The Interview USA
Sam Houston State University
Vice President for Student Affairs

Andrew Miller

College is a time for growth, and that can only happen in a place where everyone feels like they belong. As Vice President for Student Affairs at Sam Houston State University, Drew Miller has driven his institution’s efforts to cultivate a safe, inclusive, and welcoming learning community.

Chris Mansfield, GoodCourse’s Client Services Lead, sat down with Drew to discuss some of the key issues facing the sector today, from the challenge of free speech on campus to the importance of creating a holistic learning experience for students.

Drew’s Journey

Chris: Can we start with a brief introduction to yourself and your institution?

I’m Drew Miller, and I’m currently serving as interim Vice President for Student Affairs at Sam Houston State University, having been in higher education for almost 20 years. I began my career as a psychologist and so came up through the health and wellness area of Student Affairs before transitioning into senior leadership. We’re a regional institution about an hour north of Houston, Texas, and we serve around 21,000 students. We have minority-serving institution status and just recently emerged as a Hispanic-serving institution. One of the things our university is known for is serving first-generation students; right now, about 64% of our student body is first-generation, and we also have high numbers of students from foster care and military backgrounds. So it’s a very diverse student body.

Chris: Safety is a key concern for many students. What initiatives have you introduced in this area?

Every institution is focused on making sure students feel safe in the environment. We're really trying to think about how we define safety and how our students do, too. As administrators, we tend to think top-down, asking things like, “What do the federal statutes say about the services we need to be providing?” Our campus safety services are highly robust, but post-pandemic we’ve noticed that students’ ideas of safety look a lot different, especially among our Gen Z cohort. So we hear a lot about not just physical safety but emotional safety. If a student is part of a marginalized or underserved community, they should feel safe, supported, and like they have a seat at the table. So a sense of belonging really folds into that idea of safety.

We also need to ask how those concepts of safety show up in the classroom, and the best way to support students with circumstances in their life outside of their studies. One of the things we've really spent some time on is rethinking our behavioral intervention team process to allow students to self-report if they're having struggles or concerns. It’s our goal to develop a comprehensive, coordinated care network so that students can feel that wrap-around support from the institution when they’re having tough times. We’re also trying to be more proactive in terms of how we train and support faculty and staff, making them more aware of the more nuanced needs of this current generation of students. 

Chris: Free speech is a hot topic on college campuses. How can we equip students to have constructive conversations across difference?  

First, you need to help students understand that discomfort doesn't always equal distress. You can be uncomfortable in a moment without being at risk. One of the things we've done with our incoming freshmen is look at how we can rethink the onboarding process. We now welcome them a full week before the start of classes, moving them through a pretty rigorous series of programs designed around health and well-being, creating a sense of community, and academic preparation. Part of what we're trying to tackle is helping students develop some of those emotional intelligence and critical thinking skills – coping skills around distress, tolerance, and frustration. It’s a big ask because that's not something our society does very well.

We’re also aware that right now there are a lot of very serious issues happening in our culture and people are proactively trying to roll back the clock on people's rights and freedoms. So we need to give students the ability to have those kinds of higher-level conversations without devolving into name-calling and shouting. As part of that, we’ve been trying to elevate the work of our Centre for Community Engagement and their partnerships. For example, the American Democracy Project provides more training on deliberative dialogues, allowing folks to engage in some of those more challenging conversations about controversial topics. We can demonstrate how to disagree with somebody respectfully, and how to find those elements of commonality that allow us to see the humanity that you're both bringing to the dialogue. 

Chris: Students these days are often time-poor. How can we make sure to engage everybody? 

It would be wonderful to be able to say students are streaming in solely because they see the inherent value of the initiatives. But the reality is our students are coming up at a time when there are very significant pressures on them. We hear all the time about how folks out in the working world are struggling with the current economy and struggling to make ends meet. Our students aren’t in that world yet, but many have to do multiple jobs just to be able to pay for rent. Even if they are super excited to come to a program, they might not be able to attend for financial reasons. So, specifically for our Deliberative Dialogue program, we’ve been tapping into some grant funding to provide scholarships. Students have so many demands on their time, so we need to give them what they need to have the freedom to choose how to spend it.

Chris: What’s your approach to fostering a holistic student experience that goes beyond the classroom? 

We've really tried to rethink the student experience and a lot of that has come from how we approach onboarding our freshmen. We’re trying to focus on what their life is like on campus outside of the classroom. In Student Affairs, we've been discussing how to bring a more trauma-informed approach to the work. Our services and programs we provide need to be responsive to the real, lived experiences that our students bring with them. For some students, this campus could be the first space they've ever felt fully, truly safe. For so long, mental health was viewed as the job of the Counseling Center, but now we understand it has to be everybody's responsibility. Safety is everybody's responsibility. So we need to reach out to the entire community to make sure everyone is on board, from start to finish. 

Chris: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received in your career? 

Lead with your values. Sometimes, it's tempting to choose the safer or easier choices. But the reason we do this work is to lift the students up and set them on the right path, and to do that you really need to step out of your comfort zone.

Curious to see what the future of training looks like?
Chris Mansfield
Client Services
Chris is one of the Client Service leads at GoodCourse, dedicated to helping institutions better engage their audience to create a more inclusive, safer, and more successful environment. To request to be featured on the series, get in touch at

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