The Interview USA
University of Nothern Alabama
Vice President for Student Affairs

Kathleen White

As centers of learning and innovation, universities hold a crucial responsibility to actively contribute to the local and regional communities they are a part of. This ethos is central to the mission of the University of North Alabama, and its Vice President for Student Affairs, Kathleen White

Max Webber, Co-Host of The Interview, met with Kathleen to talk over topics including initiatives for fostering students’ wellbeing and the importance of creating a genuine sense of belonging for all members of the learning community. 

Kathleen White

Max: Let’s begin with a brief introduction to yourself and your institution…

My name is Kathleen White, and I serve as the Vice President for Student Affairs at the University of North Alabama (UNA). We’re located in Florence in northwest Alabama, right along the Tennessee River. We are a public regional institution with about 10,000 Students, and we've had progressive growth over the last 16 semesters. UNA is the oldest four-year institution in the state of Alabama, founded in 1830. So we're going to be celebrating our 200-year anniversary very soon. 

I've been here since July 2022 – I’ve spent my whole career in higher education, and took quite a winding path here. I did my undergraduate studies down in Florida and was a marketing major. I originally wanted to go into PR, but as I got more involved in undergraduate life, I started to consider student affairs as a profession. I’ve always been driven by a belief in how higher education can change people's lives.

Max: You mentioned that your institution has seen a steady growth in enrollment. What’s been behind your continued success?

Here at UNA, we have done a lot of thinking about our niche, and what we can offer to students. We’re really committed to serving our state and region, aligning the interests of our institution with those of the local community. Our MBA program is the largest in the whole state, and we recently began to offer doctoral degrees. We also need to consider the needs of the community and workforce in the degrees we offer – for example, our area is within the Tennessee Valley Authority, which always needs engineers and educators. We’ve also started to expand internationally, but we aren’t interested in growth for growth's sake – we need to be intentional in our approach.

Max: What’s the key to creating a sense of inclusion and belonging for students from all walks of life?

You’ve got to be genuine. Above all, it’s about helping people. I believe that if we admit a student to our university, we have a responsibility to help them succeed. Providing opportunities is one thing, but to create a sense of belonging, we need to encourage students to get involved. Students have limited time, and many of them need to work outside their studies, so we need to make sure that we’re respecting their time. We also take a genuine interest in their career aspirations and how we can support them. It’s one thing to recruit students, but it’s another to see them through to graduation. We have a number of affinity groups that help to connect with students and create that sense of community. We’re also fortunate to have exceptional faculty members who believe in public service and investing in our students. It’s important that students know where to go if they need help – even if they don’t come to the right place, we’ll make sure to get them there. In some ways, it's simple, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's easy – there has to be intentionality behind it. 

Max: Recent guests have discussed the challenge of engaging students outside the classroom. How do you make sure students are aware of critical resources and how to access them?

It’s quite timely – just this morning, the news ran an interview with one of our student athletes, who was talking about how it's okay to not be okay. This student found her voice, and she talked about how our Student Counseling Services help with athletics. They run a group called Huddle, which is designed to be responsive to the demands placed on our student athletes, offering them a safe space to come together and talk about their well-being. It all comes back to intentionality – you can't do everything, so you need to prioritize your time and resources to focus on mental health and well-being. Coming out of COVID, students lost a lot of time, and many of them struggled to find connections. We’ve still got a lot of ground to catch up on. When we talk about wellness, it’s not just about physical health, but emotional, mental, and financial well-being. You don’t just get to leave your life at the door when you enter a classroom – everything is connected, and if you’re struggling in one area, that can impact others. 

Max: Free speech has become a hot topic on college campuses. How can we encourage students to engage in civil discourse with those on the other side of the debate?

We need to create spaces where students feel safe to speak out. If you hold an opinion on an issue, or are trying to form one, you need to be able to tease that out in a place where you can be vulnerable and not be worried about being judged or canceled. Peer pressure can be very powerful, and sometimes, people might not speak up for fear of their opinions being too controversial. So our students have to feel that we are approachable, accessible, and impartial. There’s this narrative that all institutions of higher education are trying to change students’ minds to make them more liberal, but that’s not the reality at all. We want people to think critically so they can find out what they really believe. We have a presidential election coming up and, for many of our students, it will be the first time they’ve been able to vote. We're not gonna tell anyone who to vote, but we will make sure they are registered to vote and informed about the issues. There’s a lot of polarization right now, so it’s more important than ever to engage in the political process to try and bridge those divides. 

Max: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received in your career? 

It goes back to something Booker T. Washington said: “Success should not be measured by the position you have reached in life but by the obstacles you have overcome.” But I also interpret that as how we can remove obstacles for others, and that’s what I try to do every day.

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