The Interview USA
University of Virginia
Vice President and Chief Student Affairs Officer

Kenyon Bonner

The value of education lies not only in the pursuit of knowledge, but in its capacity to serve as a catalyst for personal growth and self-exploration, helping develop individuals who are self-aware, resilient, and ready to contribute to the world in meaningful ways. This understanding is at the heart of the work done by Kenyon Bonner, Vice President and Chief Student Affairs Officer at the University of Virginia (UVA).

In today’s conversation, The Interview Co-Host Max Webber sat down with Kenyon to discuss his journey in higher education from college athletics to the VP’s office, and the need to create a sense of inclusion for students of all backgrounds, as well as the importance of encouraging students to engage with differing viewpoints. 

Kenyon's Journey

Max: Let’s start with a brief introduction to you and your journey.

My name is Kenyon Bonner, and I’m Vice President and Chief Student Affairs Officer at the University of Virginia. I was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, and I am a first-generation student. I came from a blue-collar family, and it was hard to make ends meet, so I knew it would be a struggle to afford college. But I was pretty good at basketball, and I managed to get into school on an academic and sporting scholarship. I fell in love with the whole idea of college, and I began to study for a master’s degree in counselling. That’s how I got into Student Affairs, and I’ve been in the field for almost thirty years now. I worked at Kent State in Ohio and the University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, before arriving at UVA at the start of 2024. It’s a great institution which puts students at the heart of everything.

Max: How did you balance the demands of academic studies with the rigorous schedule of college sports? 

It was certainly an adjustment. I was a typical first-year student – trying to do my homework at the last minute! But I soon discovered that at college, you need to be more disciplined. So I quickly learned I needed to develop habits and practices to manage my time better – especially when it came to balancing studies with sports. College athletics can be intense, with a lot of travelling for games. At the same time, you need to adjust to a new type of environment. My college wasn’t as diverse as my high school, so that was another thing I needed to navigate.

Max: What initiatives are you working on to make sure students from all walks of life feel a sense of inclusion and belonging?

I’m glad there’s been more focus on this in higher education. A sense of belonging is a basic need – it’s a human instinct to want to feel like a part of something. On a university campus, there are a number of ways we can address this. First, you need to communicate clearly with students about the type of environment you want to create. As part of that, you have to let students know that you appreciate what they bring to the community. Second, you need to follow through on your promises. It’s not enough to bring a diverse group of students to campus: you also need to make them want to stay. Finally, you need to let students know what it means to be part of a learning community – talking about differences, and encouraging people to step out of their comfort zones. It’s crucial to create opportunities to allow students to engage, both inside the classroom and beyond it. That’s a key part of a holistic education; it needs to start with the values of your institution, a commitment to follow through, and a willingness to listen and keep an open mind to change. 

Max: Students have many demands on their attention, and it can be difficult to cut through the noise. When it comes to these key issues, how do you make sure to reach everyone?

We encourage students to get involved in activities outside the classroom; it’s a key part of the college experience. As an administration, it’s our responsibility to provide an environment where those things are allowed to flourish and develop. We have 700 student organizations, so we need to offer inclusive ways for students to get involved. College is about exploring, and figuring out who you really are. So we want to help students find out what is meaningful for them and create opportunities for students to get involved, whether it’s paid internships or study abroad programs. 

Max: We live in a time of increasing polarization. How can we encourage students to bridge the divide and engage across difference?

As a university, we must show students how to engage across difference and why that’s important. It’s easier than ever for students to stay in an echo chamber without encountering opposing opinions. So when students arrive, we need to let them know what it means to be part of an academic community – challenging assumptions, engaging with difference, and generating new ideas. We need to give students the opportunities to practice those difficult conversations in intentional ways. Outside the classroom, we also hold dialogue sessions with students to encourage them to speak across divides. When you have thousands of students, it’s hard to get them all to participate in anything. But we’ve found that partnering with students to develop these programs gets them more invested and makes it more likely that other students will find it relevant. That’s the recipe for success.

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

Remember your why. Connect what you do to your purpose. That’s been helpful to remember whenever I’ve faced challenges in my career. I’ve been through a lot in my life and career, and it’s my ambition to make sure that students don’t have to go through those challenges too. A university is a beautiful place to work because every day you get a glimpse into what the future will look like. 

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Max Webber
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