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Today’s post is based on an interview with Brooke Adams, a first-generation college graduate with a master’s degree in social work and a passion for working with students from under-resourced communities.

Please introduce yourself and your work for our blog readers.

I’m Brooke Adams. I am 33 years old, I live in Portland, Oregon, and I have an ACE score of 8. I work with underserved populations getting to and through college. Historically, I have worked with first-generation college students, students who come from low-income backgrounds, or students whose parents came from low-income backgrounds. Sometimes we get students whose parents have worked their way up but never went to college. What we’ve noticed in this work is that no one gives these students a guide, so if their parents come from low-income families, even if the students are being raised in a higher socioeconomic class, they often still face the same struggles that other low-income, first-generation students face.

How does your personal childhood experiences impact your work as a college program director and mentor?

A supervisor once told me, “You can smell trauma in your students. You know when something’s going on when other people don’t.” This is one of the biggest things that has benefited my work: having come from similar backgrounds that my students are coming from. Being extremely low-income, and the first in my family to go to college, I understand what my students might be facing. My childhood experiences, having been in their place before, trying to navigate a college environment, allows me to make sense of what might be going on in their lives and dig deeper. We, as mentoring organizations, have to do a better job of having our employees reflect the student population. For example, there’s not enough support for students of color at the universities I’ve worked with, and making sure our students feel represented and heard is really important in helping them be resilient.

Can you recall positive experiences from your childhood that helped you overcome the adversities you faced?

Personal relationships were the best thing. I was the oldest sibling in my family, so I had a lot of responsibilities, but when I was with my step-grandfather, I didn’t have responsibilities; I could be a child. Looking back on it as an adult, I recognize how much that benefited my mental health, how much it mattered to have someone who really watched out for me, someone who cared. I always knew he wanted me to do my best, but also, no matter what, he would love me. That allowed me to constantly strive for that type of love.

I also benefited from my coaches. Athletics allowed me to be around adults who were positive and pushed me but knew my limits. I remember my coaches would pull me aside and recognize that I was having a hard time. The fact that I knew someone was watching me and cared for me was really important. When I started playing sports in sixth grade, one night, I didn’t do my homework. My teacher asked me, “Why didn’t you do this?” I said, “I had practice.” Then, I’m getting called to the sports director’s office, because my teacher told the athletic director that I might need extra support. Then the sports director told my coach, and all of a sudden there was this whole team watching out for me. That is such a phenomenal feeling. I will never forget how supported I felt.

At my lowest moments, my faith helped me. There’ve been moments in my life where I thought I hit rock bottom. That is a moment where I just turn to faith: dear God, if you exist, or dear universe, please give me the strength to get through the next hour. There’ve been times when I’ve struggled with suicidal ideation because of the weight of all of my ACEs. When I was feeling unsupported, depressed, and hopeless, my faith was there. My religious community has helped me grow and understand who I am based on where I came from.

Also, everyone needs to be in therapy. Having good therapists, and even bad therapists, really helped me. My students don’t recognize the trauma they’re carrying with them, coming from poverty. They don’t recognize that they may have PTSD, or that their anxiety and depression is coming from their lived experiences and making them unable to focus in college. I tell all of my students, “You have to find someone who can validate you.” One of the most important parts of my resiliency has been leaning on those people when there’s no one else to lean on.

Earlier you spoke about teachers and mentors who held you to a high standard without pressure. Can you explain what that looks like?

It means unconditional love and support. It’s, “I recognize that you failed three classes, but my view of you as a human doesn’t change. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person, it doesn’t mean that you’re unable to meet this goal that you’ve set for yourself.” I believe in showing my students unconditional care. I tend to work with low-income, first generation students; It’s easier for me to give that level of care naturally, because I know what they’re coming from.

What positive experiences do you see your mentees benefiting from most?

I see them benefiting from their teachers. When they really struggle, they’re like, “Well, I have a bad teacher this year. I don’t get along with my teacher.” When they tell me that, I know this year is going to be a struggle. Something in the relationship between student and teacher is missing, so they can’t feel comfortable enough to learn.

How do you see education fitting in with the HOPE framework?

In re-imagining higher education, it can fit into the opportunities Building Block and really help marginalized communities – not lift themselves up, because we all know the bootstrap mentality is a lie, but universities can help these communities build upon their powers and strengths to keep going and never fall further behind.

What do underserved students need to succeed in college, and how do you think universities can best support these students?

They need justice. For example, say that one student who is low-income and first in their family to go to college gets to campus. They probably have to work to pay their bills or just feed themselves; that takes them out of the library. College is designed for the student who can study at any hour they want without stressing about where their next meal is coming from or about familial stressors. My students don’t have that privilege. Even when they do, they have trauma that keeps them from focusing. That is something I have no idea how to solve, because there’s a lot of stigma around mental health in low-income communities and communities of color. My students don’t reach out to the people who can help them, and that holds them back.

All universities need more counselors. I have not come across a university yet that has adequate mental health professionals. College is an extremely hard time, especially for a student who has never been in this environment before. There also needs to be more academic support for those students – support that reaches out to them, because a lot of my students don’t know how to access systems that they haven’t accessed before. There’s a mentality lots of my students and I grew up with: you don’t ask for something you can’t pay back. This keeps students from reaching out. We need to make resources more accessible. I’ve seen some universities say, “We’re going to bring academic advisors to the lobby of the dorms where a lot of low-income students live.” This allows advisors to build relationships with students before the students ask them for something.

I hear you saying that relationships are often the key that unlocks access to the other Building Blocks. Can you speak more on that?

Relationships are key. When I was in graduate school and worked as an academic advisor at a university, I had a caseload of 400 students. There’s no way I could build relationships with all those students. I think that caseloads need to decrease so that academic advisors, counselors, and professors can remember the names of their students and develop relationships. Peer mentoring is really special as well. A peer mentor can say, “I know you’re struggling, and I know this great counselor on campus,” or, “I have a friend who’s a phenomenal tutor, let me connect you.” Having peer mentors who are stepping stones to necessary resources allows students to gradually find what they need.

Could you speak to what it was like for you to read about HOPE and how you compare that to the experience of reading about ACES?

As someone with a high ACE score, I read a lot, because I don’t have a lot of folks in my life, who are at the same socioeconomic or education level I’m at now, to talk to about these things. When I read about ACE scores, I get depressed, because it tells me I’m probably going to die of cardiac arrest at age 33. That feels horrible. Not only did all of these traumatic things happen to me, but now I have to carry them forever. I would really like to hear, “Here are things you can do that can help reduce that risk,” or, “These are childhood positive experiences to look back on.” Research on how people can grow after they experience an ACE is so needed. Not only for survivors with high ACE scores, but for parents who think, “This happened in our life, and there’s nothing I can do about it now.” There actually is. Let’s focus on the things you can do for reparative work within that child’s life. People with high ACE scores can be super happy and successful in their adulthood. So, thank you for spreading the language of HOPE.

This interview was conducted, transcribed, and compiled by Esther Sokoloff-Rubin, Yasaman Salon, and Chloe Yang.

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