Helping Students Cope with the Elephant in the Room

Trump won. Now what should we do when our students need us?

Posted Nov 10, 2016

Donald Trump won the presidency via the Electoral College vote but not the popular vote, but he is the president-elect. On campuses around the country, students are reacting to this unexpected change in a variety of ways. Some are sorrowful and scared, others outraged and angry, and still others elated and excited. What role should psychology educators—or any educators—play now, as the dust and the reality of the situation settles in?

My two classes met yesterday, the day after the election. I decided that I would not bring the election outcome up unless the students did. Why didn’t I bring it up? First, I didn’t know the political leanings of my students in either class and did not want to upset any of them by creating an uncomfortable situation—or unplanned debate—for anyone. Second, topics to be covered that day had nothing remotely to do with politics or the presidency. Third, I was still feeling my own way in this brave new world. Still, had the topic been raised, I would have led discussion on it. It didn’t come up, but both of my classes were subdued, even a bit distracted, which is not surprising.

I know those feelings of distraction, which mask concern and worry, among many others, are common on campuses around the country. One of my colleagues at a southern liberal arts college posted on Facebook that any student or faculty member who wanted to drop by to discuss the event and its aftermath were welcome to come to his office. That was gracious. A department on my own campus is opening its Common Room this morning to any and all campus citizens who want to process the event with others. Again, a thoughtful, caring response meant to help students moving forward.

What can educators do now? Here are a few suggestions—really, these are reminders of things many of you do reflexively:

Be there. Let your students know you are available to discuss the election and to hear their concerns in an open, non-judgmental way. Remind students that you have office hours and that they are welcome to meet with you. Set up meetings or appointments as needed—sooner this week is probably better.

Listen and respond with care. You may be licking your own wounds just now, but you need to attend to your students, too. Some of the students who seek you out may fear for their futures in this country. Your response must be compassionate, not cavalier. Fear is real among many right now and it is your responsibility to respond thoughtfully.

Some students are more upset than others—focus on them. Students of color and LGBTQ students are likely to be particularly uncertain about what the future—their future—holds. You must be a calming presence and a mensch, not an alarmist. The future is always uncertain, but you and your present reaction can be a huge help: You are there, in the here and now, to provide support. Do it.

Be honest about your political leanings but remember this isn’t about you. Mirroring student feelings has its limits and you may want to share what you are thinking and feeling about the election—and you should. Just remember, you are still in the driver’s seat in the relationship, so to speak, and that a student who comes to you for guidance wants reassurance or an ear, not a lecture or a recap of your own political journey (you have colleagues, a spouse or partner, children, neighbors, and others who share your view and can second them). Students who come to you may want a sounding board, not an echo chamber (haven’t we had enough of that for the last 18 or so months?).

Offer perspective. Elections happen every four years and large swaths of the electorate are routinely frustrated by the outcome. And then the pendulum swings back and happy days are here again. You have likely weathers political storms before and forgotten how your initial upset or outrage eventually faded (note that I am not suggesting you become complacent or passive—I am suggest that, as the affective forecasting literature demonstrates, we often overestimate how awful or wonderful future events are going to be—the reality is usually more moderate where our feelings are concerned). We adjust to situations and then move forward. And in any case, as George Harrison sagely reminds us, “All things must pass.”

Offer an outlook. Urge students to take action by joining a campus political club, taking part in a rally or protest (as I write, many are taking place in our major cities), or just venting (albeit constructively) with friends and classmates. If nothing else, this turn of history is interesting – it will be interesting, no, fascinating to see what happens. Remind students that we are not a “banana republic,” that order follows elections and that checks and balances exist in the government to prevent executive overreach, and that innumerable political organizations are standing ready to deal with the aftermath—with legal responses if necessary.

Humor helps, too. A lot. It is arguably the most constructive of the defense mechanisms and a little laughter now is warranted, as few expected this particular outcome. As Churchill noted, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” To that I will add that life may be strange, but it is still wonderful—that is worth remembering just now.

Encourage action. Opportunities exist to do something now or in the future. Frustrations can be turned to action here.

What if a student is truly distressed? Act and act quickly. Encourage the student to go to the college or university Counseling Center. Offer to walk him or her there. Make sure action is taken.

And what if you are distressed? Seek out a friend to hear you and, in necessary, a professional to guide you.