The Interview USA
Wake Forest University
Assistant Director for Leadership Initiatives

Lauren Haynes

Leadership might not be the first thing that comes to mind when we think about student experiences in Higher Education (HE), but in reality, it links to all of the most vital focal points that HE professionals are thinking about in this day and age, from enacting social change to equity and inclusion.

GoodCourse Community Engagement Lead Kira Matthews asks Lauren Haynes about her role in Student Leadership and Development at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, discussing the incredible work that she has been doing to make her campus a more inclusive and equitable place.

Lauren's Journey

Kira: Could you provide us with an introduction to your current role?

I work in leadership programs and positional leadership, looking at student organizations, fraternities, and sororities, and combining concepts of leadership with social change, harm reduction, and equity and inclusion too.

Kira: Are these topics important at Wake Forest?

Yes. We have around 5,400 undergraduate students — a small number compared to other universities. Our students are also excellent academically, but that comes with the issue that high achieving students subject to more pressure are at higher risk.

Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) has become a priority in everything we do; there are efforts across the board to bring this into every department. I don’t think leadership can be abstracted from identity, so to be a strong leader you need to be able to understand people who have different identities from you. We’re a diverse institution with a large volume of international students so it’s crucial that we value this.

Kira: Did you always know you wanted to work in HE?

Yes, I figured it out very quickly. I originally studied math and wanted to be a secondary teacher. I wanted to help people understand their identities and what that can mean for their futures. However, due to the structure of secondary education, this is very hard to achieve, so I started to look at where I could make a bigger impact, which was in HE.

I began working in housing when I was in a sorority and gained significant experience, then I got an opportunity to study abroad and I realized I could really pursue this and succeed in this area.

Kira: Can you tell us more about the conferences you have done on cultural competency and leadership?

Diversity is important but equity is crucial in taking DEI initiatives that step further.  Everyone has heard of the concept of inviting people to the table, and that refers to diversity, giving different people a place.  But the power then still lies with the people of privilege so it isn’t enough.  We are shooting for equity, so no one at the table has the most power — it is equal between everyone there.  

Diversity is important but equity is crucial in taking DEI initiatives that step further.

It’s also essential for students to see their identities in the staff they’re working with, so it’s always a priority to choose student leaders and staff that could connect to different students.  These concepts cannot be pulled away from leadership. To be a leader, you need to understand your identity and interact with those who are different from you.

Kira: Can you speak about what you do to enhance the student experience?

Our core purpose as an office is belonging, but it has also become an important mission of the university. It’s about giving students the tools they need to be successful and giving them that sense of belonging at the institution. There is an emphasis on providing diverse programs so students can find something tailored to them.

Kira: What about initiatives for student safety on campus?

In my role, I am very proactive about student safety and we focus on initiatives that prepare all students to prevent harm and respond appropriately when they see harm.

I was hired to link leadership to DEI, harm reduction and prevention. I’ve focused on leadership as a means of social change to provide students with the ability to affect change within their communities to create safer environments. I do a lot of work with risk management, bystander intervention, drugs and alcohol, and hazing. These things at the front end give students the tools to change social environments for the better.

Kira: Where do you find students engaging the most and least, and what is your approach to increasing engagement?

When Covid hit we also had a shift from a Millennial student base to a Gen-Z student base, which was a huge adjustment. Millennials were more of an amenity generation who wanted more fun and excitement, and universities made huge changes to cater to that. Nowadays, students want to do purposeful things. It’s not that the groups engage in one thing more than another, it’s that this group wants to find meaning and tangible outcomes in what they do, so we have to market it differently.

3 Quickfire Questions

Kira: What is your top tip for anyone getting into the HE space right now?

You have to prioritize your own well-being. My students are most successful when I am taking care of myself and model those behaviors.  We need to show them firsthand how to be the best versions of themselves.

Kira: Who do you most admire in the HE space?

I don’t feel we should put people on a pedestal, so my admiration goes to our students who are pushing to succeed despite what happens to them. They are the ones that remind me why I do the work that I do, rather than anyone in the field.

Kira: What's the most important book you've read?

I have two answers: the most impactful book I have ever read is Educated by Tara Westover because it relates to the college experience and it’s about her experience in homeschooling and formal education.  For me, it was a great reminder of how our students come to us and we don’t always know what has happened up until that point, but it’s our job to help them achieve success.

The book I recommend the most to HE professionals is The Art of Gathering by Priya Parker this was transformative in how I do programming and had so much helpful advice in getting better engagement and programming in a meaningful way.

Curious to see what the future of training looks like?
Kira Matthews
Community Engagement Lead
Kira leads our community outreach team working hand-in-hand with changemakers on both sides of the pond. If you want to join the next series of The Interview, or just learn more about GoodCourse, then get in touch at

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