Student affairs is about supporting students and understanding their needs, but sometimes it’s important to let them take the lead. No one knows this more than Adam Wasilko, Dean of Students at Duquesne University, who has led the way in empowering students and making their voices heard.
Adam sat down with Kira Matthews, GoodCourse Community Engagement Lead, to talk about his surprising path into student affairs, the challenges surrounding free speech on campus, and his pioneering work as a disability director.
I didn’t take the traditional path into the field. I have a degree in Chemistry and a Master’s in Public Health, as well as a Doctorate in Instructional Technology. But I was a very engaged student leader as an undergrad, which introduced me to student affairs. To pay for my Master’s, I became a graduate assistant and started working for the honors college, which helped open my eyes. I left my job as a chemist and started working as a residence director in a building with 600 freshmen. It helped me to understand this is what I want to do with my life. I’ve been at the same university since my freshman year: bachelor’s, master’s, doctorate, and now working as an administrator.
I always make sure I can reflect on my student experience, but I don’t make leadership decisions based solely on that. The university has changed since I was an undergrad, and students now have different needs than they did back then. I try not to be too sentimental. If something needs to be changed, I try not to let my emotional attachment get in the way. But that sentiment can be useful when relating to students: making them feel welcome, and letting them know they are part of a community. Our institution has grown since then; our footprint has expanded, we have new recreation facilities, and we’re about to open a new medical school. We’re also attracting a more demographically diverse group of students.
Before anything, we need to earn our students’ trust. Decades ago, that trust was there: the value of Higher Education (HE) was clear, and there was less anxiety about student loans. We need to let students know this is a place they can feel comfortable, and that we can give them the tools to succeed. But we can’t engage in that unless we get to know students authentically: to understand their backgrounds, their worldviews, and who they are as people.
For me, the most important thing is staying in touch with students. You need to walk a mile in their shoes to build an authentic relationship with them.
For me, the most important thing is staying in touch with students. You need to walk a mile in their shoes to build an authentic relationship with them. This generation can tell from a mile away if you aren’t acting in their best interests, so you really need to mean it.
I always remind students I am here to advise them, not to tell them what to think. It’s not my job to censor them. Our students choose their own leaders, and we need to make sure we respect that.
We’re taking a two-pronged approach. We’re a mid-sized university with about 8,000 students, which allows us to have a mix of large and small-scale programming. Some students want to discuss these issues in smaller settings, with maybe five or six people in the room, while others are happy to hold discussions in front of hundreds of people.
Our president has actually started a series called Civil Discourse, inviting speakers to discuss challenging topics. We’ve also had a program of conversations about race, where students can share their experiences and feel supported. Inclusive leadership is important too, and student leaders play a pivotal role in leading these discussions.
It depends on whether it’s a small scale or we’re looking at the bigger picture. We have a lot of active and passive programming to let students know about initiatives at the university, but we also directly train students as part of our leadership cohorts. Different groups have their own needs: for example, groups for underrepresented students require specialized support. This year, our student government has given senate seats to our multicultural organizations, allowing them a voice and a vote on funding. It feels like years of work are finally coming to fruition.
We have something called the FAST program, which is a summer pre-orientation initiative for new students. Since I was a graduate assistant, I’ve been helping to introduce students to our university. The fact that I get to train student leaders, to watch them grow — I can’t express how much that means to me. These programs have grown immensely. Before we only reached 40% of students, but now 83% are involved in an optional program.
I think I’m most proud of my work as a disability director. When I started, we had about 100 students registered with disabilities, and now we have over 900. It’s not that we’ve recruited more students; we’ve just made them feel more comfortable, helped them understand what it means to have a disability, and let them know our community will embrace them.
Your work needs to come from a deep sense of who you are. When you start out, the hours are long, and the pay isn’t amazing. If you’re not in it for the right reasons, it’s easy to get burned out. There are some tough times, but my students get me through it.
Outside of my campus, I’m an admirer of the student affairs work going on at the University of South Carolina. They are at the forefront of research on sophomore students; they are often called the “forgotten class,” and it’s important we all do more to support them.
I have two, actually! Michael Korda’s biography of Dwight D. Eisenhower, the 34th US President, has some profound lessons about leadership. And The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown should be essential reading for anyone in education. It’s about letting go of what society expects you to be and embracing who you are.