Education is not just about academic performance, but also about nurturing students’ holistic development by embracing their unique strengths and passions. No one knows this better than Laurie Kattuah-Synder, Chief Student Services Officer at Schoolcraft College, who has taken a proactive approach to assisting students who are in need of support.
Laurie sat down with GoodCourse’s Community Engagement Lead to discuss her unique career trajectory, the issues surrounding free expression on campus, and the importance of speaking out about mental health.
I’ve been at Schoolcraft College for almost nineteen years. A little over two years ago, I became Chief Student Services Officer. I started off here as an academic advisor before becoming Transfer Coordinator and working my way up.
I didn’t take the traditional path. After my undergrad, I was a social worker for almost six years. After that, I found a position at a small private college. I discovered that I loved working with students and helping them on their journeys. I continued working in learner advocacy, but this time in the private sector — I was brought on as an educational consultant at AT&T. From there, I went to Ford, before returning home to Higher Education (HE) and taking up my position at Schoolcraft.
When I first started here, we were working on an all-counseling model. I was actually the first academic advisor to be hired: before that, all advising was handled by counselors. I quickly understood that students didn’t just need help to navigate the institution, but they also need someone to advocate for them. As I rose through the ranks, I was able to hire more advisors and reform the whole advising experience.
After doing more research, I realized the proactive model was the best fit for our student demographics. We’re an open-admission community college — many of our students are first-generation, people of color, or on financial aid. So we have a lot of at-risk students who need someone to help them along on their journey.
I was blessed with leadership who heard me out. Now that we’ve been working with the proactive model for some time, we’ve been able to create protocols to support it. Two months ago, I started a group called Advising 2.0. The pandemic had profound consequences for our students and our staff, and our demographics continue to change as well.
My current role oversees advising, student relations, international students, and more. It’s important to help everyone remember why we are here — to help learners move through the college life cycle. Some of our departments have transactional relationships with students: for example, we might receive requests for transcripts. We need to remember these requests are important for students, even if they are just everyday tasks for us. We need to do a better job collecting data, verifying it, and acting on it, so we’ve been working on streamlining our data sources.
Last year, we launched a college-wide book club that meets every month. We’re currently reading Becoming a Student-Ready College by Tia McNair. For so long, we have been asking if students are ready for college, but instead we should think about whether institutions are ready for students — whether that’s 18-year-olds straight out of high school, or 40-year-old single parents. We need to change our processes so we can accommodate everyone.
Well, it’s a little different for us, because we aren’t a residential college. But I’ve seen a lot in my role overseeing student conduct. We’ve had issues with social media — threats and insults directed towards students and staff. Free speech must be respected, but we need to take action if anyone’s safety is threatened. Some of these posts have come from students who are dealing with mental health challenges, so sometimes we’ve needed to intervene.
It’s been very challenging. Though enrolment has fallen slightly, mental health requests are higher than ever. Sadly, in my first six months, we lost one student to suicide. His name was Danny. I think about him almost every day. Now, whenever I make a decision, I think about whether it could help students like Danny. It’s sometimes hard to get students to talk about these issues: we need to work together to overcome that stigma.
Remind them we have more similarities than differences. Show them through your actions, not just your words.
I’m a huge fan of Dr. Vincent Tinto. His integration framework was truly groundbreaking. It really helped to guide my thinking in advocacy.
Redesigning America’s Community Colleges by Bailey, Jaggars, and Jenkins. It provides a solid argument to support guided pathways for students. Reading it was a real eureka moment.