In recent years, universities have had a major shift in how they approach students’ well-being. Major world events such as the global pandemic and an increased focus on how former institutionalized assumptions and policies have affected students from diverse backgrounds has led to the need to reevaluate methods of how students are treated on campus.
GoodCourse Universities Lead Kitty Hadaway sat down with Lamar Hylton, Senior Vice President (VP) for Student Affairs (SA) at Kent State University (KSU), to discuss what creating a welcoming environment for students looks like today, in light of our current understanding of inclusion and students’ physical and mental health needs.
I didn’t know that I wanted to be in SA. I don’t think many people even know what SA is! You kind of just fall into the profession, and that was certainly my experience. I was a music major at Morgan State University as an undergrad. I wanted to sing on the operatic stage as a career. Afterwards, I did a Masters program in music at Ohio University. During that time, however, I got an incredible assistantship opportunity that allowed me to do recruitment and retention work for the College of Fine Arts. That’s when I fell in love with serving and supporting students, eventually realizing I could make a career out of it. And the rest is history.
The university has undergone immense change in a variety of ways. We’ve had a leadership change, so I’ve served now under two presidents, each with their own different methods and focuses. The constant has always been our core mission to support and educate students, but how that has looked has obviously shifted. Also, Covid happened, and that changed everything. As an institution, we’ve always cared about the health and well-being of our students. But the pandemic made us become more laser-focused on both physical and mental health in ways that I hadn’t seen when I first arrived here.
The students we serve have also changed. We’re seeing many more first-generation students entering our doors than ever before. More students from underrepresented demographics, more racial and ethnic diversity, more high-needs students. And so the needs of our students have also changed and evolved, and we’ve responded to those needs.
First, we want students to know that they belong at KSU, and a lot of the resources and support services that we offer are designed with that as the premise. We want to engage them in a way that they find a good sense of place here and can also make meaning of their own experience. We do that through Destination Kent State, our orientation program. And that extends into how we socialize students to begin to understand what the university experience is really about. We also, in those moments, want to educate students on the power of diversity and inclusivity, as well as how a university campus is the place where the free exchange of ideas can materialize in a way that is safe and educational. In SA, we’re situated into pillars, and one is Equity, Identity, and Success. We work with students outside of their classroom experience to help deepen cultural competency, awareness of particular issues, and how to translate that back into their academic environments.
We also have a long-standing program called Kent Talks, designed to provide a contained dialogue and discourse across differences. Every Kent Talks is situated around a particular topic, relevant to our socio and political climate today. The talks are guided and developmental, not just a free-for-all, leading to great learning outcomes.
Safety is a broad spectrum. It’s not a one-size-fits-all. So first and foremost, we help students identify where their resources lie. This means we educate them about the student organizations and resources they have at their disposal. If you ever feel physically unsafe, this is what you do.
The emotional and mental safety of our students is also of paramount importance. So we’re always thinking about how we can shape conversations in a way that contributes positively to that.
We try to be forthright that we won’t necessarily be able to shield you from the ills of the world. What we can do, though, is provide you with tools and support to be resilient in those moments and to tap into that resiliency when it’s needed.
At the same time, we must be very realistic that we’re a microcosm of society. We try to be forthright that we won’t necessarily be able to shield you from the ills of the world. What we can do, though, is provide you with tools and support to be resilient in those moments and to tap into that resiliency when it’s needed. When things are going to challenge your identities and who you are at the core of your experiences. This means a lot of meaningful discussion and open doors for students so they feel comfortable sharing their experiences. And it’s important for us to embrace those feelings in a way that’s developmental for them.
I meet with our key student leaders frequently, and my staff and I are often in their spaces in order to keep the lines of communication open in a way that, when something arises, students have the agency, know-how, and perspective to engage around those issues.
My experience is that students tap most into programming designed by their fellow students. As an example, we have a new peer education program within Kent State of Well-being, our wellness/well-being initiative. These peer educators provide holistic information and support for students centered around ten dimensions of well-being, which pretty much covers their entire holistic experience. And I cannot tell you how well it’s taken off among our students. Those peer educators go into our first-year experience courses. They’ve designed programming situated in student spaces and places around the university system, and our students are buying into that, and I think it’s because they see familiarity. It’s different coming from folks their age versus an older authority figure like me.
Make no assumptions about the perspective that you may encounter. Make no assumptions about education surrounding the topic prior to engaging in the discussion. I’ve found that removing those assumptions about people has allowed for really authentic dialogue and discussion and learning to take place.