Why & How All #SAPros Should Rethink “Home for the Holidays”

Most campus staff and faculty are excited to have time off for the winter holidays. Yet, sadly, some of your students may not share that enthusiasm. 

I contemplated this recently while walking around a classroom wherein master’s students (all future student affairs professionals) were engaging in group work. They were processing the class topic of racialized classism and sharing their lived experiences with each other.  

I was surprised to overhear some students bring up winter break.

“It’s about not having anywhere to go when school closes down, and my mental health hitting an all-time low because I am going home to a toxic family environment,” said one student.

 “And it’s also about not having food because the dining halls are closed down,” said another. 

I could imagine a well-intentioned practitioner or faculty member wishing those students “happy holidays!” or asking, “where are you going for break?”, then being unprepared for an authentic response. I wondered if students might feel pressured to put up a facade pretending to share the excitement of an impending break.

Thus, this blog post is about how you can consider the multiple challenges your students are navigating, including supporting students who are going “home” to places they would rather not be. I’m writing about students for whom the university is more of a beloved home than the places they’re returning to, and for whom the holidays are more like work than a break. 

So why might some students dread school breaks? Some dread leaving their friends and other emotional support systems. Many LGBTQIA+ students are not out to their families and feel pressured to present inauthentic versions of themselves. And many students have to take on additional responsibilities in their household or will lose access to essential resources like food, wifi, counseling, or healthcare. 

Many SA pros assume that their students will be happy to say goodbye to sleeping in a twin-sized bed and having a roommate in exchange for going “home” to something “better.” But that’s simply not the case for all students. 

Although some students grew up sleeping in large beds of their own and had reliable access to food, internet, and supportive families, many others came to college seeking respite from difficult home situations they had no control over. For the latter, a “better” home does not exist. 

Much of this came to light in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic; faculty members and practitioners got a front-row seat to the differing levels of access their students have. Some students Zoomed in from a well-lit home office while others struggled to find space in a crowded living room.

I’ve spent this semester as a teaching assistant in a student affairs prep program, which has reminded me that higher education cannot exist as an Ivory Tower; SAPros must validate the multiple contexts that students are navigating in their programming, policies, languages, and ethoses. 

Rethink the meaning of both home and holiday

For some SA pros, their own lived experience in college was fraught with tensions or fears around returning “home” during campus breaks. For others, breaks were the highlight of each semester. But no matter your personal experience, we must all step outside of our own perspectives and into what your students are experiencing. 

Think about what it is like to be a college student today and how returning “home” within an already scary COVID-context might induce anxiety. SA pros should remain curious in their conversations with students and open to what each student might share. This way, students who are experiencing fear or trepidation around the campus closure will have a listening ear.

In order to show up for the most marginalized students before and during campus breaks (which are often scheduled around Christian holidays), SA pros must interrogate their own beliefs about “the holidays.” 

Start by asking yourself these questions:

  • How does the campus observation of holidays reflect or diverge from my personal observations?
  • Do I see myself (and my identities) represented in campus celebrations and traditions?
  • How do I feel about campus closures during these specific holidays?
  • Will my essential living needs be met while I have time off from work?

Those questions can lead into a deeper exploration about how campus breaks (and closures) may impact you similarly or differently from the students you work with, and build some empathy and compassion for those with different lived experiences. 

If you aren’t religious, maybe these questions will lead you to consider the experiences of students who follow a faith tradition that is not represented well on campus or even one that is over-represented. Alternatively, if you follow a religion, it would be good to think about how non-religious students might experience this season on campus. You should also think about the experiences of those who follow a religion other than your own. 

Once you better understand how the holidays impact you emotionally, relationally, financially, and spiritually, you’ll be able to better engage with and support a wider variety of students.

Eliminate Canned Responses

Festive greetings are one of the hallmarks (no pun intended) of the holidays. They include greeting cards, in-person well-wishes, and the myriad greetings we hear in stores or see on social media during November and December. “Happy Diwali!” “Happy Thanksgiving!” “Happy Hanukkah!” “Habari Gani?” “Merry Christmas!” “Happy Merry Christmahanakwanzika!” are but a few of the greetings I’ve heard and, yet, many people are still left out. 

A student recently said to me, “it seems like there will always be something to offend someone and that no matter what words we use, someone will always want something else.” I told her that she is absolutely right, but that is not the point. Instead, everyone should take steps toward a more inclusive and affirming space for all people, and ensure that we are trying. 

Many people view “trying” as saying the “right” thing and, while that’s a nice start, I’d like to reframe it; there is no such thing as right and wrong—only righter and wronger. 

Some phrases I have seen and heard incorporated into conversations are “fall harvest meal”, “break”, “winter break”, and “fall break”. I appreciate the neutrality of these statements as they allow people to interpret their own meaning. 

I remember telling my mom “Happy Thanksgiving” when I was a child, but something happened that morning in our family that sparked her to respond, “it’s not a happy Thanksgiving…”. 

I imagine many people have that internal response to well-intentioned greetings, and I wonder what might change if SApros said something more specific. 

Consider: What is it that you really wish for people? What does it mean to have a “Happy Thanksgiving”? What if we said, “take care of yourself over break!” or “I wish you peace and rest this break!”? Or even the age-old, “have a good one!”? 

There is palpable energy during the holidays of kindness and well wishes for others, but with a bit more effort we can be more focused with our words and infuse more positive energy on campus.

Center and Normalize Other Ways of Being

Each holiday season, it’s also vital to represent and include other people and communities — not only in our spoken language but also in our thoughts and beliefs.  

Any new language should be reflective of a shift in mindset that deemphasizes your worldview as the central one. If you incorporate new greetings to be “politically correct” but see that as an inconvenience or an assault on your faith or wisdom tradition, some additional self-work might be necessary. It will be easy to convince yourself of these changes to your practice when you believe them in your heart.

As we enter the December holiday season, SApros can use this time to educate themselves about how others might observe this season. From the Winter Solstice to Kwanzaa, there are countless celebrations other than Christmas and New Year’s Eve. As you learn more about students’ experiences—both on campus and off— you’ll become better equipped to serve them.

Lorae Bonamy

About the author: Lorae V. Bonamy (she/her) is currently a doctoral student and student affairs educator at the University of Maryland working toward more inclusive campus environments for students with marginalized social identities. Lorae enjoys dancing, running, leading Queer Christian small groups and quality time with her wife, Ryan. Learn how we can help get your students involved.