The past decade has seen substantial changes in Higher Education (HE), and since the pandemic, that change has been happening faster and far more drastically than ever before. This is why it takes great HE leaders to adapt university initiatives and ensure they are consistently fit for purpose.
Jayne Brownell, Vice President for Student Life at Miami University, sat down with Kitty Hadaway, GoodCourse Universities Lead, to discuss how her career has changed through the years and the importance of creativity in making new initiatives.
I'm the Vice President for Student Life at Miami University. I have been here for about nine years now. We are a public university with 20,000 students — about 17,000 undergraduate and 3,000 graduate students. I oversee the traditional student life areas outside the classroom — fifteen departments in all.
After college, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I was in advertising, and it was interesting, but I realized that I couldn't be in a field where I wasn’t changing the lives of others. I started talking to university advisors, and my mentor suggested Student Affairs. I knew right away it would be my path — I love to impact culture, especially during some of the most important years of a person's life.
Our current president, Greg Crawford, came in around six years ago and changed things a lot. He pushed creativity, asking: could we do the things that no one else has tried but that everybody will want to copy in five years? That changed the way we do our work. At that time we shifted from Student Affairs, which felt a bit more traditional, to Student Life, which feels more understandable and contemporary.
We also changed our messaging to tell students: don't come and find where you fit, come and find where you belong, because to be truly who you are and be accepted in all of our identities is what you deserve.
We've been talking about student mental health for a very long time. We have more than doubled our counseling staff since I've been here, which is fantastic. But even with double the staff, we don't meet demand. Then Covid hit, and we gained a better understanding that there is a continuum from day-to-day emotional well-being to people who need intensive care — and we need to focus on all parts of that spectrum. We worked on that for students in 2020 and 2021 and then began to focus on staff mental health so they could be there for our students. I sat with President Crawford, and we talked about how we think about our culture around mental health and emotional well-being more broadly, and we set up The Institutional Task Force on Student, Faculty, and Staff Mental Health and Emotional Well-being.
We are concluding our report on this now; we have had three different work groups: faculty and staff, students, and community. One looks at faculty and staff well-being, one at student well-being, and one at the community as a whole. We are looking at services, but also look at how our culture impacts well-being.
We really do want to focus on the intersection between the individual and the community. There's an inter-association group of 15 different associations, led by NIRSA, NASPA, and ACHA, that have a great definition of well-being, looking at the subjective and objective measures of individual and community well-being and how all of that comes together. We want to look at all those levels and what we need on campus. We need more intentional communication about well-being, its importance, and how to access our services. We have so many resources, but they're spread out all over campus, and people don't know how to access them.
We also need better education for our faculty and staff so that they can support students. We did a lot of listening sessions with students where they are concerned about talking to faculty and showing their vulnerability about mental health because they don't know what response they'll get. So we are looking at how we build a community where we have that culture of care.
If you don't feel that sense of belonging or community or care, you aren't going to thrive, you aren't going to be able to focus academically, and you aren't going to persist and graduate. We have been talking a lot about how all of our work related to DEI is about student success — we need to create an environment where everybody feels welcome and where they belong.
We have training that is currently mandatory, but I think that even if it isn't required in the future, it is on us to make a case for students of why they should want to do this, that they are coming to an environment that is likely more diverse than anywhere they've ever lived before. When students are coming and living and learning in a new community that is more diverse in life experiences, identities, parts of the world, and points of view than they are used to, we need to set up expectations and a common language so that they can engage in that experience more fully.
We begin this at orientation, we talk about how college is a place that's going to push you. It's not always easy, but trying to develop some comfort with being uncomfortable is how you learn and grow. Even if you walk away believing what you believed before, that examined belief will be a stronger belief that you'll be able to argue more effectively.
More speech is better, and we are not telling students what they have to believe or the conclusion that they need to draw, but we are telling them that they need to listen and be open to others' opinions so that they are also clarifying their own.
What we're seeing right now, after the pandemic, is that there are actually four “generations” on campus at the same time. We are seeing seniors trying to catch up and make up for lost time, juniors who are still a little lost, those that were remote in their first year and still figuring out their place, first-years that are all-in, and sophomores that are somewhere in between. We have found that they are looking for community and are much more likely to engage in social community-building activities. We also realize they don't all love to be in big groups, so we must be much more creative and flexible. Overall, we meet students where they are and create something for everyone.