Shaping a campus to be inclusive and welcoming by encouraging a range of opinions and viewpoints, while also maintaining that it is always a safe space for all students, is the backbone of creating a positive student experience.
David Jones, Vice President for Student Affairs and Enrollment Management at Minnesota State University Mankato, sat down with Charles Sin, Co-host of The Interview, to discuss his proudest student affairs achievements so far.
I got involved in student representative work while in college but planned to be a Social Studies teacher. Doing work in Residence Halls, I learned more about outside-the-classroom learning and opportunities to interact with people, finding out that there was more of a career there than I realized. For my junior and senior years at college, I was a Resident Assistant, so I had an opportunity to practice some peer leadership and really enjoyed those roles.
We have a great Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) unit. We have many landing spots for students to explore and find students with similar backgrounds or characteristics. Then there's programming; we have a lot of opportunities, whether it's a diverse speaker or somebody who's a little more controversial — opportunities to promote new conversations and discussions with one another.
It’s about using data to make actionable decisions. Not only will we follow people's experiences, but also root those experiences in some sort of data interpretation, measuring it so we can start to try and figure out if our action is having the impact we think it's going to have.
So now we use this data to help us refine not only where we should make investments, but also the areas that aren't impacting at all. That's one of the huge changes we've seen in student affairs, in particular in the enrollment work over time. And that's going to continue to grow. As I look at it right now, universities that can lean on stronger data sets and then act on them have a market advantage over some of their peers.
University is where thoughts and perspectives are thrown out into the marketplace of ideas. Where is a better, more safe place? There should be a place where we can intellectually debate and talk about it. I am concerned that our students aren't getting an opportunity to fully practice those abilities to disagree constructively. We are in a pattern right now where we're unable to disagree without being disagreeable.
University is where thoughts and perspectives are thrown out into the marketplace of ideas. Where is a better, more safe place? There should be a place where we can intellectually debate and talk about it.
There are individuals you'll interact with who may have different thoughts on certain things, but we tend to have more in common across the spectrum of the human experience. As a university, we must continue to talk about the differences we may have as relationships, as people, as curricular changes, wherever it might be, but on the fringe, not as the central piece.
Here in Minnesota, we were in the shadow of the George Floyd incident when it occurred, so it allowed us to reflect heavily on our teaching methods and curricular content. In addition, we're now the ninth-largest comprehensive university in the country in terms of welcoming international students, so the scope of our safety initiatives has been broadened. We have a university security unit on campus and a public safety department in our community. We have students from nearly 100 different countries that come in, as well as domestic students who may come from underrepresented communities. Students from varying backgrounds may have different understandings or interactions with law enforcement in their home communities.
We have opportunities for international students to interact with diverse student leaders to discuss their concerns. We've also invited the local city police to participate in those conversations to bridge differences and understanding. For example, when an international student coming, say, from Nigeria gets stopped by the local police, what would that experience be like? It's something we're actively continuing to work on, it will never be done in this area.
Those engaging the most are our students who are part of a defined group like an athletic team. When you’re in a group you want to be part of, you're part of a diverse team, you're going to be thrown into that, mixing with teammates to try and figure out how can you work together to be successful together.
The group I worry about is the students who are somewhere in the middle. They're doing just well enough academically that they don't draw anyone's attention. They may join a student group, but no one is encouraging that. They could continue to go to class, sit in the back of the room, and do their academic work, but without really being a part of anything or interacting with anyone different from them. These students are often the least engaged, and, I suspect, make up the largest student group.
We've tried to create opportunities to interact with that group intentionally, whether at orientation, welcome weeks, homecoming, or other things, to draw them into some activity and promote engagement.
It can be as simple as spending time with our DEI students. Students who are really hungry to have that interaction. It’s about learning more about their journey and their experience so far at the university.
Each semester, we have a dinner with various leaders of diverse student organizations. We take this as a chance to learn about them and their needs. Then we ask what they would like to change or whether there particular challenges they’re having. We've been doing these meals for years, and there has always been a list of things we need to explore and change. What gets talked about is what gets solved.