Respect, community, and student engagement are coming up more and more in the Higher Education (HE) discussion nowadays, which is in large part because of those who are championing these topics daily.
GoodCourse Community Engagement Lead Kira Matthews sat down with Hillary Knepper, Associate Provost for Student Success at Pace University in New York, to speak about how intersectionality and community building go hand in hand with academia and how the work of those who have gone before us has paved the way for the kind of HE communities we are able to build now.
Before Covid, we looked at the structure of our administration and realized that we only had one associate provost working on behalf of 14,000 students, 5 schools, and 3 campuses. It was becoming very challenging! I had the chance to move into student success, so now I do anything on the academic side, as well as student support, advising, accommodation, first-year experience, transfer student experience, and more. I work very closely with student affairs and engagement, so it's my job to look at students' success at Pace.
I worked as a practitioner in nonprofit and public sector organizations for around 20 years. I was primarily on the health and human welfare side of things, as well as policy and administration. I felt I needed a change, as I was no longer enjoying my work, so I got my advanced degrees and came to Pace as my first academic job after doing my PhD.
When I work with students, the onus is on me to prepare them for their careers in a fast-moving world. My experiences in the classroom involve admitting that I don't have all of the answers and that it's up to all of us to work together to solve challenges in the world, alongside the idea that it takes diverse perspectives to do this. That’s a natural connection I formed from being in both situations.
What has been new for me in this role, however, has been bringing together the diverse perspectives of faculty, staff, and students. Because of my work in public affairs, I understand conflict, and where it comes from, so I am able to confront that. Success comes from a joint commitment to the future, and I think that is one of the things I bring to the table.
We have three divergent campuses that attract different kinds of people, which makes for a great mix. The challenge here, however, is that we are trying to serve different needs on different campuses and expectations. It's about having strong retention and persistence, giving students many options, and showing students clearly what those options are. I am incredibly proud of how we pulled together and improved communication on all campuses, especially during Covid. We’ve been focusing on understanding the needs of today’s students and how an institution needs to react and respond and engage intersectionality for those who are underrepresented.
You are still expected to engage in civic activities regardless of your degree. We want our students to understand that the world is interdisciplinary.
We have a lot of initiatives that are expected of students no matter what their academic major is — you are still expected to engage in civic activities regardless of your degree. We want our students to understand that the world is interdisciplinary. So I'm excited that we improved our graduating on-time numbers even during Covid, which I believe is because we built a sense of community. We centralized our advising structure and moved everything to one place. Not only did this create more equitable jobs for the advising teams, it also made us more representative of the student body from an intersectional standpoint. Above all, we stand by our mission of providing an opportunity for everyone during these dynamic times.
It comes from creating a community for ourselves. This means we are actively engaged in the wider community of the city we are in and ensuring we have the infrastructure to do so.
We make sure that staff show up for students and that students can see we are a part of that community too. We also started doing more virtually, so students could join in from anywhere in the world; it’s about showing every student they have a place here.
Then we have the student communities that bubble up organically, both with residential and commuter students. They built community naturally, and our job is to integrate these groups, encouraging students from different groups to go out and experience what others are doing.
It’s a team sport — do not forget that. No one succeeds by themselves, and no one falls down by themselves. Focus on mentoring and helping those around you, as well as finding your mentors. Build an environment of trust, and be fearless.
Those who have gone before us. There is a long list, and a lot of the hard work was done on the front lines at levels that most of us do not see. Faculty who do anything to help students, students who speak out — it’s the unsung heroes that have done the work.
I’m going to name three: Moral Politics by George Lakoff, Emotional Labor by Mary Guy, and Leading in Place by Rita Hilton and Rosemary O’Leary. For me, these are leading the conversation on the underrepresentation and understanding of those who are different to us, discovering that this is actually an asset, not a burden.