For the Faculty: How to Create a Safe Space for Your Students

Despite the plural “students” in the title, I’d like to emphasize that this post is anecdotal and that I do not intend to speak for any student other than myself. But if you are a PT/PTA student and any of this speaks to you, I hope you will join me in saying so.

A quick throwback: my undergraduate institution was culturally alive and accepting, but let’s face it- I was in a total bubble. I was naïve to social justice issues of the “outside world” and I can tell you with confidence that, had you asked me at that time to define “microaggression,” I couldn’t have helped you.

Okay, back to the now: I’ve always wanted to write a blog post about the microaggressions that I’ve faced since graduating from undergrad in 2014. I wanted to shed light on the ways in which I’ve had to hide parts of my identity, code switch, and adapt after entering a field that is not one of the most diverse in the health professions. Here’s the thing…

I did write that blog post. And maybe I’ll publish it later- it’s an important one.

But as I sit in the car on my way back to Durham after 3 inspiring and exciting and humbling days at Combined Sections Meeting in D.C., for now I feel called to talk more about “safe spaces” because of the conversations I had there about diversity, equity, and inclusion.

As I continue to expand my conversations about those issues beyond my usual group of friends from undergrad, I’ve noticed the need for these safe spaces. And not just that, but a need for a better understanding of what it means to create a safe space, particularly for people of some form of minority status.

You see, simply calling something a safe space does not make it so. And just because difficult conversations are being had somewhere also does not make a safe space.

Graduate school fosters wonderful conversations about issues beyond the didactic content between people from all over the world, but power differences between faculty/staff/program leadership and students can be a barrier to those very same open conversations. Students struggle with the balance between “This is important and real and we should be talking about it” vs. “Will speaking up on this topic negatively affect my chance at a job? At a residency? My grades?”

For that reason, I want to share stories about the tangible ways in which people have created a safe space- have BEEN my safe space- as I journey though PT school (am I really almost a 3rd year!?? Someone slow down time!)

One day during lab, I asked if I could pray in the equipment closet. My professor said yes and when I came out after finishing my prayer, I saw that he had posted a makeshift Do Not Disturb sign on the door. Within 48 hours of that lab, he had secured an empty room in the building for me to pray in anytime with a Do Not Disturb sign on the door. He also got me a separate Do Not Disturb sign in case I decided to pray elsewhere.

THAT is my safe space.

One day, that room was locked and I was running out of time to pray after class. A staff member who saw me frantically searching for an inconspicuous space told me to pray in her office, without me asking. She never made me feel like a burden.

That is my safe space.

At lunchtime, I had a meeting with a professor to ask him questions about an upcoming exam. I had a lot going on in life outside of my schoolwork and, 2 questions in, I broke down in tears. The professor let me cry in his office and say what I needed to without interrupting, arguing, pushing back on the way I was viewing my situation, or forcing optimism into the situation.

That is my safe space.

2 professors came and checked on me when they saw me experience microaggressions from someone with more power than I have, because they understood why what had been said was inappropriate and hurtful, despite it likely being well-meaning.

That is my safe space.

My professor saw me fading during a lab and stopped me as I left to check in on me and to make sure that I was taking care of my health. I was going on day 20 of Ramadan.

That is my safe space.

Multiple professors responded to my very first email to the entire program (I was a nervous wreck as I moved my cursor to “Send”)- it was an invitation to celebrate World Hijab Day with me in February- with comments such as, “Way to lead!” and “This made my heart happy :)” instead of, “This isn’t relevant to physical therapy.”


That’s my safe space.

What’s yours?


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