As one of the first in her family to go to college, Harold Washington Advisor Rashaan Russell remembers what it felt like to be the new kid on campus. She looks back on her freshman year at Northern Illinois University as one of the most exciting, overwhelming, and, at times, heartbreaking experiences of her life.
It was an experience that not only molded Rashaan for those four years, but also inspired her to seek a long-term career in the college setting. And after nearly a decade of doing just that – working as a college coach and advisor – it’s still Rashaan’s first-hand knowledge of being a first-generation student that sets her apart in the field. She knows what it’s like to walk in her students’ shoes, many of them first-gen students themselves, which is why Rashaan’s primary goal is to create a space of comfort for her advisees. As she explains, “college is just one piece of who a student is. If you treat the person first, everything else will follow.”
It’s clear that approach to advising is serving her students well. As Delilah Hernandez, a Harold Washington alumna and current student at Cornell University, recalled about her meetings with Rashaan, “I felt I was in a place where I could ask anything and be safe and be heard.”
While Rashaan is currently unable to meet with students in-person due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she’s finding new opportunities to stay engaged with her advisees during this period of remote education. For example, she’s been sending biweekly check-in emails to students to remind them she’s available, whether those emails take the form of a congratulatory “you made it through midterms!” note or a photo of a sad cat to mark a gloomy weather day in Chicago.
Rashaan hopes the personal, informal messages help students feel connected despite being apart, and it sounds like they’re working. In fact, she says she’s had the best conversations and successes with students since March 2020, likely due to shared experiences surrounding the pandemic and its impact. That personalization isn’t always easy, but, as Rashaan explains, putting in the extra effort to help students accomplish both their academic and personal goals is always worth it.