The Interview USA
California State University, Fresno
Vice President for Student Affairs and Enrollment Management

Kent Willis

As debate rages about the true worth of a college degree, it’s never been more important for universities to shine a light on their critical contributions to personal development, community welfare, and social conscience. This mission is central to the work of Kent Willis, Vice President for Student Affairs and Enrollment Management at California State University, Fresno.

In today’s conversation, Kent sat down with The Interview Co-Host Max Webber, to share his insights on issues including the challenge of engaging students beyond the classroom and strategies for building constructive dialogue across difference. 

Kent's Journey

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

I'm Kent Willis and I serve as the Vice President for Student Affairs and Enrollment Management at California State University, Fresno. We’re right in the geographical center of the state of California, and we’re one of 23 institutions in the California State University system, which is probably the largest university system in the world. It’s a large configuration of campuses and a very unique system of institutions. In fact, 1 in 20 Americans now has a degree from CSU! So we have an amazing reach and a very strong impact when it comes to providing access, affordability, and accountability in higher education.

Max: What inspired you to pursue a career in Student Affairs?

My path into Student Affairs was non-traditional. I started out as an athletic coach in track and cross country. From there, I moved into admissions, recruitment, and student conduct, holding a variety of different roles. I worked my way up into coordinator and director-level roles around different niche areas of Student Affairs.

Max: What’s the key to creating a sense of psychological safety for every student?

I often think it resembles the work we do in athletics – trying to instill a sense of grit and resilience. We need to create a space where students have the opportunity to develop the type of skills they need to confront challenges and to apply the knowledge and skills they’re learning to real-world problems. It’s about engaging in meaningful activities and conversations that help you go into the real world ready to make a difference. That will help students succeed in their chosen field, explore the way things can be different, and how we can ultimately create better circumstances and outcomes. That's the kind of campus experience that we're working to create here at Fresno State – and what colleges and universities are working to create across the country and around the globe. Everybody understands the importance of preparing students for a very different set of jobs, and in some cases, roles that don't even exist yet. We have a new type of economy that's very knowledge-based and very much requires people to be able to pivot and to be flexible and to adapt. 

Max: Against an increasingly polarized political landscape, how can we encourage students to engage in constructive dialogue?

We are working to prepare students to have those kinds of conversations by creating spaces where they're able to engage and provide their own perspectives while teaching them the importance of giving other people the same opportunity to express their own viewpoints. Any college or university would be doing a disservice to students if they didn't open their eyes to the fact that there are a lot of different opinions and a lot of different walks of life that people come from which provide them with the foundation for the beliefs that they hold. But it’s crucial to recognize that we can absolutely operate with multiple belief systems in the same place in a positive way. 

Max: What’s the key to getting your messages across to all students and engaging them in key topics outside of the classroom?

I think that co-curricular experiences are extremely important. This week, we have invited a nationally-syndicated columnist to our campus to engage both students and staff in a number of different settings. One such example is we have a moderated discussion called Dinner and Dialogue. And then for some student groups, we have smaller group conversations with guest speakers, as well as campus-wide forums based on moderated conversations. We understand that students consume a lot of information in the media on a daily basis, but we need to encourage them to consider the varying circumstances that lead to the information that they’re receiving, and show them how to cut through the noise to get to the heart of the issues. One lesson that we're taking on board here at Fresno State around student engagement is that you have to leverage the personal relationships that mentors, advisors, staff, members, and faculty have with students. At the end of the day, people don't care what you know, unless they know that you care. And so before we try to engage students or invite them to events, you need to build that trust. That will help them understand how their participation can impact their long-term plans, goals, and objectives. 

Max: How have you seen the field change in the aftermath of the pandemic?

I think the biggest change is that we've had to do a hard assessment of the way we invest our resources and the way we connect those resources to specific measurable outcomes for student success. We’ve done that in collaboration with our partners in academic affairs, as well as other areas of campus operations. This is all coming at a time when public opinion around higher education, especially in the United States, is mixed – about the return on investment of university – so this is our opportunity to really rise to the occasion, and to prove that we can meet the demands and needs of the communities and industries that we serve. But to do that, we have to rethink the way we engage students, the way we invest our resources, and the way we tell our own stories. 

Max: How do you make sure students from all walks of life can feel a sense of belonging?

You can't wait until somebody feels out of place to decide that you have to do work around belonging. The way we create those spaces is thinking deeply about who we serve, and making sure that we're taking a student-centered approach to the work that we do. Unfortunately, campuses are often designed around what works best for staff rather than students. So we’re working really hard to redesign the campus experience through the student lens. 

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

Remind students that the challenges that come their way are part of making them who they're going to be. It's a part of the journey that sets you apart and makes you unique, because it really prepares you for what you will encounter in the real world. Ships are not made to sit in a safe harbor; they're meant to go out to sea, and it can be rough there.

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