The Interview USA
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro
Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs

Cathy Akens

Higher Education (HE) has changed significantly in recent years, so those in Student Affairs are working with an entirely new remit that reflects that. In this interview,  Cathy Akens, Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, sat down with Co-host of The Interview, Charles Sin, to speak about how her work has changed in light of the events of recent years, and the initiatives she has been working on to improve the student experience.

Charles: Can we begin with an introduction to your current role and institution?

I am the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs here at UNC Greensboro. My career has been spent working entirely in Higher Education and Student Affairs, with about a third of that time in housing and residence life, before moving into senior leadership roles, including Dean of Students work and Vice Chancellor. 

Charles: What brought you to Student Affairs?

I was a Resident Assistant and worked in an Academic Advising office at the University of Toledo, where I did my undergraduate work — this was where I considered doing it as a profession. As I learned more, I realized I really enjoyed engaging in the university environment and being surrounded by people who were developing and improving themselves. 

Charles: I'm curious to know, what kind of initiatives have you been working on regarding cultural competency?

We have a very diverse student population. Many of our students come here because they value diversity and want to learn in this type of environment. So we look at how we can provide spaces where students can share more about themselves and their identities and be able to learn through having that experience with others. We focus on concepts of belonging and explore what it means to create inclusion.

Four years ago, we conducted an I Belong survey, which is a campus climate survey, and we just did another this year. One of the things that we found is that there was a disconnect between their satisfaction with the university, which was very high, and their sense of belonging. So we focused on that moving forward.

Charles: How do you approach freedom of speech with students on campus?

We begin by making sure faculty and staff understand why it matters and talking about how we create the kinds of spaces where people can share their thoughts on a topic without fear of retribution. We have been training staff in those areas.

With students, we want them to understand why freedom of speech is so important and what we risk when we restrict speech. We engage in conversations about why the university allows it, why the university can't restrict it, and how that actually aligns with our institutional value around freedom of expression. 

Charles: How has the sector changed throughout your career?

It has changed significantly. The issues that we deal with now are more complex than when I first started, and they need to be paired with larger societal, political, and cultural experiences that are happening in our country that impact our students — we have to pay attention to all of that.

We've also become more connected to student success. When I first started, we were still looking at student affairs work as that experience that happened outside of the classroom, but not necessarily as something connected to the overall academic experience and the student’s success on campus. So I think as a profession, we've become more focused on understanding how the strategies and practices we use impact student success and how they're doing in the classroom.

Charles: Has managing crises on campus become more or less challenging as your career has progressed?

I'd say more challenging. There's so much happening now on college campuses and in society. I would say the severity and prevalence have increased, but also the expectations around our ability to manage a crisis. We are focused on this notion of how we respond to smaller crises so that we can prevent the escalation to something larger. This is about ensuring we all know what to look for and when to offer support. However, we have learned a lot from the past and adjusted our policies and support accordingly.

Charles: What's your approach to cultivating a safe campus?

I think it's about understanding who our students are, what challenges they're experiencing, and what needs they have so that we can be responsive to them. 

We knew that mental health and financial struggles had increased since the pandemic; as an institution, we surveyed our students to understand the impact of the pandemic on them, and we shared those results with members of our campus community who were making decisions about our students. This helps faculty and staff be more sensitive and responsive to students who perhaps need more flexibility or more support.

Students also have to feel physically safe; part of what we do around that is making sure that students understand the resources that we have in place. Technology has helped a lot with that, meaning students can use a campus safety app on their phones. They can alert the police, provide tips anonymously when they see something happening on campus, and have a friend or family member visually watch them through the app as they walk across campus. Our job around this is to ensure that they know there is support on campus for their safety.

Charles: Where do you see students engaging the most and the least?

It declined as a result of the pandemic, but we are definitely seeing a shift this year with students re-engaging and wanting more in-person social connections with other students. However, we know anxiety still makes their daily lives difficult. We have to help them feel comfortable engaging with others and with new experiences.

Students are engaging with support resources, such as mental health and well-being support, and we see great numbers at our recreation center on campus too.  We also see good numbers around civic engagement — our students are concerned about the world around them, and they want to make a difference.

However, I think we will see fewer students doing a broad array of things across the campus. We've always had many students on campus involved in everything, but they don't have the capacity for that right now. They feel very overwhelmed and so are more selective about how they invest their time on campus. 

Charles: What is your top tip for engaging students on DEI topics?

Create opportunities for students to share their lived experiences and their identities. When people feel like their identity matters, they feel valued. It allows us to create more inclusive spaces, and I think that's what opens up conversations that then lead to growth.

Curious to see what the future of training looks like?
Charles Sin
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