Home » Inalienable Rights: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Belonging by Terrell Strayhorn (Transcript)

Inalienable Rights: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Belonging by Terrell Strayhorn (Transcript)

Terrell Strayhorn

Full text of professor Terrell Strayhorn’s talk: Inalienable Rights: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Belonging at TEDxColumbus conference.

Listen to the MP3 Audio here: Inalienable Rights – Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Belonging by Terrell Strayhorn at TEDxColumbus


Good afternoon. I am, in fact, Terrell Strayhorn.

What an honor to be among such a talented cast of speakers that you’ve had all day long. And much like Rufus already told you — most speakers would not reveal this — I remember when I got my first TEDx e-mail. It arrived when I was in the middle of conducting a national study of African American and Latino men in STEM fields, this e-mail kept popping up, TEDx. And I didn’t know who TED was, and I didn’t know what TEDx was.

The only thing I remember is, “I don’t know who Ted is and I don’t have time to talk to him!”

So I resisted the e-mail for quite some time, until actually some of my graduate students and, yes, my University President informed me that, in fact, TED is not a person at all. And much to my surprise, TEDx is not the distant cousin of Malcolm.

But rather, it’s a popular network of forward-thinking speakers all advancing these big ideas like knowledge is connected, nothing is coincidental, or in fact, stories are golden.

And I’m sure most of you can tell from the way my clothes fit, that I spend an enormous amount of time in the gym bodybuilding, either that or I shop at babyGAP. But, in fact, I spend most of my time as a social scientist at the Ohio State University conducting research, looking at the ways in which race, class, gender, sexuality and other social identities affect the experiences of people in educational context. All of that work, for me, is done so that I can help administrators and educators understand ways that we can enable the success of students.

One thing I’ve learned about TED audience is — is that many of you have been to college. For example, by a show of hands, how many of you have spent at least a day in college? You see what I’m saying? All of you, tons of you, spent time in college. But just because you’ve been to college doesn’t necessarily mean that you are familiar with the national data in trends on student success. So I’ll review a couple with you now.

Today there are over 19 million college students enrolled in this country. That’s an incredible number. And we have incredible capacity in this country to educate large numbers of individuals. 19 million. And have you seen these people? Where’s Chad? Over to my left — Hi Chad! I saw you in the bathroom. Chad have you seen these people? These college students? They are sort of tall, but not always. Some of them are smart, but not always that, either.

Many of them wear book bags, sort of look like that turtle from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but not always that, either. You can find college students, usually at your local bar, or brewery, on a Thursday night, gulping down some liquid motivation. But not always. Actually, that one’s not true. That is always, you can always find a college student on a Thursday night.

19 million of these students. And so, a few months ago, I donned my babyGAP clothes again, and decided I was going to go and see what it was like to be a student in college.

And so I went to the classroom, all dressed up, with my baseball cap and hoodie and I sat in a classroom, and watched a professor, like myself, give a lecture. What a bore! I mean it’s no wonder that students report to my survey “bored to death and disengaged in classrooms by large.” I mean, I sat here and listened to these professors sort of entertain themselves with all these facts that meant nothing, and not applying it to any sort of real world problem or application.

And I sat beside students, you know, students don’t pay attention all the time in class. And so I watched students fall asleep. Some of them skyped to the person sitting next to them. Many of them quite busy friending and unfriending people, right in the middle of class, ending friendships forever. And this professor was completely, blithely unaware to all of this happening in front of him.

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And I too was bored. And I started checking my e-mail. Says Mohammad, and Tom, checking my e-mail. Looking at Facebook. And then I remembered, I’m a fake, I’m not a real student. I don’t have to sit here and take this crap. I got up, I took my babyGAP clothes, and I ran out of that classroom. And I’d laugh.

19 million college students enrolled in college today. 55% of all college students complete their degree. Not the best measure of success for a system as large as ours. But 55% of college students complete their degree within a 5-year period. And those rates can be startlingly lower for women and racial and ethnic minorities. In fact, we know from research, some of which is my own, that two thirds of all black men who enter college, leave before their degree completion.

And in response to these trends, President Obama, Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, the White House Initiative and private foundations, like the Gates Foundation, have all joined forces and are pushing this national agenda for a degree completion. That we would increase the number of Americans who complete Higher Education degrees by 50% by the year 2020.

