Ensuring that students feel safe on campus and heard by faculty is imperative to creating an atmosphere of belonging. Feeling connected and comfortable is one of the main ways of ensuring greater student retention, which is one of the biggest challenges faced by many universities at the moment.
Christopher Lynch, Vice President for Enrollment and Student Success at the University of Central Oklahoma, sat down with Charles Sin, Co-host of The Interview, to discuss his career, student engagement, and more.
I serve as the Vice President for Enrollment and Student Success at the University of Central Oklahoma. I have been here for just shy of three years; my role is twofold. One side is enrolment management, then another major wing is student affairs — activities, engagement, counseling services, wellness, et cetera. Bringing students here and engaging them, and then keeping them engaged with a sense of belonging. I also work with global affairs and federally funded grant programs.
Most folks in my shoes would say the same thing — we didn’t go to college thinking we would enter this career. I have now worked in five different schools and four different states, but I certainly didn’t envision it. It was bumping into someone from student affairs towards the end of my college career, Dr. John Bush, who I remember very clearly spent the time to talk to me about my future plans. This was impactful to me. I learned at that moment that this work is one student at a time, listening to each and every one of them.
It depends. There have been many changes across the whole landscape. When I started, on the recruiting side of things, nobody was out recruiting students. They came because they came. Outreach was nonexistent. Then it started by mail, and then it became electronic. The biggest trend I have seen is going electronic — students have phones, apps, and social media. Technology is key to communicating with students. We have to remember that they’re the reason why we’re here, so universities should not hold onto outdated attitudes.
Most recently, the biggest change we’re dealing with is mental health concerns with students. Since Covid, that has been a driving force across the nations. Students need help and support.
We know that the rate of students graduating high school is going down, so now colleges are focusing on retention. It costs a lot less to retain a student than it does to enroll one. The biggest thing we’ve done lately is creating an office called student advocacy. This is an office where students who have any kind of concerns can go to to get direction, resources, support, and help. We are also connecting students to off-campus resources, with folks who are highly trained and knowledgeable and can connect the dots for students. We’re onboarding a CRM just for this office. This will help us understand potential retention issues and provide proactive outreach.
This is an issue across the United States. Without question, we are working on many different facets of it. I believe advancing cultural intelligence while implementing opportunities to learn, thrive and succeed at the university is important. We bring in programming and speakers. We create safe spaces across campus where students can converse without judgment. We want to advance, celebrate and educate across the board. Students must learn that we live in a global society, and we must be able to celebrate that, regardless of individual background.
We have some open space areas on campus. Free speech is important. We have a direct open dialogue with our students. We invite them into public forums for conversations — not one-way talk. Just last week, I had an open forum for students. We sat there, they asked questions, and we talked in a respectful manner. We have worked very hard to create an open relationship with our students on campus. I say that because, as far as I know, we haven’t had any major controversies yet. This is not to say that students are perfectly satisfied, but I think they feel heard. We respond to their concerns, celebrate peaceful protest, and engage in these conversations.
I’ll go back to free speech — it’s about accepting the students, colleagues, and faculty. We have differences, but we can have candid conversations. If there are issues, students can be proactive about raising concerns. We can mitigate many issues that will help students, we also have a police force on campus, and we need unique community responses to problems. There are two main areas of safety, physical and mental safety, and we do a lot of work to ensure both.
If students can participate, they do. Our campus does a good job of advertising opportunities. I don’t think students are looking for things outside of what they’re comfortable with. If something is uncomfortable, they won’t attend that event. Students are most engaged in the areas where they have strong connections or truly believe in the message.