The Interview USA
Saint Leo University
Vice President of Student Affairs

Jen Shaw

University life thrives on strong student connections, yet the recent onboarding of students post-COVID presents an unprecedented challenge. Many of these students have missed out on crucial social interactions as a result of remote learning, and now Higher Education (HE) has an opportunity to redefine how they support these students to make up for this lost time. We can build thriving campus communities where students feel they truly belong by prioritizing initiatives that support students in developing their interpersonal and conflict-resolution skills.

Max Webber, Co-Host of The Interview, caught up with Jen Shaw, Vice President of Student Affairs at Saint Leo University, to discuss how the university is leveraging its close-knit community to build an inclusive culture.

Jen's Journey

Max: Let's start with a brief introduction to yourself and your institution.

I’m Jen Shaw, Vice President of Student Affairs at Saint Leo University, a private Catholic University located just outside Tampa, Florida. We have about 2,500 students at the university, 1,600 of whom live on campus. We have a further 10,000 students studying online; they’re typically mature and military students who need flexible learning pathways. 

Personally, I’ve been in Student Affairs for over 30 years. After my undergraduate studies, I moved straight into a Master’s program in HE Student Development and Counseling. Through my role, I support student needs beyond the classroom, including housing and dining, safety, counseling, health, career, and so on.

Max: What’s your biggest focus in building a sense of belonging and inclusion on campus?

We’re one Saint Leo family – we want all students to feel welcome and appreciated here. We try to individualize our support and get to know students on a personal level; we’re fortunate to be able to do this, given the size of our on-campus cohort. We also ensure our Catholic values are visible across campus; we want students to understand who we are and the values we live by as a community.

Max: How do you approach driving engagement with belonging and inclusion initiatives for all students at Saint Leo University?

There will always be a portion of students we can’t reach; often, this is a product of the shifting priorities they have in their lives at any given time. Despite this, we still want to provide all students with multiple opportunities to engage so that support is available when they want or need it. We’re also responsive to student feedback; a great example of this is how we’ve pivoted our approach towards helping international students settle in at Saint Leo University. Initially, we’d planned to create a communal space for them to meet and study, but we found it didn’t work as intended. In getting to know the students, we learned they shared a collective interest in cricket. We’re in the process of launching a cricket team to help these students build a genuine and aligned self of community.

Max: How are you working to ensure students engage with one another respectfully, particularly in light of the increasingly polarized political landscape?

This is particularly challenging in the United States right now; it calls for a dynamic approach. Our faculty staff set expectations in the classroom about respectful communication and model this for students. We also use restorative justice practices; instead of punishing behavior, we support students to understand how their actions have impacted others. The process involves remediation between students to build understanding and find solutions that promote positive behavioral change. 

Max: What is Student Affairs’ top priority post-COVID?

For our community, it’s been about engagement. We found that new cohorts post-COVID lacked interpersonal and conflict resolution skills; we have to remember that these students have primarily learned from home in recent years. We’ve invested a lot of time in teaching students how to communicate effectively and navigate conflict with their peers to make up for the social engagement they missed during that time.

Max: What is the best piece of advice you’ve received across the course of your career?

That’s a tricky one; I’ve had so many great mentors and role models across my career. The one piece of advice I always go back to is: treat others the way you want to be treated. We approach Student Affairs with this sentiment in mind, everything from how we’ve designed our orientation program to how we communicate with parents.

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