The Interview USA
Tennessee Tech University
Vice President for Student Affairs

Cynthia Polk-Johnson

At its core, Student Affairs has one imperative above all else: serving students and meeting their needs. Few understand this better than Cynthia Polk-Johnson, Vice President for Student Affairs at Tennessee Tech University. 

In today’s discussion, Cynthia sat down with Interview Co-Host Max Webber to share her perspective on everything from encouraging students to engage in constructive dialogue to using peer-to-peer learning to amplify the student voice. 

Cynthia's Journey

Max: Let’s start with a brief introduction to yourself and your institution…

I’m Dr. Cynthia Polk Johnson, and I serve as the Vice President for Student Affairs at Tennessee Tech University here in Cookeville, Tennessee. I started out in Student Affairs about 27 years ago, and it’s truly my passion. I started in an Admissions Counselor position at my alma mater, Mississippi State University. I like to say I was led to this opportunity; I discovered it through a fellow colleague and jumped at the opportunity. I have enjoyed it ever since. 

Tennessee Tech is a STEM-infused institution. We're the only technological institution in the state of Tennessee. We have over 10,000 students, primarily from the state, but we also have students from all over the country and a good number of international students.

Max: What’s your approach to creating a sense of inclusion and belonging for people of all backgrounds?

The campus environment is so critical to the success of all students. And so one of the things we do here is make sure students know that we put them first. If we keep the students at the center of our work, we will never go wrong.  It’s also important to understand that students come from many different backgrounds and life experiences.  However, they all come with the same questions: Is this place a good fit for me? Will it help me be successful? So they need to see themselves in the work that we do, in the way that we program, and in the way that we engage, listen, and learn. I always say that I learn more from students than from anyone else; they teach me something new every day. To feel a sense of belonging, students need to feel safe and comfortable – both inside and outside the classroom – and have opportunities to learn and engage in ways that are both meaningful and memorable. So our role in Student Affairs is to create memorable experiences that will last a lifetime. 

Max: Against the increasing polarization of the US political landscape, how can we encourage students to engage in constructive dialogue across difference?

A couple of years ago, we decided to establish an Intercultural Lounge, creating a space for students to engage in ways that bring them together, such as our Intergroup Dialogue for engaging across difference and learning from one another. A lot of that is breaking down those stereotypical barriers or preconceived notions about what someone thinks or how they feel about a particular situation. Constructive conversation allows us to engage students in unconventional ways; for example, I started a new Cookies and Conversations series just last year. That’s all about creating meaningful opportunities to engage one another in difficult topics while enjoying a sweet treat. That really helps students to step outside of their comfort zone and get to know people completely different from themselves.

Max: Students have busy schedules and little free time. How do you address the challenge of keeping all students engaged and energized?

Students are certainly busy. But when we are trying to engage them, we can use the structures that are already in place, such as our student government association, which is very active and engaged on our campus. We also have student groups through our Intercultural Affairs Office, Women at Worth, and groups dedicated to men’s issues. Those spaces allow students to engage in real conversations with their peers. Our directors are always checking in with students and finding new opportunities to engage, encouraging them to participate in activities and events. 

Max: Peer-to-peer learning models are crucial for capturing the student voice. How are you incorporating these approaches into your programs? 

One of the key questions we ask is how can we consistently engage students from diverse backgrounds. When we talk about peer-to-peer engagement opportunities, we have to look within to see how we are engaging students with leadership opportunities across the board. Too often, our leaders are the ones who have the initiative and the drive to engage beyond the classroom. So we’ve been thinking about how to engage those students who aren't necessarily seeking out those opportunities because they may not know about them, or their focus is somewhere else. 

Max: How has your approach to Student Affairs evolved in light of the pandemic?

It’s been a challenge across the sector. We’re focused on providing wraparound services so that we can provide a more holistic student experience. Our well-being model considers mental, physical, and emotional factors. We’ve also introduced a financial wellness program for students to help them with planning their income and expenses. We’ve just held an event called Rec Your Stress, which is a huge opportunity for students to come and de-stress in ways that they haven’t tried before, from painting to axe throwing! You can’t take a cookie-cutter approach to offering services and programs to students; we try to be innovative in the way that we serve students today. Our wraparound services have been so crucial to the success of our students post-pandemic because not every student has access to all the support they need outside of the classroom. For example, we’ve been looking at food insecurity and serving students through our food pantry. If we see that a student is having some issues in class, we try to find out if there are food, housing, or other issues at play there. 

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

Step outside your comfort zone. I've been fortunate to work at many different institutions over the course of my journey, and to meet so many people from many different backgrounds and life experiences. And I'm all the better for it; it has certainly made me who I am. 

Curious to see what the future of training looks like?
Max Webber
Max works closely with people leaders and change-makers in our professional services markets. If you're looking to feature on The Interview, or simply want to learn more about GoodCourse, then get in touch at

The future of training is here, are you ready for it?

Tired of chasing your learners to complete dull training? Let's speak today👇
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.