Universities have a responsibility to create dynamic, engaging spaces where students from all walks of life feel welcome, supported, and empowered to succeed. This understanding is at the heart of the work done by Jennifer DeBurro, Vice President of Student Affairs and Dean of Students at the University of New England, who has worked tirelessly to create an environment where students can thrive to their fullest potential.
Jennifer sat down with Charles Sin, Co-Host of the Interview, to talk about her journey into student affairs, her initiatives to create a welcoming environment for students, and the challenges of free speech on campus.
I’m the Vice President of Student Affairs and the Dean of Students at the University of New England. We’re a midsized institution with two campuses in Maine. My portfolio includes counseling, student access, housing, orientation, and engagement.
For me, it’s a very personal story. In high school, I wasn’t encouraged to pursue a college education. I’d resigned myself to working in retail — maybe meeting someone and having a family, taking that traditional path. But when I told my mom, she said “Absolutely not!” My parents never had the opportunity to go to college, so she was determined that I get the chance. That started my college journey, but as a first-generation student, I had no idea where to start.
When I arrived at college, I didn’t know what to expect, but I was fortunate to connect with my building’s residence director and the Director of Housing. I took a shine to them, and by my sophomore year, I knew I wanted to do what they did. I realized that the student experience could be transformational: I wanted to be a part of something bigger and help young people to find a path. Every day, I am grateful that I have the chance to help others.
Like so many institutions, our world has changed dramatically in the past decade, especially in the last four or five years. For the first time, we now have an Associate Provost dedicated to DEI. That has allowed us to zoom out and take a broader view of diversity and inclusion issues. It makes it possible to align staff who are committed to DEI work with other departments, and to coordinate our efforts across the institution. Before, our focus was primarily student-facing, but by bringing in a Chief Diversity Officer, we’ve been able to bring key people together from across the university and create a unified strategy — to see where we were, where we are now, and where we are going. Many institutions have opened their eyes to the importance of DEI, particularly in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd. As an institution, the most important thing is to be thoughtful and responsive, especially in an environment that is changing rapidly.
I was introduced to NASPA by my earliest mentor, who I met as an undergraduate at Assumption College. She has held many roles at NASPA and introduced me to the organization at the outset of my career. It helped me learn that professional organizations can help us stay in touch with the bigger picture. Working in a single institution for 18 years, it can be easy to get stuck in a bubble, but working with outside partners keeps you grounded in a wider context. I’ve learned so much from my colleagues across the country and beyond — the challenges they face, and the solutions they’ve come up with. I encourage everyone to get involved with professional organizations — whether it’s in a voluntary capacity or a leadership position, it helps us all become better professionals.
Some of our most important efforts are closely connected to the issue of free speech on campus and with that in mind, I can see a number of things we should all be doing... Firstly, we need to model from the top down: for example, our President, James Herbert, hosts an annual forum that models how to engage in these difficult conversations. Through that series, we have addressed divisive issues like gun control and climate change. These are hard topics, but instead of shying away from them, we want to show students how to have constructive discussions.
One issue we’re seeing out there is people being shouted down — having a voice isn’t always a safe thing. So we need to prepare students to go out into the world and to be in spaces where people won’t always agree with them. Finally, as a leader in student affairs, it’s imperative for me to create spaces for learning for my staff that help them stay up to date. Last summer, we started a new professional development series: we’ve recognized the importance of continuous training for staff as well as students.
We need to model how to disagree respectfully. One of the challenges for our field is to help students feel empowered to challenge unacceptable behavior. We want young people to feel capable of addressing the challenges they will face in the world. If we create space for students to have difficult conversations, and to practice confronting each other in a respectful way, then it can help them feel like they have agency. It has to be internally motivated — during the pandemic, there were a lot of challenges, and students felt like events were happening to them. My goal is to shift that paradigm, helping students to take back control and responsibility over their lives.
Be responsive. We need to know what students are facing if we want to have an impact. It’s easy to make assumptions. Instead, we need to be intentional and ask hard questions about our students and the work we do every day.