Student engagement is not about taking a prescriptive, or didactic approach to student needs, but instead meeting them where they’re at, and providing tailored support. This is something Aarsenio Perry, Assistant Dean of Students and Director of the Office of Student Engagement at Lehigh University, knows all too well.
Aarsenio sat down with Kira Matthews, Community Engagement Lead at GoodCourse, to discuss his journey into Higher Education, the challenges faced by the sector in a post-Covid world, and some of his award-winning DEI initiatives.
I currently serve as the Assistant Dean of Students and Director of the Office of Student Engagement at Lehigh University. We are a private institution with about 7000 students — in my role I get to oversee student engagement. We meet students where they are and help them find opportunities that are meaningful to them. We also work on fostering belonging on campus, and building students’ leadership skills and capacities.
I’m first-gen, so going to college was a step into the unknown. My mom didn’t want me going too far, so I went somewhere 25 miles away from my hometown — Mississippi State University. It was one of the best experiences of my life. The only career paths I knew were law, medicine and business, and I choose business. By the end of my sophomore year, I realized it wasn’t for me. I was interested in how people functioned and behaved.
On campus, I was involved in orientation, from being a resident assistant, to working on mental health initiatives. The careers office asked me if I had considered being in student affairs. I changed my major to educational psychology.
So many people poured support into me, developing me and seeing my potential — I want to do that for other young people, who are just trying to figure out life.
It shows up every day. We’re all just serving people — we meet them where they are, learn what makes them excited and anxious. We interact with them at a pivotal time — they might be exploring their identities, feeling lost, and trying to make sense of their surroundings. My background in psychology gives me coaching and conversational tools to delve deeper.
It’s a big task. A lot of our students have come back more introverted because they’ve been alone for so long. When I think about my own experience, I became more introverted — our students are in that mindset too. People want to be communal but also protect themselves.
A challenge for us was everything going remote 2020 — we did everything virtually, but we also have to adapt when cases in our area changed. It was hard to plan programs in advance.
A lot of students struggled with their mental health, and tried to create programs that focused on alleviating anxiety and low motivation. We engaged students by meeting their needs. We did community dinners — it’s a great way to get to know people.
In 2019, we were given an award to honour our DEI work and retention efforts. So much of this work has been from student advocacy — from first-gen low income student funding to inclusive bathrooms. I want to give acknowledgement to them above all!
We made the decision to become an anti-racist institution, in our praxis and practice.
That happened before the pandemic — we were excited, and wanted to acknowledge we have so much more work to do. 2020 was a big national reckoning — after the murder of George Floyd, Breanna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, as well as many others and many trans lives. We made the decision to become an anti-racist institution, in our praxis and practice. We received an award, but are we making our students safe enough? This involved working with police and how they police students on campus.
The landscape is always changing, so firstly, get to know yourself and why you’re here. It can be tiring work — so figure out what your ‘why’ is.
The students I get to interact with — I learn so much from them everyday. They give me purpose!
The Bible is one answer. What Happened To You? by Dr. Bruce Lee Perry and Oprah Winfrey is another. It talks a lot about trauma and how we see the world. It was so impactful, and helps me thinking about how to interact with people respect and love.