Student Life has always been an important part of university culture and Higher Education (HE), but as society changes, the needs of students change too, and it is up to HE professionals to constantly adapt to meet those needs.
Beth McCuskey, Vice Provost for Student Life at Purdue University, spoke to GoodCourse about how student life has changed over the past decade and the initiatives she has worked on to ensure that Student Life remains relevant and up-to-date with the needs of the students.
My background was in economics, so I was looking for a business role when I graduated college and was leaning toward banking. Along the way, I ended up working in the financial area at my alma mater, West Virginia University, in the housing office. I fell in love with the mission of what we were doing, and that just opened up more opportunities for other roles.
I was then at the University of Wyoming for eleven years and grew in the role there before taking a role here at Purdue back in 2010. A few years later, a bunch of things merged into the Division of Student Life, and I was successful in applying for the position.
Things are very divisive societally right now, and HE is one of those places where we can try to break down those barriers. I think the pandemic also influenced us because of the learning loss that occurred due to online education. Our students couldn't learn when they were in their social groups in school together, and I think that learning loss also took place in those social skill development areas.
So for those years when we were back and forth between online and in-person, I think our students did have a lapse in that social skill development, and we needed to address that. We're trying to do things at the very basic level regarding human social interaction, getting people together to have conversations. We're also taking it to that next level where we want to look at how you build self-advocacy and conflict resolution skills. That includes being able to articulate your point of view and understand that other perspective as you work together to try to resolve things.
I noticed some shifts in Student Life and the needs of students probably eight or ten years ago, seeing a lot more demand for mental health services. This is true globally, not just in the States, or on our campus. But we also saw a difference in our students and what they wanted out of their college careers. As we started digging into this around 2015, part of what we noticed was a generational shift too. With the generation prior, there was a lot of exploration and trying everything out, and now we see much more of a linear focus in terms of students knowing what they want to do and finding the quickest path to get there, including finding a complimentary set of organizations, activities or internships to bolster employability.
We started unpacking all of that, and we noticed that there was also a significant toll on mental health; students were putting so much pressure on themselves and not giving themselves grace or latitude to explore and figure things out, so we had to adjust our policies accordingly. We're working with students who are very different with different expectations of their experience.
GoodCourse: You developed the university’s Steps to Leaps framework for enhancing and improving student well-being. Can you tell me more about this?
As we look at well-being and as the Steps to Leaps model unfolded, it became very clear that we needed to look in a couple of different places. Mental health required far more than simply continuing to add counselors to the counseling center. The other side is our culture and community and how our community comes together in support. So the framework is a hybrid of the individual and their growth with a supportive community.
The framework has five pillars, with Well-being as the central one. We also have leadership, which has an internal focus; it doesn't mean you have to be a leader of everything, it means committing to your professional development. Impact is our next pillar and something we heard straight from the mouths of students. It’s about wanting to do great things with your life and make a difference — we help students think through the steps for that because it doesn't happen overnight. This is also about gaining value from small impacts that you can do every day; helping someone who needs it, and taking the time to make a small difference somewhere. Next, we have Networks, which is social psychology based and around the importance of having great friends and being a good friend. Finally, we have Grit and Persistence, which is about risk-taking and the importance of learning how to fail and come back from that.
In an environment that is committed to free speech we know that sometimes people will say things that are problematic for others. We work to illustrate to new students what they may experience. We teach them how to deal with people who push their buttons. This is so important because people have the right to say things, and they have a right to express themselves on our campus. For example, we have preachers visit campus and say controversial things. In our orientation program, we make sure to talk about how this is allowed in a free-speech environment and show students what they can do about it: You can engage in dialogue with them, you can walk away from them, you can disagree with them; but we won't kick them off campus. The orientation model we use to engage with new students goes through these different scenarios with students to help them learn and navigate.