And to get there we’ll need to do a numbers of things. Not just continue to enroll large numbers of students, but we will actually have to retain and graduate the 19 million backpackers that I talked about earlier.

So research tells us a couple of things, academic preparation matters, time spent studying, access to rigorous courses in high-school, mastery of content, like math and science matter. But what’s really interesting from research is that over the decades we’ve learned that academic factors actually only account for 25% of post-secondary outcomes. 25% of the leaving.

So what else matters? Most people’d say, well — Strayhorn, of course — finances matter. Yes, money matters indeed. And in fact many students need financial support to go to college today. And that support comes in the form of scholarships and grants and loans, with loans representing the increasing proportion of support that we offer to students in this country.

But what’s really interesting, is even when you control for, or subtract out the effect of financial aid, a significant number of students still drop out of college. I am going to argue that when you put this two together, academic factors and financial factors, that together they only explain about 40% of the problem, leaving 60% unexplained. So then, what accounts for that 60%?

Today I’d like to talk with you, in the time that remains, about another factor that I don’t think we pay enough attention to, and that is students belonging in college.

Now, before I remind the concept of belonging, I’d like to introduce you to a story here. A story about a guy named Xavier. I met Xavier when I was conducting research in Nashville, Tennessee. Xavier grew up in Providence Park, a low-income neighborhood in Nashville, Tennessee. He lived in a one-bedroom apartment with his mother, his sister, his brother, his aunt and his uncle.

During my interview I asked Xavier, “What was it like for you growing up?” And he recalls waking up very early in the morning, tiptoeing through the living room not to wake his aunt and uncle, on his way to the bathroom to start the water for his younger siblings, so they could prepare for the day.

And after they were awake and then, in the bathroom taking care of themselves, he tiptoed back through the living room on his way to the kitchen, to prepare a small breakfast for him, his brother and his sister. This was his routine, day in and day out.

So you can imagine the family’s surprise when Xavier announced, “I am going away to College.” They were disappointed. They were angry. They were outraged that he would give up his responsibility to the family, to go off to this Wonderland called college where he would have freedom and independence, separate from the family.

Interestingly, Xavier did quite well his first year in College – 3.8 GPA. Because of his financial situation, he had plenty of money through federal loans and grants to support him in college. But he did not make many friends his first year in college, he spent most of his time with his girlfriend, Kim.

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When Kim announced that she was pregnant, Xavier was surprised and deeply concerned about how his mother, and particularly his family, would respond to this news.

One Friday night he called his mother up and broke the news. Fighting back tears, she told him how he broke her heart. She hang up the phone and they didn’t talk for months.

Xavier reached out to friends on campus, but as one of the only undergraduates who had a child, many of his friends didn’t connect with him. Didn’t seem like they shared things in common with him. In fact, Xavier recalls in the interview reaching out to the Church Family. And he found that in this church, he got many more rejections than affirmations and acceptance.

At the end of the study I lost touch with Xavier. I learned of him about a year later. One Saturday night, stuck in isolation and alienation, Xavier threw himself in front of a train. His last tweet said, “I don’t matter.” Sensibility matters to students.

Xavier’s story resonates with me because, like Xavier, I experienced the birth of my first child as an undergrad. And I remember many people taunted me and teased me and joked me. I remember how family members said my life was over, “You will never give a TEDx talk.” Likely, they didn’t know what TEDx was at that time — But you know — Stick with my story.

All these people, who had high hopes and aspirations for me, at once gave it up. And so, I often struggled, “What’s the difference between Xavier and myself?”

Unlike Xavier, despite the ridicule and the taunting, I was never separated from my family. I never lost the support of my friends. I never lost the love and the support of my mother and my father. In fact, despite all of that, I was able to fashion out a sense of belonging.

I know a drug dealer. Not because I do drugs. Calm down, calm down! Not because I do drugs. I met Jonathan, the drug dealer, when he was a student in high-school. I remember I went to interview him, and I forgot I’d left my car unlocked, and I said, “Jonathan I have to be right back I left my car unlocked.”

And he said, “What kind of car are you driving?”

Yes, exactly! I laughed. I thought, Wait! You have extra-curriculum activities that I don’t approve of, and so — I am not really sure I’m going to share this information. So I’ll admit, I paused. But after a few moments I told him a make, year and a model of my car. He pulled out the cell phone, texted a few characters and said, “I’ve got you covered, doc.”

I said, “What did you just do?!”

