The Interview USA
Baylor University
Vice President for Student Life

Kevin Jackson

Many universities recognize the crucial role the first year plays in students’ success and sense of belonging. A practical approach to fostering inclusion is direct engagement between students, faculty, and peer leaders; it’s these everyday interactions that allow students to feel known and valued. When students see themselves as part of something bigger than themselves, they’re more likely to be engaged members of their university community. 

Chris Mansfield, GoodCourse’s Client Services Lead, sat down with Kevin Jackson, Vice President for Student Life at Baylor University, to chat about how they approach onboarding to foster a strong sense of belonging among students.

Kevin's Journey

Chris: Let's start with a brief introduction to yourself and your institution.

I’m Kevin Jackson; I’ve served as Vice President for Student Life at Baylor University for 15 years. We’re a private Christian university in Waco, Texas, with 15,000 undergraduate and 5,000 graduate students. I’ve been in Student Affairs since graduating from my undergraduate studies – I started working with students as a peer leader and was fortunate to find my passion early in life. In my senior year, a staff member pulled me aside and encouraged me to consider a career in Higher Education (HE), and here I am 40 years later. 

Chris: What stands out as the biggest change in HE since starting your career?

Student cohorts are constantly changing; that’s a given in HE. You need to approach Student Affairs with a growth mindset – be a student of your students. More generally, the most significant changes in HE have been in technology and the social media movement. When I was studying for my Master’s degree, desktop computers were just becoming a thing; now, technology is embedded in everything we do. I think we’re still trying to understand the impact these changes have on our students and society more broadly.

Chris: What have you found most effective in helping students to engage in respectful dialogue and navigate personal differences?

We’ve been working on this for quite some time. In HE, developing our students’ capacity to engage in respectful dialogue is critical; we’re preparing future leaders. For many, college is considered the last intensive learning period in their lives, shaping them during a formative time. We aim to create a college environment where students learn to treat others with dignity, respect and compassion. We’ve adopted the Bridge Building Curriculum and approach this work from two key angles at Baylor: head knowledge and heart knowledge. Our students need practical skills like active listening alongside the disposition to embrace diversity so they can engage in respectful and constructive dialogue.

Chris: How are you looking to reach students at scale on these topics, particularly those who may be disengaged?

We have a very strong focus on our first-year experience; in fact, we’ve been nationally recognized as a Top 5 university for our onboarding program. We run a 1.5-day highly encouraged orientation with a 4-day extended orientation open to all students; these programs are infused with our university virtues and help students to better understand what it means to be a Baylor Bear and why it matters.

With 99% of our undergraduates living on campus, we also focus on how we can consistently reinforce these ideas across our students’ day-to-day experience. We have trained peer leaders and a faculty and chaplain in residence for every residence hall. Having members of our student, faculty, and faith communities actively living and engaged in our residence halls allows us to build a greater sense of community and belonging.

Chris: Do you have a particular area of focus for your onboarding process?

Three days before school commences, we run Welcome Week, supporting new students in their transition to campus and building their sense of belonging and community at Baylor. We also offer chapel experiences, allowing students to better understand how faith impacts their learning, friendships and life purpose. Responding to student feedback for greater accessibility and connection to their studies, we've revamped our chapel programs. Now, faculty and staff from across campus lead these programs, fostering small group discussions and opportunities for personal connections and story sharing around how faith informs a greater sense of meaning in our lives.

Chris: What is the best piece of advice you’ve received across the course of your career?

I've received a lot of advice over four decades in Student Affairs. One that sticks out to me is from the great philosopher and hockey player Wayne Gretzky: You miss 100% of the shots you never take. You need the courage to step outside your comfort zone and perceived limitations; this is something we instill in our students. And if it doesn’t work out, failure is not final; when you learn from your mistakes, they’re formative steps toward success.

Curious to see what the future of training looks like?
Chris Mansfield
Client Services
Chris is one of the Client Service leads at GoodCourse, dedicated to helping institutions better engage their audience to create a more inclusive, safer, and more successful environment. To request to be featured on the series, get in touch at chris.mansfield@goodcourse.co
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