Why college? Why a college like Clarion?

—Jeanne M. Slattery and Carie Forden

Amber and Maria

Maria Davis and Amber McMillen with Carie Forden at American Psychological Association in Toronto (2009)

Amber was a first-generation, nontraditional college student who started off at our smaller branch campus in Oil City. I (CF) was her academic advisor, and I spent our first meeting assuring her that “everything would be all right” and that she was up to the challenges of college. It turned out this this would be our mantra. Amber had no idea how smart, brave and wise she was, and I had to push her over and over again out of her comfort zone. “You can do the Evaluation Fellowship,” “You can be my student assistant,” “You can do this internship with the county,” “You can succeed at the Clarion campus.” With each push, she found (to her surprise) that she could meet the challenge, and she continued to open herself up to growth despite her fears.

Over the next several years Amber blew both of us out of the water, writing and thinking more strongly than many of her fellow students. She fell in love with both the clinical side of psychology and neuroscience, then did several research projects with each of us, presenting at conferences in Toronto, Chicago, and Harrisburg. Nonetheless, she continued to doubt the quality of her work and her ability to be successful. We talked about doctoral programs and masters programs, with her hemming and hawing about being able to afford to go—which we believed was really code for her failing to believe that she was “good enough.”

Different schools serve different purposes. Schools like Clarion are an important option because they nurture and value students like Amber, students who have the ability to succeed, but who would likely fall through the cracks at a larger university. Faculty like the two of us are here because we love teaching and mentoring. We know that the students we serve would be unlikely to attend college without the option state universities like Clarion provide: inexpensive, close-to-home, and less intimidating. We know that these students often need extra help and encouragement. We go the extra mile for our students, listening, supporting, and providing research, service, and internship options. Most importantly, we believe in them.

The most recent attacks on public education especially concern us because students like Amber will see fewer opportunities to grow beyond their preconceived notions about what they were capable of doing and achieving. PASSHE Chancellor Frank Brogan anticipates increases in tuition and fees if PASSHE is dismantled, as Senators Tomlinson and Dinniman have proposed. Chancellor Brogan observed, “Every university that leaves the state system could close another door to affordable, quality public higher education” (quoted in Rivard, 2014, para. 37). This proposal would further burden students and their families, who have already seen the proportion of state funding drop from 63% of the cost of tuition and fees in 1984 to only 27.2% in 2013 (Armenti, 2013).

Education has increasingly been pressured to prioritize outcomes over process, vocational goals over liberal education, and quantitative measures of success over the fuzzier qualitative measures (Blackmore, 2000, cited in Elmore, 2014). Lagemann and Lewis (2012) argue,

Educated citizens must be able to listen intently and empathetically to other people; to analyze rationally what is said, read, and observed; to present thoughts clearly and to debate their merits vigorously; to confront unsupported assertions head on, rather than to dismiss or ignore them, or to talk past them with equally unfounded assertions; and, when appropriate, to identify reasonable strategies to take necessary action. (p. 29)

Amber can do all of these things and, increasingly, recognizes this. Do the sorts of pressures promoted by the Pennsylvania legislature and occurring throughout this nation promote the kind of education that develops the kind of engaged citizenry that Lagemann and Lewis (2012) desire? We fear not.

Amber is exceptional, but she is not an exception. We have each worked, presented, and published with numerous students over the years. We’ve mentored and nurtured students who have done remarkable things, many of whom do not believe that they are capable of remarkable things. That is an important job—for us, for them, but also for our communities.

Earlier this month, after years of both of us gently but repeatedly poking Amber to apply to graduate school, we found a message on her Facebook page:

Tonight I went to an open house at Immaculata University and inquired about their PsyD Clinical Psychology program. One small step.

Congratulations, Amber!


Armenti, A. (2013). Privatization without a plan: A failure of leadership in Pennsylvania Higher Education. Pennsylvania Association of State Colleges and Universities

Elmore, J. (2014). In Defense of PASSHE? PA Senators Tomlinson and Dinniman visit West Chester to push secession. Raging Chicken Press. Retrieved from http://www.ragingchickenpress.org/2014/03/16/in-defense-of-passhe-pa-senators-tomlinson-and-dinniman-visit-west-chester-to-push-secession/

Lagemann, E. C., & Lewis, H. (2012). Renewing the civic mission of American higher education. In E. C. Lagemann and H. Lewis (Eds.), What is college for? The public purpose of higher education (pp. 9-44). New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Rivard, R. (2014). Pulling out in Pennsylvania? Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2014/03/21/universities-want-out-pennsylvanias-higher-ed-system

Thanks, as always, to Melissa K. Downes, for her thoughtful editing and insightful feedback.

Jeanne Slattery is a professor of psychology at Clarion University. She is interested in thinking about what makes teaching and learning successful, and generally describes herself as a learner-centered teacher. She has written two books, Counseling diverse clients: Bringing context into therapy, and Empathic counseling: Meaning, context, ethics, and skill (with C. Park), and is writing Trauma, meaning, and spirituality: Research and clinical perspectives. She can be contacted at jslattery@clarion.edu

Carie Forden is a professor of psychology at Clarion University, currently on leave at the American University in Cairo.  She enjoys teaching and mentoring students, and has published and presented on the teaching of psychology.  As a community psychologist, Dr. Forden has served as an evaluation consultant and trainer to nonprofit and governmental agencies, both in the United States and Egypt.  Her most recent research has focused on smoking prevention and cessation. She has numerous presentations and publications in both community psychology and the psychology of women, including two books, Readings in the Psychology of Gender: Exploring our Commonalities and Differences, and Readings in the Psychology of Women:  Dimensions of the Female Experience.

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