Student needs in Higher Education (HE) have grown beyond the realm of academics, encompassing a wider range of challenges and circumstances that demand a holistic approach to support. Homer Wesley, Vice President of Student Services at Pikes Peak State College, has dedicated his career to championing student support, inclusivity, and cultivating an open, diverse, and safe learning environment.
Homer sat down with GoodCourse to discuss issues including free speech on college campuses, ensuring student safety, and advancing cultural competency among students.
I’m Vice President of Student Services at Pikes Peak State College (formerly PP Comunity College), in Colorado. We’re a community college offering two-year degrees and certificates (and two four-year degrees). We’re a commuter institution serving around 20,000 students. I have a broad organization including everything from admissions and advising to accessibility and student life.
As a student, I went to Auburn University in Alabama. When I was there, I discovered my love for HE and knew this is what I wanted to do. From there, I moved into admissions and orientation work, and I’ve been in the field ever since. I think the work we do in HE is incredibly important because it opens doors for students. I served at five different institutions before I arrived in my current role.
I think we now serve a much more diverse student body. When I was at Auburn, the student body was pretty homogeneous, with students mostly from higher-income families. Back then, there was a much narrower range of students — in terms of race, income, and disability. Students deal with challenges now that we never thought about in the past. We now have a more positive and proactive approach to supporting students through their personal life challenges. Back in the day, students who didn’t conform were often removed from the institution. But now our work is much more about supporting students instead of controlling them.
Community college has been an eye-opening experience for me. Apart from the last seven years, I’ve spent my 43-year career at four-year institutions. When I arrived on campus, I brought ideas from my previous institutions, including a student leadership program. But I soon realized that the students here faced a wider range of life challenges. They didn’t have the same level of support and opportunity as their peers at four-year institutions. We had students who were carers for loved ones, students from low-income backgrounds, and students with challenging family situations. We have an incredibly diverse student body, and it will continue to grow — the population of Colorado Springs is expected to expand by 450,000 over the next 20 years. That growth will increase the demand for education. There’s a high level of education in Colorado, but much of it is imported: people born here older than 25 are less likely to have a degree. So we need to meet students where they are and be flexible and understanding to help them move through their studies.
I’ve always thought the purpose of HE is to prepare our students for a fast-paced, dynamic global society. Exposure to different ideas is central to that. We want to create an environment that allows the equal exchange of ideas. Debate shouldn’t mean losing your anchor — as James Joyce once said, “A questioned faith is a stronger faith.” Our community college is an incredibly open and accepting environment, as we have students and faculty from various backgrounds. That diversity allows for the exchange of ideas in a way that exposes people to new perspectives while still respecting the culture that raised them. In a world with an increasingly diverse workforce, understanding where people are coming from is a critical skill.
We have a full police force on campus. Not all community colleges have that, but we’ve invested considerable time and effort into resources and training. We also have a behavioral intervention team that works with representatives from across the college community. We try to intervene early before a student begins to spiral. We have an on-campus counselor, and we’ve also added online support that students can access remotely. With almost 20,000 students, it’s not always possible to catch everything, but by preparing, listening, and reacting, we can provide timely and appropriate intervention.
Our student body is highly diverse: our challenge is matching that diversity with our faculty and staff. We want to meet students where they are and better understand some challenges that may run across racial or economic lines. A lot of our DEI goes into preparing for the work we do with students in the classroom. We are aware that our community needs to be met by a broad understanding from our faculty and staff — that can help us prepare our students for life beyond college.
We need to listen and understand before we can seek solutions. Sometimes you want to rush to the answer, but first, you must find out where people are. Remain open and confident, and assume positive intent. Remember that every person is an individual — it’s no use trying to fit them into boxes.