Fundamental to engaging students in wellness and student success initiatives that are being run on campus is ensuring they are truly tailored to the diverse needs of the student body and reflect the nuances of the challenges students face. Dan Solworth, Vice-Chancellor of Wellness and Student Success at Northeastern University, places this notion front and center of his work in the Higher Education (HE) field.
Chris Mansfield, co-founder of GoodCourse, sat down with Dan to listen to his reflections on the HE sphere, how he fosters inclusion and belonging on campus, and what it means to be a good ally.
I serve as Vice-Chancellor of Wellness and Student Success at Northeastern University in Boston, working across 13 campuses. My primary goal is to focus on the holistic wellness of our learners and making sure we provide a space where students are as prepared as possible to be successful in the classroom and their learning. Our focus is on emotional, physical and mental well-being: are they exercising, sleeping, and eating; do they feel like they belong, are they primed to learn?
I had a great opportunity early on at college to get exposed to student affairs as a career. I studied political science and thought I’d go into public service. As a freshman, I did an internship in the Office of the Governor in Massachusetts, but like many internship experiences, it was more of an opportunity to learn what I didn’t like and did not want to pursue as a career.
Later on, I met the then new Dean of Students at Boston University at an event dubbed “Coffee and Conversation”. Through getting to know the dean, and engaging with him about what my passions were, I discovered a career path where I could help to serve a community. It was similar to public service, in that students are like constituents, but removed some of the nastiness I was concerned about in the political sphere.
We recently pulled together the entire leadership structure of student affairs and spent a day discussing this exact matter: how do we create a community where students feel they belong and staff feel empowered? We then tried to set goals for the next 3 to 5 years to affect this.
Research shows us that students are the most important part of creating that sense of belonging. They create pockets of culture which feeds into the wider community. Support mechanisms are essential to this, for example, funding for our student organizations, which is where we can play a major role.
You can anecdotally talk about a ‘sense’ of community but the best thing to do is collect data and study it. We have a dedicated staff member in the Office of Student Affairs, at a leadership level, who focuses entirely on this; holding focus groups and conducting regular surveys, all to understand and quantify what progress is being made.
Over the next three years, we’ll use our data points to see what efforts are working and channel more funding and support towards those initiatives that have the greatest impact.
We work with an intelligent, thoughtful population – they believe and know they can impact and improve the communities they are part of. Because of that, they’re keenly aware of whether or not we are being genuine in our work.
The key is being genuine in our allyship and approach to interacting with students, because they’ll know whether or not we care about helping them. It’s a simple answer, but it is the truth.
In our community, people are engaging in in-person activities – they’re excited to socialize. One example is the Relay for Life which raises funds for cancer research and care, of which we had the biggest event, participation numbers, and funds raised ever this year.
You can anecdotally talk about a ‘sense’ of community but the best thing to do is collect data and study it.
In the summer, we do ice cream events in one of our quads, which hundreds of students attend each week, lining up and socializing with one another. The more we can lean into this type of energy, the better we can foster and grow our community and sense of belonging at Northeastern. As I’m sure you hear from others, our virtual programming isn’t being so well attended any longer.
The two are very clearly connected. If a student feels they belong on campus and the community cares about them, they will be more successful. It’s very clear that a sense of belonging means people come to class better prepared and motivated. They’ll also be a more engaged member of the community, which perpetuates the greatness of our community building and capacity for fostering that sense of belonging. Research consistently backs this up.
In the next few years of higher education, we need to take a hard look at our institutions to make sure we’re serving our entire community of learners. For example, designing programs for traditionally marginalized groups who require specific services and specific supports in order to best position them for both a sense of belonging on our campuses, but also for success in their studies and learning.
As leaders, we need to push staff to think critically about that, articulate a clear vision, and then turn that vision into action.
Raise your hand to be involved in committee work, projects, and task forces. Make sure you’re working across boundaries and cross-faculty units to gain a broad range of experience in the “academy”.
Kenneth Elmore, who is leaving Boston University to become President of Dean College, brought me into the world of student affairs, he has been a mentor for me, as I worked for him from being an intern if the Dean of Students Office all the way up to a leadership position in student affairs. He shaped my view on HE and student affairs and how we approach our work: the concept and mentalities I’ve adopted have their root in his leadership.
Chris: What is the most important book or literature you’ve read?
My bookshelf is full of HE and student affairs books. Recently I read one by AACU, Becoming A Student Ready College. It focuses on how we fit the needs of future students, rather than expecting them to fit us.