In the world of Higher Education, one thing is clear: taking care of our minds is as important as expanding them. This is why the spotlight is firmly on the significance of mental health and well-being on campus. As the Vice President for Student Success at Texas State University, Cynthia Hernandez has worked tirelessly to make sure students feel empowered to speak out about their mental health and ask for help when they need it.
Cynthia met with GoodCourse to discuss issues including the need to advance cultural competence, the debate around free speech on college campuses, and the evolving role of student success practitioners.
I’m the Vice President for Student Success at Texas State University. I’ve been in this role for about two-and-a-half years. I came in as the VP for Student Affairs, but back in January, my role was expanded to include additional responsibilities. I’m passionate about our model here at Texas State: we have close to 40,000 students, most of them undergraduates. We’re a majority-minority and a Hispanic-serving institution, and close to 45% of our students are first-generation. We’re dedicated to helping students progress in their journeys, from boosting retention to reducing student debt. We offer programs to enhance the student experience and help them gain skills while also providing support mechanisms for students struggling with their well-being.
It was exciting, but a little nerve-wracking. Any time you move, you need to adapt to a new institutional culture, whether that’s different cultural values or working practices. You need to honor the work that’s been done while still moving toward excellence and innovation. There’s a huge difference in terms of size and scale. Texas A&M is a very large institution with around 72,000 students, and its division of student affairs has seventeen departments with 600 staff members. Here, our operation is a lot smaller, and we serve different demographics of students. At Texas State, our student body is highly representative of the demographics of Texas, and that was one of the things that drew me to work here.
Texas State has shared values we want to instill in our students. Those values are aspirational: we don’t only want our students to succeed here, but in their careers and communities too. Some of that is delivered through our curriculum: we live in a marketplace of ideas, and we want to allow space for people to be inquisitive. But we also promote that through our community, from our student groups to our residence halls.
One of the wonderful things about working for a public institution is the commitment to the First Amendment, and the five rights protected under that. It’s our responsibility to provide an environment where free speech can be upheld. Both sides sometimes try to shut down speech they don’t agree with, but we need to make sure all voices are heard. We need to make sure students understand what’s covered under the First Amendment and what isn’t. Even though we have a commitment to free speech, we also understand that sometimes speech can be harmful. So we’re prepared to give students the space to make sense of what they’re hearing and empower them to speak up if they disagree.
There’s been a huge change over the past thirty years. There’s now much greater intentionality and openness around discussing mental health. These issues have been around forever, but now we’re much more innovative in our approach to understanding the nuances of well-being. The old model of just relying on a counseling center isn’t enough — we need to be more thoughtful. We’ve worked to identify the stressors which may affect students and make sure they have the support to navigate through them. For many students, it’s the first time they will deal with these issues alone, so we’re trying to equip them with the life skills they will need to face them. We’re also enhancing resources: there’s been a concerted effort to provide additional counselors, expand virtual counseling, and make sure support is accessible 24/7. It’s our job to bring together all these services and have these conversations through the lens of student success.
Faculty and staff at any institution want their students to be successful. As institutions have grown, we have tried to grow our levels of administrative support, but that can result in work being done in silos. When that happens, we aren’t at our most efficient or effective. So when I think about student success, I ask a few questions: how are we maximizing our services? Where is there overlap? How can we be more innovative and strategic?
Student success gives us the shared language to bring academics and the student experience together. We just established a new task force for student health and wellbeing, and we discussed ways to manage the stress of moving to a new level of academic rigor. We’re also becoming more nuanced in the way we deliver our services. In the past, our initiatives were applied evenly to everyone. But we understand that we operate in an environment of limited resources, so we need to be strategic in where we invest them. Finally, we have learned that proactive strategies are more effective than being reactive.