The Interview USA
Southern New Hampshire University
Senior Vice President and Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer

Jada Hebra

On the path towards true equity and inclusion in higher education, acknowledging and dismantling systemic barriers is not merely a moral imperative, but a fundamental necessity. In her role as Senior Vice President and Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer at Southern New Hampshire University, Jada Hebra has worked tirelessly to make this ideal a reality.

Chris Mansfield, GoodCourse’s Client Services Lead, sat down with Jada to talk over topics such as the importance of promoting constructive dialogue across divides and the unique challenge of fostering a sense of belonging and community among remote learners.

Jada's Journey

Chris: Can we start with a quick introduction to yourself and your institution?

I'm Jada Hebra and I'm the Senior Vice President and Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU). We’re based in Manchester, New Hampshire. I have been here at SNHU since 2016 when I was hired as the first Chief Diversity Officer. I have been in the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) space in education for over 30 years now. Prior to joining SNHU, I worked in private boarding education. Here at SNHU, we serve mostly adult learners: working adults, low-income students, and a high percentage of people of color. It’s our mission to provide higher education to those who have been historically marginalized.

Chris: What led you to pursue a career in higher education – and DEI specifically?

That depends on how far back you want me to go! My father grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, under the Jim Crow segregation laws. He really wanted to go to the University of Alabama, but couldn't, because he was Black. He ended up going to an HBCU, and for his whole life has been championing civil rights and equality. That’s had a very profound effect on me. So I was drawn to education right out of the gate and started my career in boarding school, which in the US is so stratified by class. Often, while living and working on campus, the students who were drawn to me and my family were predominantly low-income scholarship students – many of whom were Black and Brown kids who arrived at boarding school like they had landed on a different planet. So, right from the start, I've always been kind of sensitive to the needs of folks who come into educational environments, and just feel like they don't belong there. So that became kind of a passion project for me. 

Chris: What are your main areas of focus from a DEI perspective?

My role covers both the employee side and the student side, so it's highly focused on reducing turnover rates for learners and employees. That’s especially important for folks who have been historically marginalized in the US and in higher education. So we really focus on equity design and looking at our systems to see where there are barriers. We’re trying to show our learners that there isn’t something wrong or deficient about them, but that there are problems built into our system. That requires a lot of patience, empathy, cultural awareness, and responsiveness. 

Chris: The majority of your students are remote learners. How can you build a sense of community when people aren't often in the same physical space together?

It’s a huge challenge. We have a physical residential campus of about 3,000 students and the difference between residential and online students is really stark. It's completely different culturally. So we’re rethinking what community and belonging mean and what they look like in the online space. You can never replicate this online – you can’t read body language, and things like that. It's just not like that in an asynchronous environment. There’s a widespread misconception that busy remote learners are transactional and that they don't want to build relationships. I challenge that because connection is the key to feeling a sense of belonging. It's challenging because we know that we're competing with home life and the communities that they already belong in. So we’ve developed something called SNHU Connect, which is an asynchronous space for student clubs to come together. Above all, the most important thing is to create opportunities for students to come together.

Chris: Students have competing demands on their time. How can we persuade them to invest their time and effort into these kinds of initiatives?

You have to constantly be creative. Think, how can we approach this from a different way? How do we shift our mindset a little bit? I think number one is confidence-boosting messages. You need to tell students: you can do this, you belong here, you're not alone. I think that that really drives engagement. If students aren’t in a classroom surrounded by people, it can feel very isolating, so we need to help them build up their confidence. The best way to do that is by taking a holistic approach appealing to the whole person. For example, we tested a social justice fund pilot in 2022 with a group of first-generation students. It was really powerful to see the peer connection, how they shared stories about what they were struggling with, and shared advice with each other. We have a lot of students who are parents or grandparents, so it helps to be family-friendly in our messaging. We know that there are all these meaningful people and relationships in our learners’ lives, so we include them in our embrace of each of our learners.

We’ve also introduced an AI chatbot named Penny – she notices when students have not submitted assignments, or when their attendance is falling, and she'll reach out to them. They can ask her questions, and she’s become something of a confidante to our students, even though they know she's an AI. What we're hearing from them is that they don't feel judged by her and that they can admit when they're struggling. So they'll discuss things with Penny that they might be reluctant to share with tutors or peers. Strangely enough, it has actually made a significant difference in our engagement rates with our students.

Chris: How can we encourage students to build constructive dialogue across difference?

It's really tough in an asynchronous environment because hiding behind a keyboard makes conflict easier to sustain. Our faculty are really alert to how to defuse things when they happen in an online environment, such as when somebody posts something really nasty or offensive. But I would also point to an upgrade that we just did to our Gen Ed program to include a social justice dimension designed specifically to help students learn about how to engage across differing viewpoints. So right when they come into SNHU they're introduced to the need to build dialogue across divides.

Chris: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Someone once told me, “Human beings are feeling beings who think.” You have to understand that they're going to lead with their emotions. You need to think about how to connect with people in their hearts first.

Curious to see what the future of training looks like?
Chris Mansfield
Client Services
Chris is one of the Client Service leads at GoodCourse, dedicated to helping institutions better engage their audience to create a more inclusive, safer, and more successful environment. To request to be featured on the series, get in touch at

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