Engagement and retention are often two of the biggest challenges faced by universities; it takes a lot to ensure students are aware of the resources that are on offer, and even more to find ways to encourage more use of said resources.
André Fortune, Vice President for Student Affairs at the University of West Georgia, spoke with Charles Sin, Co-host of The Interview, about creating a welcoming campus environment and his fascinating journey into Higher Education (HE).
It was through my fraternity. As part of our community outreach and focus on education, several fraternity brothers and I decided to go back to our high school to talk to several young men there about what it was like going to college to encourage them to continue their education. I went to a college prep high school, and these were mainly men of color who maybe weren't considering continuing their education at a predominantly White institution. We wanted to talk with them about our experiences and why they should consider what eventually became my alma mater. Through doing so, I met someone working in admissions, inspiring me to do the same post-graduation.
I graduated, applied for a job, and started as an admissions counselor. I enjoyed engaging with a group of current students that assisted me with recruitment; we talked about their experiences, and I found myself helping them navigate college. It really opened my mind up to work in student success and retention-related areas. That is when I transitioned into student affairs.
We are focused on student engagement and certainly student success. I did my Doctoral work on the role of the outside-of-class experience and its impact on student success, retention, and persistence.
I found there has been a lot of research over many decades supporting the fact that what happens outside the classroom influences the student experience. Their sense of belonging and whether they feel like they are part of the university community enhances their likelihood of academic success.
Particularly from a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) perspective, I work directly with the President and Provost to reshape our efforts to enhance DEI in our university community. A huge move was when we decided to divide the Chief Diversity Officer role into three separate positions integrated into existing structures instead of in a standalone department. Now, we have three faculty and staff positions focusing on each DEI element. A lot of times, those are heavy lifts for a university, and it's too much for one person or one office to do; I think it's too much for one person to do effectively and alone. So for us, that's been a big initiative to move forward.
It’s always going to be challenging to keep that engagement high. Raising awareness for the support we offer is the most significant thing. First-generation students sometimes just don't have an awareness of resources. Telling students about resources at orientation or in their first-year experience class are tactics that work for many students, but when students aren't ready, they might not know they even need those resources. The advice I always give to students is to get help before they need it. By the time you know you need help, you might be deeper in the hole than you need to be. I see that as a challenge.
There are obvious things like having campus safety and campus police, and those are certainly still critical. For us, we've invested a lot in mental health and wellness and making sure there is access to funds and resources for each of our campuses. We've ramped up many of our mental health resources and made those accessible 24/7 from online applications customized for the University of West Georgia. We also have fantastic counseling staff on campus. Those resources help with student safety so that if there is ever a time or a moment when they don't feel safe – whether inside or outside the classroom, on or off campus — they're knowledgeable and able to access the resources they need.
I think I see students engage a lot in social activities. They engage the least in the non-academic lecture. Students are generally not interested in lectures. They want it to be interesting, and they want something interactive. Sometimes people want something hands-on.
One of the things I work with our team on is integrating diversity and raising cultural competence; we want to make sure that's a part of everything that we do when it comes to training and social activity. We want it to include ways of increasing cultural competencies.
One of the things I work with our team on is integrating diversity and raising cultural competence; we want to make sure that's a part of everything that we do when it comes to training and social activity. We want it to include ways of increasing cultural competencies. One of the things we did here in my first year-and-a-half as vice president was to take an office that was traditionally a Center for Diversity and Inclusion and another office that was called the Center for Student Involvement and merge those offices, so now we have the Center for Student Involvement and Inclusion. So you're not doing involvement or inclusion; you're doing both. To me, those things fit together perfectly.