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The Language We Use

by Glenn Lang, EdD –

Words have power! The words and language we use in opportunity programs create powerful images of who we serve, our expectations for students and their communities, and the messages we transmit to the wider communities at our colleges and universities. Words create images both positive and negative and if we are not careful can send dog whistles that reinforce stereotypes about our students and our expectations for them.

This concern is brought to light in this posting by David Steele in the April 18, 2022 Inside Higher Education, A Positive Change for a Negative Label. The article describes the steps taken at the California State University Fullerton to make students feel less defeated about being placed on academic probation, eliminating “probation” from the institution’s official language and replacing it with terminology of being placed on “academic notice”. Given the demographics of the institution as MSI/HIS, there was a concern, based on the results of surveys, that the term “probation” had a negative connotation and fed into a stereotype of criminality, and it was also tied too strongly to law enforcement and the criminal justice system.

The article brings to mind the importance of the language we use in opportunity programs. Given the targeted socio-economic and demographic nature of students and communities served by opportunity programs it’s critical that we routinely (re) examine the langue we use. For example, over the life of opportunity programs, we have redefined our service populations using adjectives including culturally deprived and urban (in the early days), At-Risk/High-Risk and disadvantaged. It is uncommon to find programs call their student contracts pr plans IEPs; a term used in K-12 for students enrolled in special education. Imagine a student comes to college and has an IEP!? What message does that transit to the student?

The language we use in our regulations, materials, and as a part our daily work as opportunity program matters. The language we may use can send powerful (sometimes negative) messages even when we are well meaning.

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