And he said, “Oh, I called some of my front line 9th graders and told them to go take care of you.”

And then the conversation evolved. And I learned how Jonathan had constructed a gang-like structure in this school, full of students who simply wanted to belong, who wanted to accepted, who had been rejected by others and because Jonathan and his gang-like structure offered them belonging, in exchange for that, they promised him solidarity and loyalty, that he could lean on them and depend on them.

Sense of belonging matters. I learned later that they don’t only put these skills to good use, like locksmithing to lock up cars. In make case it was good. But they can use those same skills to unlock up cars to steal them, to cause fights in classrooms and in lunchrooms and to beat up on teachers, on occasion.

Sense of belonging matters.

And then last story sort of illustrating some of the stories that I share in my 2012 book “College Students’ Sense of Belonging”. It’s my favorite story to talk about Franklin.

When I met Franklin he was a 6th grader for the third time. I was a music teacher in suburban Maryland. And Franklin was this tall, you know, much taller than I, that’s not very difficult to do but much taller than me, 6th grader. And I remember Franklin being labeled troublemaker, rule breaker, problem child. Many teachers told me, “Just leave him to his problems.”

But not me, I was new and I was courageous and I was going to change him. So I tried one day. And he threw a stapler at me.

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But I’m resilient so I tried again. And he dropped a chair on my foot. And most people say, “Third time is a charm”, so one day in the winter I tried again — And Franklin kicked me in the back during lunch recess. And at that point I realized I don’t have enough health insurance, or limbs to keep trying with Franklin. So, like many other teachers before me, I gave up on him.

One day I was sitting at the piano in my classroom preparing for the next day’s lesson. And in the hallway I heard,

We all wanna belong

And I didn’t know if I’d suffered some head trauma from Franklin’s abuse that I was actually signing and I didn’t know it, but then it happened again:

We all wanna belong, yeah

And I ran out into the hallway and I looked and I said, “Franklin, Franklin, frightening Franklin” — That’s what the teachers called him. “I didn’t think you could sing!”

And he said, “Well, that’s good. I didn’t think you could think, so now we’re even.”

And I asked him about the words of this song and over the next 40 minutes I learned a valuable lesson that, in fact, Franklin wasn’t frightening, Franklin wasn’t a rule breaker, he wasn’t a bad kid. Franklin was frightened about his future, he was upset about his family life, he was tired of adults giving up on him. He just simply wanted a chance to belong.

In my work I show that belonging can be analyzed in a couple of different ways. One: that sense of belonging is a basic human need. All of us want to belong.

How many people in here want to belong? You want to fit in, you want to feel connected. Anyone who does not want to belong, would you stand with me now!

Everyone wants to belong. It’s a human basic need all the way back to Maslow. But there is a second component to belonging and that is — That not only is belonging a basic need, but it’s a motive sufficient to drive behavior. People do things because they want to belong. People wear certain things, act a certain way, talk a certain way, go certain places, because they want to fit in, they want to belong.

And then third: sense of belonging is not only a basic need, not only a motive for basic behavior but it takes on heightened importance in certain context, certain times for certain people in certain situations. I argue for many students who are vulnerable to feeling isolated, or marginalized, in college context, like women in racial and ethnic minorities.

Sense of belonging sort of reflects the sentiments of a couple of words like, “I matter to people.”

Think back to the story of Xavier, “People care about me.”

The story of Jonathan and me. I’m worthy of dignity and respect, of friendship, of acceptance for all of my various identities.

Not only that. There’s some misconceptions about belonging that in order to belong you have to fit in, you have to sort of assimilate or acculturate and I am going to argue against that. I don’t think you have to do that. I think sense of belonging requires us to be alike enough, to share enough in common to find community. But in fact to celebrate the fact that we are different and that those differences are not tallied as deficiencies, but in fact, celebrated as actual contributions to this beautiful community that we create today.

Many of you — Look at you. You are a beautiful audience! You look much better from this side, by the way. From the back you look very hairy. But those are our differences and they are to be celebrated. They enrich us, they enrich our educational context.

The success of this country depends on our ability to prepare citizens for active participation and democracy. And part of that depends on our success in educating current and future generations of students. And their success, their educational success, I argue, depends, in part, on the extent to which we create environments in the home, in the school and the community where they fit in and they belong.

Because remember, We all wanna belong, yeah

Thank you.


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