Higher Education (HE) staff must consciously design for the margins, by incorporating collaboration from the outset of change — not just bringing in sponsorship at the end.
This is something that Christopher Blakely, Dean of Students and AVP for Campus Life at Florida Gulf Coast University, strives to achieve in everything he does. He sat down with Kitty Hadaway, GoodCourse Universities Lead, to discuss his career, how the pandemic has changed student experience, and fostering a sense of belonging on campus.
I currently serve as the Dean of Students and AVP for Campus Life at Florida Gulf Coast University. In this role, I have the opportunity to provide leadership support to different areas of campus, including fraternity and sorority life; our multicultural center; student care services; the office of student conduct, the student program board, and more.
As Dean of Students, I advocate for students and ensure they can achieve their potential. I often tell them when they get to university, “You’ve chosen us, so it’s time for us to choose you.” This is our goal: to minimize barriers and support students in their journey to success – whatever that looks like for them. They need the opportunity to grow outside of the classroom and really understand who they are as people.
We recently celebrated 25 years. We’re a young institution, continually growing, which excites people. You can really see change happen.
I came to FGCU for the opportunity to work at a young university and implement change. We are unique in that our Multicultural Center and Leadership Development Center have synergy; they influence one another, and that’s really special. I believe that to be a strong leader you must be culturally competent. So we train our marginalized communities to be leaders within and beyond their communities.
At the height of the pandemic, in May 2020, the university made some changes and I was asked to serve as the interim for my current position. During that time, we needed to ensure that we were advocating for equity — do our students have the same resources when they go home to study? Do they have the same environment when some might be caring for others? We were also dealing with national social unrest after the murder of George Floyd. Our faculty and staff were very aware of the social issues sweeping the nation.
We come to work as whole people. We can’t leave any portion of ourselves at home, so we should be able to bring our full, authentic selves. To do that, we have to create space for healing and acknowledge that we were experiencing trauma.
Something that is really critical when thinking about a sense of belonging and inclusion is a comment that a colleague of mine said, which is that “Hope is not a strategy.” We often hope to find a sense of belonging, but we can’t hope for it, we have to design for it.
We often hope to find a sense of belonging, but we can’t hope for it, we have to design for it.
In 2019 some students introduced me to a set of civic design principles. The approach pointed out that many institutions were established to help organizations work with government officials — so how do we ensure that decisions influencing people actually include people?
There are eight principles. To design for: collaboration; systemic change; the margins; ecological solutions; multiple forms of expression; analog and digital; equity; and healing. I have taken these principles and try to use them as a barometer for everything I do.
So when we’re designing for a sense of inclusion, we need to think about whose voices are being amplified. If we design for those at the margins, then we don’t have to hope for inclusion. We have to be strategic and intentional.
One of the design principles is designing for collaboration. So in our team, we say that if we can accomplish something by ourselves then we aren’t thinking big enough — because we haven’t collaborated.
I think the word is sometimes used synonymously with sponsorship, but in reality, it means bringing someone in from the beginning, ideating, implementing, and executing together. Students and faculty are included from the beginning. I encourage my faculty to be visible to students and meet them where they’re at.
We have experienced some challenges with engagement. We’re in a digital age where students are comfortable interacting online, so we need to make sure that we’re still creating spaces for analog conversations — not just digital. This is for our communication with them, not just for their communication with each other.
Students like being able to choose from options, be it flexible streaming or in-person events. We have to create means for students to develop their own experiences and relationships. Students engage for people.
My advice would be to remember why you’re doing it. It’s a giving career, where you sometimes don’t see thanks for years. We do it for the reward, not an award.
The chair of my dissertation committee, back at Eastern Kentucky University. Dr Sherwood Thompson has since passed away, but he was very inspirational to me and taught me a lot of things. He always challenged me to do exemplary work — pushing me to do more and be better than I thought I could be.
Another mentor of mine is Dr Roger Cleveland, who does educational consulting. He helped shift pedagogy in classrooms.
This is the hardest question I’ve ever gotten. One of the books that has allowed me to connect with students is The Four Agreements by don Miguel Ruiz. The agreements are: 1. Be Impeccable With Your Word; 2. Don't Take Anything Personally; 3. Don't Make Assumptions; 4. Always Do Your Best.
I can always come back to these with the students I work with. Sometimes, their best is 60%, not 100%, but if you have 60 to give, you give it.