A safe and supportive learning community is not just about fostering physical wellbeing, but also creating a place where students feel comfortable talking about their mental health and asking for help if they need it. By taking steps to support students’ mental well-being, colleges and universities can create a safer and more inclusive environment that benefits all.
As Vice President For Student Affairs at Tarrant County College, Deshonta Holmes has put student wellbeing at the heart of her approach. GoodCourse met with Deshonta to discuss topics ranging from the challenges of creating a safe and inclusive environment to the importance of supporting student mental health.
I serve as the Vice President of Student Affairs at Tarrant County College’s Connect Campus. Tarrant County College is a multi-campus institution, and TCC Connect is our virtual campus which serves over 30,000 online students every semester. Our campus is located in downtown Fort Worth, approximately 30 miles west of Dallas, Texas. My favorite thing about TCC is its commitment to students: everything here is designed with students at the heart, and we strive to include the community in that, too.
I was a first-generation student, and I grew up in a lower socioeconomic background. So I really felt like I had to go to college to get the same advantages as some of my peers. After I graduated with my degree in biology, I thought I didn’t want to work in education, because I thought there was no money in it! So I worked in industry for a couple of years, but I ended up getting laid off. Then I was offered a job in a university lab, and that was my introduction to working with students. From there, I applied to become an academic advisor, and that started my career in student affairs. Since that time, I have been very fortunate to serve in numerous roles including Associate Dean of Admissions and Outreach, I also served in two campus Chief of Staff roles before transitioning to Academic Affairs as Associate Vice President of Instructional Efficacy. These positions all provided me with the skills I needed for my current role.
I think it’s really important to give students the opportunity to learn from others. It helps people get to know each other for who they are, eliminates pre-existing bias, and ultimately makes for more well-rounded individuals. We want to provide those experiences for students and staff, whether it’s holding conversations or providing opportunities to travel. Recently, we sent some students on a trip to Washington DC, where they had the chance to visit museums to learn more about their culture as well as others. Coming from community college, I learned that there are many students who have never had the chance to leave their home state, so we wanted to give them that opportunity.
I always want to make sure individuals have a space where they can ask questions and challenge different beliefs and ideas. But for me, that needs to be done respectfully. We all come from backgrounds and cultures with different beliefs, whether those are religion or politics. We won’t always agree, but we should always respect one another. I firmly believe that you should treat the person across from you the way you would like to be treated.
At TCC, we have counselors available to students who can refer them to community resources. As VP of Student Affairs, I have certainly noticed an influx of referrals for students dealing with anxiety and depression. I’m a huge advocate for having conversations with students: everything may seem fine on the outside, but you never know what’s going on in people’s lives. Recently, my team held some mental health sessions, letting students ask questions and reminding them that it’s okay not to be okay. Personally, I struggle with anxiety, and sometimes I need to take a step back. I often share the strategies I use to manage it, but everyone is different, and you need to find what’s best for you.
For me, it’s about being intentional. The pandemic brought a lot of challenges for students and the community, and we’re still dealing with the consequences. Student safety and well-being are at the top of our list of priorities. It’s different for us as a virtual campus, so we need to take an innovative approach. Being in a remote learning environment, there is the possibility of feeling disengaged, so we need to provide opportunities and communities for our students and create safe spaces where students can feel at home.
It’s definitely varied across the different institutions I’ve worked at. My last institution was residential, so we saw a lot of participation throughout the day. Here at TCC, we still hold virtual events but we are also very intentional about inviting local students to campus. Many of our students are parents and adult learners, so we also try to make our events family-friendly. We also see excellent engagement when we bring in our industry partners. It not only helps students to find out about future career paths but also make connections in those fields.
The best advice I ever received was to know what you stand for and know when to compromise. As practitioners, you deal with ethical questions on a daily basis. So it’s important to know where to draw the line. Finally, you need to decide what you want out of life. Higher education is fast-paced, and you need to know when to say no. If you don’t find that work-life balance, you might find yourself overwhelmed.