The Interview USA
University of Phoenix
Vice President for Accessibility, Equity, and Inclusion

Kelly Hermann

Fostering an inclusive community is paramount for Student Support teams within Higher Education (HE) institutions. At the University of Phoenix, characterized by a diverse student body in a non-traditional setting, nurturing a sense of belonging is both vital and challenging. Kelly Hermann leads this effort, ensuring a supportive and equitable environment for adult students, distance learners, and students with disabilities.

Kelly sat down with Co-Host of The Interview, Max Webber, to discuss the strategies and initiatives her teams employ to bring students together, regardless of background, and build a community that inspires success. 

Kelly's Journey

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

I’m Kelly Hermann, the Vice President (VP) for Accessibility, Equity, and Inclusion at the University of Phoenix. We primarily serve adult students through online courses, so my role is to assess our digital accessibility, make sure our online content works for anyone who uses assistive technology or has a disability, and to oversee our accommodations for students with disabilities. We have an incredibly diverse student body, with two-thirds of our students being women, and 60% coming from underrepresented backgrounds, so I also work with our Office of Educational Equity to provide inclusive programming.

Max: What drew you to a career in supporting students?

I studied communication sciences and disorders at college, and intended to become a speech therapist for elementary school children. At the end of my bachelor’s program, when I was doing my student teaching, I realized that I loved working with kids but I didn’t enjoy the role. At the same time, I started working in my alma mater’s learning center, and my director asked me to take on a graduate assistantship. I began learning more about the world of academic support for students with disabilities, and found that my initial aspiration to help children through speech therapy overlapped with the role of a Student Support worker. I started working with the Disabilities Services Office, and discovered that I wanted to ensure that diverse students had access to the same opportunities many of us take for granted. That’s when I knew Student Services was where I belonged. 

Max: How do you create a sense of community among such a diverse student body? 

Our students are at a distance from our staff and each other, so they don’t have access to the gathering spaces offered by traditional campuses. To hone a sense of community, we’re setting up a student council, and focusing on promoting our student organizations. We also put a lot of effort into our Bravely Belong student-inclusive café, a program modeled on a webinar series we provided for faculty and staff who, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, needed to discuss the issues facing the sector, get support, and generally feel like they weren’t alone. By fostering a sense of community among our teams, we were able to apply those same methods with our students. 

Another thing that communities do is support each other, so we encourage our faculty and staff to be open to potentially uncomfortable conversations. Since there’s often a fear of talking about disability, our team makes sure to normalize those conversations, reduce the stigma, and help our staff learn how to create an environment in which diverse students can seek support. I give my colleagues the space to come into my office, and ask those hard or embarrassing questions, so I can provide them with accurate information that will ultimately enhance the student experience. I also make it clear that I don’t have all the answers, and I’m always willing to learn. Staff then model that behavior for students, allowing them to feel a sense of belonging in our curious, empathetic, and supportive community.

Max: With your students at a distance, how do you engage them with your key messages and initiatives?

Some people in HE believe that adult students don’t want to engage in clubs, organizations, or community-building opportunities, and they simply want to get their work done so they can focus on other responsibilities. However, when we started the Bravely Belong student café series in January 2023, our students showed up in the hundreds. They were so eager to share their stories, build a network of others in similar positions, and create a community that willingly provides support. We hold those sessions every other month, and are continually blown away by how eager students are to engage with each other about topics that are relevant to them. It also enhances our students’ academic experience because we post the recordings of the Bravely Belong sessions for faculty and staff, empowering them to engage students with the same messaging during their classes. You can’t assume that students don’t want to engage because, although it’s a cliché, if you build it they will come. 

Max: Amid a tense political landscape in America, how do you equip students to take part in conversations across differences?

We have a responsibility in HE to provide our students with skills that they’ll use in their careers and lives, and knowing how to engage in discourse while supporting your arguments with evidence is vital. We’re always looking for ways that our students can build social capital and connect with our community, so while our Bravely Belong café sessions aren’t politically charged, they do deal with sensitive topics. That teaches students to channel their experiences, and do something productive with their stories. When it comes to students with disabilities, we help them understand how to advocate for themselves, and talk about their disabilities in a way that achieves the change they want to see. Those aims inform how we provide support through our community-building programs, Student Accommodation Office, support resources, and academic curriculum. 

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

When I was offered the VP role, someone told me that my new title was my credit card, so I had to learn when to swipe it and when to keep it away. Essentially, you have to be judicious about when you leverage your position. Many people in leadership positions think their title is enough to earn respect, but I believe you still have to be authentic, communicative, transparent, and open to collaboration. After a discussion, when it falls on you to make a decision, that’s when you can leverage your position. 

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Max Webber
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