The Interview USA
California State University, Sacramento
Vice President for Student Affairs

Aniesha Mitchell

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) is essential for Higher Education (HE) institutions to foster a dynamic, vibrant, and socially-aware learning environment.  However, implementing effective DEI initiatives requires a sense of community among students. For Aniesha Mitchell, Vice President (VP) for Student Affairs at California State University, Sacramento, a strong community is built on shared values. 

Aniesha took the time to speak with Co-Host of The Interview, Max Webber, to discuss why supporting students’ needs, and creating a community in which they can support each other even through disagreement, is vital for successful DEI measures.  

Aniesha's Journey

Max: Let’s start with a brief introduction to yourself and your institution…

I’m Aniesha Mitchell, VP for Student Affairs at California State University, Sacramento, also known as Sac State. I have over 20 years of experience in Student Affairs, from Enrollment Management to Advising, Retention, Student Conduct, and Conflict Resolution, and my current work at Sac State combines those roles. We’re a public, mid-size university with nearly 31,000 students, and we’re very committed to DEI. 

Max: What drew you to a career in Student Affairs?

I wanted to be a criminal defense attorney, and was admitted to the Michigan Bain 2011. While I was completing my studies at law school, I also worked in academic advising/retention for my alma mater, Oakland University. A lot of students who were on academic probation were also struggling behaviorally, so they’d come to me and ask for help with their student conduct hearings. At the time, I was getting more exposure to criminal law, and slowly realizing that I didn’t have the stomach for it. But, when I started to advise on those cases for students, my Dean of Students told me that I was missing my calling in Student Conduct. I decided to go for it, and though I took quite a non-traditional path, I’m still in Student Affairs today. 

Max: How do you create a sense of belonging at Sac State?

When a student knows they’re wanted, cared for, and have the support they need to excel, they start to see themselves as a part of something bigger. That’s why we place a lot of focus on creating a community that offers emotional, physical, and financial support through our resource centers. Representation is another important facet of belonging for our diverse student body because it helps them realize that, regardless of their background, they can achieve success. We make sure that we have representation across the university, whether that’s in our educational materials, or physically through our faculty, administrators, and staff. Community-building and representation efforts increase our students’ chances of success, but they also improve the day-to-day experience, ultimately creating a strong sense of belonging at Sac State.

Max: What’s the best method for communicating with students?

Effective communication is about knowing your audience, so we’ve taken the time to find out how our students want to be communicated with. For example, we used to rely on emails to spread our messages among students, but when we tracked how many students opened those emails it was rarely more than 17%. We started asking students what methods of communication they use, and through those inquiries we found that maintaining a presence on social media sites like Instagram or TikTok is much more effective. Those mediums help us achieve greater visibility for our messaging, and they also make it easier for students to share that information with others. Giving students the chance to shape our communication processes has been really beneficial.

Max: How do you engage such a large student body in DEI policies and inclusive behaviors?

Students need to see our teams being inclusive in their policy-making so that they can mirror those behaviors. That process starts at the very top, with an ecosystem that reflects inclusion in everything we do. There are some instances where we may not be able to include  communities in our decision-making, especially when compliance with federal and state regulations prevents it, but we work hard to make sure everyone has a seat at the table and a chance to make their voice heard. That shows our students that we strive to include them in what we do, and prompts them to engage with us on matters that concern them.

Max: Amid a polarized political landscape in America, how do you equip students to speak across difference? 

HE institutions do a great job of teaching students how to be excellent physicians, attorneys, or engineers, but we don’t teach our students how to engage in conflict in a way that’s peaceful, respectful, and generative. On campus and in the world of work, it’s not a matter of if a conflict will occur, but when, so we’re taking advantage of those early opportunities to support students when they engage in dialogue across difference. We provide them with safe spaces to have difficult conversations, whether it’s a circle process or a debate, and lay down important ground rules like allowing others to complete their thoughts, and approaching conversations with the aim of understanding opposing positions. Though we make it clear that students don’t have to agree with each other, we also help them understand that they’re all members of the same community, so it’s important to find a respectful way of conversing that benefits both parties.

Max: Post-pandemic, how has the focus of your Student Affairs team changed? 

Following the pandemic, we’ve become increasingly passionate about basic needs support for students. When they have to deal with challenges like food insecurity or housing insecurity, it exacerbates their mental health issues. We can’t expect students to be successful if they have to deal with all of that on top of their academic endeavors, so we’ve been working to ensure our students have access to support whenever they need it. For example, 42% of our students qualify for CalFresh, a form of state food support, and that’s pushed us to expand our campus food pantry, and open a Basic Needs Center. Thirty-three percent of our students are parents, so the Basic Needs Center also has diapers, wipes, baby food, clothing, and other necessities. When students know that we’ll provide for them, they can focus wholly on their academic success. 

Max: What’s the best advice you’ve received during your career?

Always remember your ‘why’. We have some challenging days as HE administrators, but I never forget that I’m doing it for the students. No matter what problems I face, I know that I’m here to ensure they will be successful, productive members of society. That pushes me through the difficult days, so I get to experience the rewarding days like graduation. 

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