The Interview USA
UNC Wilmington
Vice President for Student Affairs

Christine Reed Davis

In a time when academic performance often overshadows the broader spectrum of student needs, it's time we reevaluate what true success means in our education system. This understanding is central to the work done by Christine Reed Davis, Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs at the University of North Carolina (UNC) Wilmington.

In today’s conversation, Christine met with Max Webber, Co-Host of The Interview, to talk about her career journey, creating a sense of belonging on campus, and encouraging students to engage in respectful dialogue across political divides.

Christine's Journey

Max: Let’s start with an introduction to yourself and your institution. 

My name is Christine Reed Davis, and I use she/her pronouns. I currently serve as the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs at the University of North Carolina (UNC) Wilmington. I arrived here in January of 2024, so I'm still fairly new to this role. As Vice Chancellor, I lead 14 areas with 180 full-time staff members who provide support services and programs to our campus community. These range from Residence Life to well-being services to peer-led tutoring, and even a federally funded Upward Bound science and math program to help introduce local high school students  to higher education and increase their college readiness. Wilmington is one of 17 colleges in the UNC system. We are an R2 institution, enrolling almost 18,000 students – 14,000 undergrads, and about 4,000 graduate students. We pride ourselves in being the state's coastal research institution and we also have a Center for Marine Science, so we do a lot of work around coastal support, marine biology, and environmental science. We have the only coastal engineering program in the country. So it's a really cool place to be.

Max: What drew you to the world of higher education? How have you kept engaged and energized?

I was a first-generation college student and the child of two teenage parents who both got their GED. They didn't finish high school in the traditional way, and certainly didn't go to college. So growing up, I had no idea that student affairs was a career path, but I knew college was a place I wanted to go. I grew up in a small town in Connecticut, and I saw college as a pathway out. So when I was applying to college, my family and I had to have a hard conversation about whether to commute or to live on campus. I was a commuter student for the first two years, but I just felt really left out. We didn't have a lot of robust programming or services for commuter students.

But in my junior year, three things happened that were transformative for me. First, I saved up enough money to live on campus, and got involved in hall government and campus leadership programs. Second, I was enrolled in an Abnormal Psychology class and I became fascinated with studying why people do the things they do. Third, my elementary education academic advisor passed away. And so I had an opportunity to sort of shift both my living situation to be on campus and my academic journey. Because of this, I applied to be a Resident Advisor, and it really exposed me to what student affairs could be. I just felt this synergy with my passion and my skills. It’s been a fascinating journey. 

Max: What’s the key to creating a sense of belonging and inclusion for all students?

There are a lot of things, but I'll focus on just one! I think the primary thing for cultivating that sense of belonging and inclusion is having a multifaceted approach because each student feels belonging in a different way. But most important, for me, is developing relationships and being intentional about providing opportunities for students to share their experiences with you. As an administrator, your experience is very different from theirs, so you need to let students have a voice. Giving voice and building those relationships is the primary step in allowing that sense of belonging because they feel like they are developing a relationship with somebody who has the power and authority to make change. 

I think that students having a pathway to speak to somebody that they perceive has positional power or a seat at the table to make those changes is really the foundational step in building a sense of belonging. And not just listening to the same students over and over again, but being in spaces where there's a diversity of students, a diversity of perspectives. Additionally, not just listening but also acting and following up to share what we've done or, if we can't do a thing that they've asked for, explaining why. I think this really helps our students to feel like they belong here.

Max: How can we encourage students to speak across difference respectfully?

This has definitely been a challenging area within the past five to seven years, and I was just at a conference that was discussing the very same thing. It’s crucial to cultivate a culture of respect on our campuses, but it's often easier said than done, especially when emotions are high. That’s not just an issue for universities but for the nation and the world. One of the things we've done really well is focusing on something called our Seahawk Respect Compact, a set of principles and guidelines about fostering a respectful and inclusive campus community. This compact is presented at new student orientation, our University 101 classes, and student leader training. Our compact contains four commitments: affirming the dignity of all people, promoting the right of every person to participate in a free exchange of thoughts, striving for openness and mutual understanding, and fostering an environment of respect across differences. As part of that, we aim to provide opportunities for students to be in spaces where they can talk about differences.

Max: How has the field of higher education changed since the pandemic?

I think what's changed is more of a focus on wellbeing. At UNC Wilmington, we have something called Healthy Hawks, which focuses on the eight dimensions of well-being, from physical to mental to spiritual. We have a lot of programming and commitments that supplement and support a student's academic success. Only a portion of their time is spent in the classroom, so we need to also talk to them about resiliency, about healthy eating habits, about rest and sleep. We want to create a holistic experience for our students that prepares them to be well-rounded citizens when they leave our campus. 

Max: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received across the course of your career?

Leadership is like yoga. When you're in a leadership position, you often have to stretch, bend, balance, and breathe. That can help you get through a crisis.

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