It is of the utmost importance to have empathy when dealing with student affairs. Whether it be when fostering a sense of belonging on campus, encouraging cultural competence, or creating a safe community, understanding student needs is imperative to meeting them.
Doug Hallenbeck, Vice President for Student Affairs at Oklahoma State University, has extensive experience working with students. He sat down with Charles Sin, Co-host of The Interview, to discuss his career and the initiatives he is most proud of.
I'm the Vice President of Student Affairs at Oklahoma State University. I oversee several departments and have some direct impact on most things that happen outside of the classroom to do with students.
My dad was in Student Housing and Student Affairs, so I grew up around it. My summer job at sixteen was working in the residence halls doing painting, maintenance, and custodial work.
I really wanted to major in psychology at college. So I went to Georgia College in Milledgeville, Georgia. While I was there, I was an RA, a cheerleader, and in a fraternity. Somewhere down the line, I realized I didn't want to be a counselor. So I asked my father — he’s one of my heroes — for his thoughts, and he said, “Why don't you go into student affairs?”
That's why I went to Mississippi State for graduate work, where I was a hall director. Then, at the University of Florida, most of my work was in student housing. I came up as an area coordinator, then Assistant Director of housing, then a Director of housing, then Executive Director of housing, then Associate Vice President and Executive Director of housing. When I reached the Senior Associate Vice President role, I moved into broader areas of work, not just housing.
I have found that students, generally speaking, haven’t changed much over time. They still want community and to be successful; they have hopes, dreams, and fears. The biggest change has been in the intensity of mental health challenges. However, now we’re also much more aware of these challenges and are willing to talk about them.
Coming out of Covid, we’ve seen a huge impact on students — it’s not overly negative, but it’s different. We’re figuring out how students interact with each other, with communities, and with in-person instruction.
I did not. It grew on me as I went into it. Early in my career, my dad was a role model for me, guiding me on how to treat people. Even though he has been retired for 25 years now, when I have an issue, I’ll still reach out to him. He taught me that it’s essential to make everybody feel important and like they matter.
Funnily enough, my daughter is a Hall Director in Student Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University — so we’re three generations deep now!
In the past year, we have really focused on belonging. We have reviewed policies to tackle unconscious bias. We work with students as they come in to build a sense of community, encouraging them to understand different cultures and ideas. We have also specifically looked at our DEI initiatives around career competencies. Employers want employees that have intercultural competence, who understand that the world is bigger than themselves. We work closely with our institutional diversity colleagues, raising awareness of differences, and engaging in dialogue on these topics.
We have worked hard with student government, and in our residence halls, to help students talk through differences and understand the importance of empathizing with people who have different ideas, thoughts, or beliefs. But it’s not just students who struggle. This is an issue across the board, even with staff.
So we want to work with students to help them realize that just because we allow speech, does not mean we condone it.
We have some preachers, for lack of a better word, who periodically come to campus. They have pretty hard-line religious views, calling women names for wearing shorter skirts and offering negative opinions about LGBTQ+ issues or diversity in general. So we want to work with students to help them realize that just because we allow speech, does not mean we condone it. We have had to do a lot of training. No other time in your life are you going to be surrounded by as much diversity and difference than when you are living and working on a university campus.
Part of it is engaging in these conversations with students to help them take responsibility for their own safety. We do a lot of bystander training — if you see something, say something, helping people engage in these conversations. We do a lot of work on mental health, which fits into emotional safety, as well as work on self-medicating, alcohol, and drugs.
We utilize technology. Anyone can fill out a care report if they’re concerned about someone, or our behavioral intervention team will report if there’s a safety concern. Then we pull together our team, which includes police, lawyers, student, and academic life folks, to determine what our next course of action will be. We have an app called Guardian App, which has all our safety information on it. We also do required online training modules.
It’s tough. Especially with the mass shootings we’ve been having across the country, being honest about the limits of our ability to ensure safety is important. If people want to come and go as they please, that comes with some level of risk — so people need to know their surroundings, how to evacuate, et cetera.
Without a doubt. I think trying to understand how the mind works, using compassion, and how our behaviors manifest all come together. It has served me well. It has given me an understanding of the mental health struggles some people have, and the difficulty of the work our counselors do with students to help them be successful.
In terms of engagement outside of the classroom, student time is the most precious commodity to capture. Depending on our different efforts, we see students engaging through different organizations, residence halls, fraternities and sororities, and specific outreaches. We see a lot of students connecting through their chosen career paths, as well as through media.
Meet them where they’re at. We have a lot of students at different points in their journey, so meeting them where they’re at with a level of empathy — and challenging them to grow, develop, and see that the world is bigger than themselves is my biggest tip.