For Higher Education practitioners working with undergraduate students, it can be easy to overlook the subtleties of difference in the experience of campus life for masters students, and in turn, the different approaches student services providers must then take. For Alicia LaPolla, Associate Dean of Student Affairs at Brown University, it’s essential that the strategies she implements speak to these nuances.
GoodCourse co-founder Chris Mansfield asks Alicia about her journey into the student affairs field, the diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives she has implemented, and how she tailors support to a diverse student cohort at Brown.
I’m the Associate Dean of Student Affairs at Brown University, working with Master’s Students at the School of Professional Studies. There are about 1200 students under my remit.
I was a first-generation college student and studied psychology. I grew an interest in development in particular. When I graduated, I was interested in developmental psychology for late adolescents, especially what happens when students are transitioning into college.
As a first-generation student there was so much I assumed wasn’t for me. After I graduated, I realized there are things you can do for students to help them get established and involved on campus.
I worked in orientation for many years. I’ve spent most of my career at Northeastern, and then decided I wanted to work on the whole student lifecycle. I transitioned to Simmons University, working more broadly in student affairs. Then a role at Brown popped up, which was a little different for me because it was working with graduate students, which I hadn’t done exclusively. I’ve been here since fall last year!
There are many similarities – that same questioning sense of self, questioning what to do beyond their degree, trying to be involved whilst dealing with outside pressures.
Masters students are a lot more focused in terms of what they want, they ask what they can do and how they can do it. They’re more interested in professional development, and network-building, which undergraduate students tend to think about a bit later in their academic career.
Covid amplified problems for students and had a toll on our collective mental health. Masters students are a unique group to work with when it comes to fostering a sense of belonging. They largely live off campus so can feel more removed from the larger institution. Building an affinity from the get-go is critical.
Focusing on students from communities that had been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic was key; it becomes even more complex with students that are balancing obligations they have outside of school. My team has been focused on helping students ease themselves back into these social settings and give them opportunities to connect as their authentic selves outside of their academic program.
I know many LGBTQ+ students have felt isolated during the pandemic and might be stuck in spaces where it’s not safe to be who they are. We’ve spent the year identifying ways we can collaborate with campus events and initiatives. We hosted an event for queer women of color in STEM fields, which was great.
Covid amplified that stratification of access: for students from low-income backgrounds or first-generation backgrounds, there were significant barriers to overcome, both financial and emotional. I like talking to students about imposter syndrome, and feeling like other people are understanding something they’re not – because I relate to it.
For masters students, it’s about highlighting organizations – it’s not always intuitive to them that they can get involved. My main concern in ensuring that allyship doesn’t come off distanced, or worse, performative.
We all carry privilege in different ways. I want students to realize that good allyship is leveraging privilege to amplify the work and voices of people that don’t have it. I’ve had conversations with students about not centering themselves in the story, or relying on the emotional labor of others to be called into action. It’s less important to declare yourself as an ally, and more important to get to work as if the issues are your own in the first place.
Asking how and when someone intervenes when a microaggression happens in the classroom is a good place to start with those that have the drive to be an ally.
Even though we’re mostly back to in-person programming it can be difficult to get students to engage. It’s also reflective of how much time is spent in the classroom – often there’s just not the time to think about engaging outside of it! For masters students, we see the highest engagement for professional development services. We’ve had programs on how to brag better, how to write an attractive LinkedIn profile and how to work with recruiters, which are very popular.
We also get great attendance for events that are purely social.
I have such a soft spot for that time in a student’s life. It’s critical to their success. The elements of a good first-year experience is fostering that belonging and building a strong sense of self. It can be such a culture shock to spend time with people outside of your neighborhood for the first time.
Sometimes, students are reckoning with something they want to leave behind, and it can be very complicated and overwhelming. I love working with first-year students because they’re making meaning of their surroundings every day.
We know from research that belonging is tied to student success. When students see the campus as welcoming, they thrive.
There’s always more work to be done. The wins will be big and small. You can still make an impact without sacrificing yourself. Also, it’s important to find an institution that not only aligns with your values, but also allows you to be your authentic self.
I’m always drawn to writers and theorists who write about HE with a critical lens. So much of the industry is built on the lived experience of people with privilege. I like folks who examine spaces and ask how they can be inclusive of marginalized communities. Tressie McMillan Cottom is someone who writes about the intersections of inequality in higher education – I like her book Lower Ed.
In A Different Voice by Carol Gilligan. I read it in graduate school, and it helped me understand the impact of educational systems that have been designed around White men. Her book focuses on gender, but generally discusses how institutional biases shape policy, and in turn, what we can do to acknowledge those things and change them.