Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education

Q&A: Keynote speaker discusses "mental bandwidth," helping students thrive

March 22, 2021

Cia Verschelden
Dr. Cia Verschelden.

As students struggle to move past COVID-19, the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education and GEAR UP Kentucky are hosting a nationally recognized expert next month who will discuss strategies to help students recover "mental bandwidth."

Dr. Cia Verschelden will provide the keynote address April 2 at Kentucky's first The Path Forward Forum, a free online event.

Verschelden serves as special projects advisor for the integration of academic and student affairs at the Association of American Colleges and Universities and has authored two books on bandwidth recovery.

Ahead of the forum, Verschelden shared some of her thoughts in a Q&A with CPE and GEAR UP. Check out what she's saying, and make sure to register for the free forum at

Dr. Verschelden, thanks for speaking with us today. Much of your work centers on the concept of "mental bandwidth." Just to start off, can you provide us with some insight into what that refers to?

I use the term "bandwidth" to refer to part of a student's cognitive capacity that is available to them. Some people call it "attentional resources." It's not about how smart a person is, but about how much of their brain power they have available for learning.

Your books discuss how challenges like poverty and racism play a role in diminishing the mental bandwidth of students. What are some of the most startling effects?

We know that when students experience what Claude Steele calls "stereotype threat," they spend some of their cognitive capacity – bandwidth – worrying that their poor performance will affirm a negative stereotype about their group. Many studies have shown that this is exactly what happens, which is how things like racism actually compromise the academic success of students. We also know that hungry students, at any age, have a hard time learning as part of their attentional resources are – biologically and psychologically – distracted by the need for nutrition. Adverse childhood experiences can result in the kinds of chronic physical and emotional conditions that rob students of the bandwidth they need to succeed academically.

What impact has COVID-19 had on students, but particularly those affected by other bandwidth-diminishing factors?

The most debilitating part of the pandemic – after actual sickness and death of loved ones – is persistent uncertainty. Uncertainty is a powerful bandwidth stealer. That uncertainty has affected all of us but has not been equally distributed. People on the lower end of the income-wealth-health continuum, and Black and Brown people, have experienced far more uncertainty than economically secure white people.

Without giving away too much of your presentation, what are some of the strategies you plan to touch on that can help students recover bandwidth?

I'll just mention one theme that I found consistently in my research: belonging. If students don't feel like they belong on campus or in the classroom or residence hall or in the community, their bandwidth can be seriously depleted with questions like, "Will I be safe?" "Will I find friends?" "Will I be treated fairly?" Creating learning environments in which all students feel like they belong can help many students regain bandwidth.

"Adverse childhood experiences can result in the kinds of chronic physical and emotional conditions that rob students of the bandwidth they need to succeed academically."

How much recovery is possible, especially after students have endured these effects for many years?

Not only have they endured them for many years, but they will continue to do so until there is significant transformation in the larger society. What we can control – faculty and professional staff on campuses – is what goes on in our classrooms and offices. My goal as a teacher is to make sure that, at least for the time that students are in my classroom, they are safe, feel like they belong, affirmed in all of their identities, and given all the tools they need to learn and thrive. I do this especially knowing that when they leave my classroom, all the negative things will still be there.

You've written two books on these topics. What originally sparked your interest?

I read an article in Harvard Magazine about Sendhil Mullainathan, who co-wrote a book called Scarcity with Eldar Shafir. They wrote about how scarcity steals mental bandwidth. I immediately read the book, which is about economic insecurity, and I thought about all the other kinds of scarcity – of respect, safety, belonging, visibility, for instance – college students experience, resulting in depleted bandwidth. I borrowed their bandwidth term and started writing.

What is the reaction from educators when you present these concepts and strategies?

Educators get it immediately. They see it every day in their students and appreciate this framing of the situation. Many faculty and student affairs professionals have told me that this bandwidth idea has changed the way they look at student learning and student behavior. The idea that students may be doing the best they can with the bandwidth they have available has encouraged people to talk with students about what is happening and what kinds of supports could be helpful to get them on track. Educators also recognize that, especially during the pandemic, they themselves have limited bandwidth and I think it lets them have a bit more compassion for themselves and their colleagues.

Sounds like you have a lot to talk about in at the forum. We look forward to seeing you there.

Thank you, I look forward to it as well.

About Dr. Cia Verschelden

Dr. Cia Verschelden, who recently retired as vice president of academic and student affairs at Malcolm X College - City Colleges of Chicago, is now special projects advisor for the integration of academic and student affairs at the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Verschelden taught for more than 25 years at two- and four-year institutions in social work, sociology, women's studies, nonviolence studies and first-year seminar. Her administrative posts have included department chair, institutional assessment lead and vice president of academic and student affairs.

Verschelden has a bachelor's in psychology from Kansas State University, a master's in social work from the University of Connecticut, and a doctorate in education from Harvard University. Her book, "Bandwidth Recovery: Helping Students Reclaim Cognitive Resources Lost to Poverty, Racism, and Social Marginalization," was published in 2017, and her new book, "Bandwidth Recovery for Schools: Helping Pre-K-12 Students Regain Cognitive Resources Lost to Poverty, Trauma, Racism and Social Marginalization," in 2020.

Last Updated: 7/21/2021