One of the most powerful aspects of going away to university is discovering a new community of people, often from diverse backgrounds. In order for that community to flourish, however, the leaders of the institution have to provide support and understanding, to ensure students’ needs are respected and heard, as well as to help them communicate with one another.
GoodCourse’s Universities Lead, Kitty Hadaway, spoke to Drew Miller, Interim Vice President for Student Affairs at Sam Houston State University (SHSU) in Texas about the importance of communication with students in order to best understand the community he’s serving and provide them with the best outcomes.
Our students. Our student body is majority-minority — particularly Hispanic — and heavily first-generation. They come to us with such a fresh perspective and are so transparent about their needs but also so overtly appreciative of the way that the community rallies on their behalf. It’s such a meaningful interaction. Our university motto is “A measure of a life is its service,” which is something our namesake Sam Houston said, and it’s legitimately something that people live here on a daily basis. Sometimes even a bad day at SHSU is a good day because you know you’re making a difference.
As a mental health professional, I’ve always been somewhat of a helper by nature. This was a natural culmination of that in terms of synergy between personal interest and profession, but I discovered that what it means to be a helper is so much broader when you couch it in a student affairs framework. I became captivated by the cumulative impact student affairs professionals can have not just in our support of our students while they’re here at our institutions but across their lifespans. We can give them a more stable understanding of themselves and their relationship with the world and others. This can have a dramatic impact on job prospects, developing healthy relationships with future partners, etc., and that’s pretty amazing.
My time in student affairs work has coincided with a lot of societal change, all of which affects student affairs because, at its core, the work we do is personal. The personal is political. You can’t escape that. Students, over the course of my career, have become much more adept at articulating their needs and holding institutions accountable for those resources. That can feel a little challenging or threatening to administrators. But I love that spirit of them saying, “Here’s who I am in all of my nuanced identities, needs, and hopes. Now, what are you doing to make sure that I can succeed?”
Historically, we as administrators have been a bit insulated from the day-to-day with our students and I think those barriers have come down. I do my best to educate myself about the day-to-day experiences of our students and then take that knowledge forward to our senior administrators. If they don’t understand the reality of our students’ experience, how are they going to make wise decisions about the allocation of financial resources? Our budgets are values documents, so if we’re not doing our due diligence to have that more fine-grained understanding, then the resources don’t flow in a way that meets our students’ needs.
The biggest was dealing with a flood of information about what our students’ real lived experiences were. We became aware of how many of our students are functionally homeless or go without consistent access to food when they’re not in the residence halls. How many are safer on campus because their abuser is at home. How many came out of the closet at school and now had to return to a home environment where they weren’t safe. And what does it mean when they return to us in terms of how we need to evolve and deepen our services? That was humbling. But also reignited for many of us the passion in our work.
As far as impact, Covid ripped the curtain back on every type of injustice, not only across the country but within our institutions. We found some pretty major gaps in service and ways in which students were being disenfranchised. Now that we see them, it’s allowing us to rethink how we do things.
We’ve become more intentional about how we solicit student feedback. We started doing listening tours with our BIPOC student leaders, where my job is just to listen to what they have to tell me. We’ve had some pretty powerful conversations. I take the summary of those meetings back to cabinet meetings with administrative leaders, and we unpack them. And it’s starting to yield great results.
We’re also rethinking how we onboard students into the community from orientation through a Welcome Week program called Bearcat Kickoff. We’re requiring all first-time freshmen to move to campus a week early, prior to the start of the semester. During that time is four days of programming focused on academic preparedness, holistic wellness, and community building and engagement, leaning very heavily into inclusivity and belonging from the get-go. This includes finding your community and making space for folks who may have differing opinions or perspectives and understanding they still have value as humans. Our hope is if we can infuse these skills from the start, they’ll be able to weather those challenges more effectively and also feel more at home and comfortable from the get-go.
Student affairs work is the most rewarding and challenging work I can imagine anybody doing within the higher education sphere, because it requires you to engage not only with students but yourself. The most effective student affairs professionals are the ones who are constantly interrogating themselves around the types of privilege they carry and how they can leverage their identities on behalf of the students to make changes. While that’s incredibly taxing work, it’s also so rewarding and transformative — not only for the institution but for yourself.