In recent years, one of the things becoming increasingly apparent is how important it is for students to feel supported by university leadership. Rather than distant figures seeming to oversee the institution from on high, in order for students’ needs to really be understood and addressed, they need to be engaged more directly than in the past.
Co-Host of The Interview Charles Sin sat down with Lowell Davis, Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs at the University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW), to talk about the importance of that personal touch in engaging students in order to help them feel safe and welcome on campus.
I served as student government (SG) president at my undergraduate institution, Hampton University in Virginia. And once a month, the president at the time convened the student leaders — the class presidents, the vice president, the editor of the yearbook, etc. It was at that point that I realized that there were people who were supporting the student experience professionally and that was something I could do as a career.
It’s my goal for students to come to this institution and feel welcome and safe. And we’re actually in the process now of working with a number of campus constituencies to figure out what that means for our students. We recently updated our Seahawk Respect Compact, which is a document that’s signed by most of our university leaders saying, “This is how we expect you to interact with your peers and your colleagues as an UNCW student or as a faculty member.” This allows us an opportunity to directly outline what we mean by being civil towards each other, and how we expect Seahawks to behave as part of our community.
I think it’s really important that a vice chancellor for SA understands academic affairs and how to work with them. I know oftentimes on college campuses, the academic and SA divisions don’t necessarily see eye to eye, but my goal is to bring them together and form the best relationship possible. Students spend most of their time outside of the classroom but they come to a university for the inside-the-classroom experiences. So working together is crucial.
Recently, I’ve been doing what I call the SA Roadshow, visiting our colleges and their leadership teams to help them understand what’s happening in SA. At these events, we talk about a wide variety of issues, and I ask them how I can be a better partner to them. As I’m seeing things happening in our residence halls and on campus, I ask, what are you seeing inside your classrooms? How can we work together to ensure that the students are having an optimal experience?
We’re having conversations right now. In the past two years since I started here, I’ve hired three counselors and increased the salaries of our current counseling center staff. Currently, I’m also looking to hire a sports psychologist to work with our student athletes. Additionally, I want to make sure we’re educating new students during orientation about the mental health resources that are available to them on campus. We also offer a number of group therapy sessions and have a couple of case managers who can help triage some issues that may be impacting their mental health
My goal is to help foster an inclusive community. Regardless of your age, race, or sexual orientation, we want you to know that you can come to this campus and have a great student experience. That is hard, though, when you have a small percentage of the population who may not agree with some of those things. I want our students to know that, as the vice chancellor of SA, I’ve surrounded myself with a team of dynamic individuals who want to ensure that students feel welcome, and can understand and respect differences.
I want students to know that they represent this institution, and I want them to be good representatives. You have to be civil, respectful, and hopefully do all the things your parents have taught you to do.
We also try to educate our students on appropriate behavior whether they’re on or off campus. During orientation, I say to the students, “You are a Seahawk regardless of where you are.” I want students to know that they represent this institution, and I want them to be good representatives. You have to be civil, respectful, and hopefully do all the things your parents have taught you to do. We want our students to understand each other and know they need to be respectful of all individuals.
What we’re really trying to distinguish at UNCW is the difference between being involved and being engaged. I’d say that an involved student is one who participates in student organizations but an engaged one is doing so actively. Maybe this means holding a leadership position or chairing a conference. Anything more than simply being a member. We at UNCW are really trying to increase our efforts to encourage students to be engaged and participate in multiple organizations and activities versus simply showing up at events.
I think the best place to start is through topics that are already of interest to them. Build community by encouraging them to engage in dialogue about what they care about. A lot of great things can grow from that.