart Note
    1. A Model Model
      1. What might work – Equity Centered Trauma Informed Care/Practice
        1. My proposal is to adapt Alex Shevrin Venet’s model to HE, and FA specifically.
          1. Caring Badly Professionally
            1. Moving into a career where I lacked the skills I needed to care adequately, I learned how to care poorly and how this impacted others in a high stakes environment.
  5. Reconstructed Mental Health Chart Note
    1. The Times, ARE they a-Changin’?
      1. How does change come about and what policies do we need in place to bring it about?
      1. Heavy, heavy influence of CRT, Lorde, Kendi, Dr. Zamora
        1. Learning to Care
          1. At this point in my life I am having to contend with the level of hurt that has come from caring badly and how to care well without falling back into bad habits or becoming numb.

Where do we go from here?

As the title of my blog suggests, this thesis process is stressful. Maybe it would be weird if it wasn’t. It seems that most things in life that are ‘rights of passage’ are supposed to cause us sleepless nights and trepidation. That said, I have spent a lot of the summer in a state of tension over what my exact project is and what I want to get out of this final piece of my graduate work.

During the writing retreat over the summer, the direction that unfolded was that I would create fictional case studies to pair with an academic proposal that financial aid (FA) policy and practice in higher education needs to incorporate an equity centered trauma informed approach to better serve students. Up to that point, I was researching whether there was already something like that in place while also trying to record all the things I remembered from my time as a supported education specialist that were problematic in FA. 

Out of the research I did this summer, I collected a very broad and generalized collection of resources. What I am lacking is a deeper dive into all that has been done research-wise at the intersections of equity, trauma, and financial aid in higher education. Though there is so much missing from what I need to know about this topic, what all my theory is, and who my authorities are, I do have a foundation of articles, theories, and resources that have been informing my understanding:

  1. Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021
    • Many of the issues that FA professionals have been advocating around were addressed in the most recent appropriations act. Some of these issues include simplifying the FAFSA form, removing the requirement that men have to sign up for selective service to access federal aid, removing the requirement to report drug convictions in order to access federal aid, and opening pell grants up to incarcerated students. This one functions as a primary resource for my research. 
  2. Creating Cultures of Trauma-Informed Care (CCTIC): A Self-Assessment and Planning Protocol” – Roger D. Fallot, Ph.D. and Maxine Harris, Ph.D.
    • This document from behavioral health organization Community Connections offers a break down of trauma informed care and a model of implementing trauma informed care on an institutional level. It serves as a model of what it can look like to implement trauma informed care on an institutional level and the importance of having buy in from all parts of an organization. 
  3. Critical Race Theory: An Introduction – Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic
    • An accessible break down of CRT by some of the original creators of the theory, this primer describes what the basic tenets of CRT, its application in law, and how it has changed over time. This resource serves as another foundational piece of theory and has shaped my thinking around structures and the way that policy can be racist in its creation and implementation. An understanding of the way that policy and structures can impact people in ways that are inequitable is vital to creating change in FA policy.
  4. Equity-Centered Trauma Informed Education – Alex Shevrin Venet
    • Shevrin Venet’s work on trauma has been significant to helping me form an understanding of how equity and trauma informed care need to be combined. Most of my theory is drawn from the model she lays out in this book about applying equity-center trauma informed practice in secondary schooling. My intention is to take what she discusses and extend it to post-secondary schooling and to FA specifically.
  5. Evocative Autoethnography: Writing Lives and Telling Stories – Arthur Bochner and Carolyn Ellis
    • A text from some of the lead scholars in autoethnography, this both describes and demonstrates how to use autoethnography and narrative to present research. Because this comes close to capturing the process of fictional case studies, and I am contemplating using some of my own experience to describe issues in FA policy, this resource serves as a great resource and model for my methodology. 
  6. “Family Violence and Financial Aid: A trauma-informed policy analysis of financial aid’s responsiveness to students experiencing violence in the home” – Kyra Laughlin 
    • A thesis from a student who attended the University of Washington, this study addressed the issue of certain FA policies that require showing proof of hardship to access federal aid. Laughlin’s study follows the line of thought that I am pursuing in my work around directly applying trauma informed principles to FA. She uses SAMHSA’s original tenets of trauma informed care. 
  7. “Implicit Bias Toolkit” – NASFAA
    • Another tool from the NASFAA organization, this offers a model for financial aid administrators to develop more equitable practices in their implementation and judgements of financial aid. This model was one of the closest things I’ve found so far to an equity centered trauma informed approach to FA.
  8. NASFAA Website
    • As stated in their description, this organization is the “…only national, nonprofit association with a primary focus on information dissemination, professional development, and legislative and regulatory analysis related to federal student aid programs authorized under Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965…” NASFAA has been invaluable as a resource to help me understand the issues that are important in FA policy, how to interpret the changes in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021, and to get a feel for the direction policy is going in.
  9. Student Debt Crisis Center
    • This organization is a hub for those with student debt to share their stories and to advocate for policies that meet student needs. It offers a ton of first account stories of student loan debt and is useful to draw inspiration from for my fictionalized case studies.
  10. “SUPPORTING STUDENTS FROM ENROLLMENT TO ALUMNI: TRAUMA INFORMED PRACTICES IN HIGHER EDUCATION” – KATHY LYNN OLESEN-TRACEY
    • A dissertation from a student who attended Western Illinois University, her paper discusses the need for trauma informed care in higher education in general and the many factors that impact a student’s success. Her discussion of trauma informed care needing to be incorporated on an institutional level, history of the development of trauma informed principles, and her methodology for analyzing policy make this an important resource to refer to and draw inspiration from. 

These are just a smattering of some of the most important resources I have from my research over the summer. I have all of these sources and more stored in a Google Sheets file that is completely chaotic and a disaster as far as organization goes. I’ve done some sifting, but I still need to go through and organize (or simply make another sheet that will be more organized). 

As far as the outline of my work, it isn’t so much that I don’t have a vision of how to outline this work, the problem is I don’t know how to present it. What form am I putting my ideas in (fiction, personal narrative, academic analysis) and what am I trying to say? I know that the fictional case study is the form proposed, but I am trying to figure out what to add to this. Do I use my own story of how I came to a vision of trauma informed education? Do I write a policy I believe fits my vision? Do I make it all an autoethnographic narrative that mixes fact and fiction and don’t worry about a traditional ‘academic paper’ to go along with it all?

Not sure. So that it what I need to solidify ASAP so I can get to work. But for now a bare bones outline of my *thoughts* with some suggestions of form is as follows: