Creating a positive campus culture is not an easy task, but listening to what students really need is one of the most powerful things that Higher Education (HE) professionals can do if this is to be achieved.
Desiree Polk-Bland, Vice President, Student Affairs at Columbus State Community College (CSCC), sat down with Kitty Hadaway, GoodCourse Universities Lead, to speak about letting students set the agenda and giving them a voice.
My first HE job was in a Trio Program at a four-year institution in Indiana, which was open access, and I didn’t know HE well at the time. Having that experience at a small institution, doing academic advising, financial aid, and more, was my introduction to HE. This is where I got really excited about HE because I saw the benefits for the students we were serving. This was over 25 years ago, and I haven't left the profession since.
It brings constant elevation of the student voice. We get so entrenched as professionals in reading the literature, analyzing the data, and trying to develop an understanding of it, but sometimes this means we leave out the most important piece, which is the student. My job is to be in every space, hearing the student voices. Previously it wasn’t its own department, but we separated it from Enrolment Management to prioritize students' voices and ensure we are speaking to students about what we are doing.
This is an environmental piece, and it's about the whole campus understanding it together and speaking together. It’s paying attention to what that term really means; behaviors, attitudes, and policies. When students speak about the policies that impact them, then we are able to understand when something isn’t good enough, or when something is working. From a student lens, it's about students telling us what makes them feel seen, valued, and appreciated so that we can build this sense of belonging.
We live in a world where the word ‘equity’ can almost mean anything. We need to understand what we are talking about when we say it and understand it together. Then, we need to figure out how to implement change based on what we learn.
We are a public institution, so we welcome people of all beliefs and views. Students do have some concerns about this, but we live in a country where all voices have a right to be there — you might not value what is being said, but someone else might. If your university isn't a place where you are being challenged, then you are missing out on something. The fact that our institution is on public grounds is that no one receives an invitation, but the world is invited to our campus, and we need to protect that.
We are lucky to have very bright students that engage on this campus, and that can come with a struggle, but that is what happens when you engage — you hear different viewpoints.
We are bombarded with information all the time in the society we live in; the issue with this is not that the students don’t have the information. I think this issue comes from a lack of human connection, especially post-pandemic. It’s trying to get people to connect again and value similarities and differences. Things happen, and what we want people to do is report them, and have a supportive system.
We also want to establish a culture where faculty and staff are very cognitive about language; some people say things that are colloquial or acceptable elsewhere, but you don’t know how that is going to impact someone. It’s about being aware of these things to minimize microaggressions.
It’s a strange time post-pandemic. Many of our students have jobs or are caregivers. We have student ambassadors and clubs and organizations, and we have a lot of students that regularly engage in that. However, we are a transient campus. We have a lot of commuters, so a lot of students take their classes and go.
We have fantastic engagement in pockets, such as with our women's and men’s mentorship programs, and our programs for former foster youth — programs like these see really high engagement. With global activities, on the other hand, we see less engagement, so we are trying to do more high-touch engagement with vulnerable groups.
Students have experiences and voices, and you really have to listen to and respect that. Their experience is not one thing; you must understand what makes up their whole experience. It’s also important to act on the things that you can act on, and let students help with finding solutions, because they have a lot to say.