Students that are engaged in their campus community are more likely to succeed and persist to graduation. This fact is what drives Higher Education (HE) leaders to promote and encourage participation in co-curricular experiences and ensure that campus life remains vibrant, and is welcoming and supportive of all students, regardless of whether they are on or off campus.
Denine Rocco, Associate Vice President (VP) and Dean of Students at West Chester University, sat down with Kira Matthews, GoodCourse Community Engagement Lead, to discuss her journey into HE, the importance of fostering confidence, and more.
Currently, I serve as Associate VP and Dean of Students at West Chester University. I have responsibility for student services, programs and departments.
My path has been fairly traditional. When I was an undergraduate I was a resident assistant. I wasn’t aware at the time it was a field you could go into, but as soon as I graduated I went up the ranks through residence life and housing.
It’s so important. We know that students engaged in their campus community are more likely to succeed and get to graduation. With services, we want to ensure we’re inclusive for all students. That means looking at the whole student — each brings such a diverse sense of being to a community. We try our best to meet students where they are and be purposeful with this. We aim to create a caring, vibrant, student-centered campus.
One thing we’ve just done is re-tool our off-campus and commuter student services. Many of our students live in the nearby community, so we re-tooled our department’s mission and vision to engage these students more. For example, we created staffing models to be physically out in the community, to help commuter students find their place on campus and celebrate what they’re doing off campus.
Post-pandemic has been a time of rebuilding. We’re trying to focus on our young leaders who really missed out on that peer-to-peer learning during the pandemic. The students of today are finding it more challenging to engage and meet people; many are saying they haven’t found their friendship group yet. We have to reach out to them where they are and encourage them to get out in more structured ways that we’re organizing, like group excursions.
We’re doing a lot of the things campuses typically do, like online modules, which certainly tick a box. But really it’s about getting into spaces where students are — whether that’s the residence halls, community lounges or identity centers — and ensuring that pockets of students have heard it and had the information reinforced.
It’s also about getting them familiar with the services available to them, to complement the learning they’ve done.
I’m proud of a lot of my work for sure. Off the top of my head, being able to raise funds for scholarships. It’s so important to develop access, and as a regional college, that’s our focus. Students need a helping hand, beyond financial aid.
Willingness to understand what being flexible means, and that things won’t always be linear. If you need structure, higher ed is likely not for you! Know yourself.
So many people. Deborah Merchant currently serves as VP for Student Affairs at the University of Cincinnati, she is a tried and true caring professional, who guides and shapes campus climates in a way to which I prescribe.
A book called Tempered Radicals by Deborah Myerson. It’s about responding to situations in a measured and thoughtful way.