Student Experience has a wide remit for Higher Education (HE) professionals, especially during these complex times when the lives and needs of students are changing all the time.
In this interview, Charles Sin, Co-host of The Interview, speaks with Ethan Logan, Vice President for Enrollment and Student Experience at Western Kentucky University (WKU). Ethan discusses how the pandemic has affected enrollment and recruitment initiatives in the university, the importance of cultural competency, and the challenges in encouraging freedom of speech on campus.
As Vice President for Enrollment and Student Experience for Western Kentucky University, I serve in a dual capacity role for the institution. I think it’s a wonderful combination of the two roles of institutional support. I have been in HE coming on 27 years now; I spent the first half of my career working in Student Affairs, the middle part of my career in Enrollment Management, and now have a nice mix of both.
I like to think that Student Experience is the evolution of what we have historically called Student Affairs. The idea behind it is that as we evolve in HE and we respond to our students in terms of their needs and their development — the student experience is a good way to try to talk about this professional element of our responsibility. We're interested in the experience of students and how we're enhancing and supporting the student in their time in the institution.
Covid disrupted the traditional college approach for American HE in terms of college entrance exams. The return to these exams has been slow and particularly relegated to more competitive and selective institutions. I think that a resolution from the Covid experience was an awakening to American HE that our college entrance exams process is perhaps antiquated. It had a significant value at its onset, and we stuck with the tradition, and it became entrenched beyond it having benefits.
There's a strong criticism in American culture about college entrance exams being specifically restrictive or prejudicial against underrepresented or minority students regarding their ability to be exposed to, train for, and educated in these processes. Therefore, there was a disadvantage to their approach to college. Covid disrupted that cycle, and going test-optional showed that there was no real need for entrance exams.
Then, with more selective institutions driving up recruitment since the pandemic, there has been strong growth in some flagship universities, top research universities, and highly competitive institutions. This means fewer students are going to regional institutions, and some students are not going to get into the institutions that they would like to get into. However, the beautiful thing about the American HE system is that there's a tremendous amount of opportunity across the board regarding access to education. That is what matters.
Therefore we have to think about how we're incorporating participation in HE on various levels, not just on the historical traditional involvement participation. That's the quintessential opportunity for people to appreciate and take advantage of HE — some people have been in the workforce who need to come back for training or who need complete college degrees, or those that need graduate degrees for advancement and professional development. There are many other aspects of HE that we need to be present in, serving the population in terms of their education needs.
It begins with looking at how we are evoking interest and participation in our recruitment process of students from underrepresented populations and backgrounds, including both ethnic and race differences, educational differences like first-generation college students, and students from low socioeconomic means — any students who see a barrier to access. We're trying to promote these pieces across our recruitment structure. We have some recruitment events specifically targeting our cultural student populations to try to bring them in. For example, we have a program called We See You WKU, and we want to bring in underrepresented students and let them know that we are there to support them.
Then we have a piece around exposing students to different cultures on campus. We try to do this continuously so that we're always present and visible so people can participate in those programs and services. Some of them are entertaining, some of those are educational, and some of those are truly cultural immersion experiences, whether that's cultural celebrations like Black History Month or alongside our Hispanic and Indigenous peoples' programs and services
Then we're also going to have conversations and programs that talk about the fact that we understand who we are, where we're coming from, and appreciate the fact that we have our own ideas or impressions. What we've been exposed to in our lives is inherent to our person, and we can use that to try and break down some of those pieces that would restrict the ideas of cross-cultural conversation, engagement, and community. So, it's a successive process from the beginning through the education process, through the years of education to graduation.
If we can bring different ideas together and we can express those ideas in a constructive manner, which is not confrontational, then we can bring a new perspective to each other. It might be uncomfortable, but when I put my perspective and your perspective together, we may find a third element, a different angle, and from there, a wonderful opportunity for new knowledge. Between two people having that dialogue, we're going to realize that something we have missed in the process of forming our own opinions provokes an opportunity for the future. The idea of differences in mindset, adding to the possibility of cultivating new knowledge is supported by the idea of freedom of expression.
We have to embrace the fact that we will be uncomfortable at times. We have to be resilient in that if it's not maliciously intended, if someone is not saying words of hate to you to frustrate you or condemn you, then we must consider that it might be ignorant rather than malicious.
We have to embrace the fact that we will be uncomfortable at times. We have to be resilient in that if it's not maliciously intended, if someone is not saying words of hate to you to frustrate you or condemn you, then we must consider that it might be ignorant rather than malicious. That's not to condemn the person speaking, ignorance has a negative connotation but can just mean that we can be harmful without being aware of it. Freedom of expression needs to be understood by the person who listens as well as the person who speaks.
Engagement is a beautiful component of the HE experience because it is almost undefinable; many variables can represent student engagement. It can be connections between students and faculty members, it can be roommates who become great friends in residence halls, it can be community involvement and finding like-minded people on campus — anything that makes you feel a part of this community. You can't quantify engagement because there are many different ways of engaging. All it means is that students see the value of the institution and develop certain anchors to it. Engagement is a way to take the whole and make it feel more personal and intimate. It's an ownership of the institution — once students start to feel like the institution is theirs fully, not just that they go to school here, that care, that transition, is an inherent motivator.