The Interview USA
Millersville University
Vice President for Student Affairs

Mary Beth Williams

It’s one thing to provide students with all the support they need in their learning journey. but making sure they have the knowledge and confidence to make the most of those resources is another challenge entirely. In her role as Vice President for Student Affairs at Millersville University, Dr. Mary Beth Williams has led her institution’s efforts to make sure every student feels seen, heard, and included. 

Dr. Williams sat down with Max Webber, Co-Host of The Interview, to discuss everything from her career journey in Student Affairs to her institution’s approach to engaging students in all aspects of university life.  

Mary Beth's Journey

Max: Can we start with a brief introduction to yourself and your institution?

I'm Dr. Mary Beth Williams and I'm the Vice President for Student Affairs at Millersville University. I've been in higher education for 25 years, working in a variety of student affairs roles before arriving here two years ago. Millersville is a regional public institution in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education. We have a small regional campus that caters primarily to residents of the state – we believe we have a mission to serve the people of Pennsylvania. It's a great campus, and we have a wonderful leadership team led by our president, Dr. Daniel A. Wubah.

Max: What inspired you to pursue a career in Student Affairs? 

Well, I was the first in my family to graduate from a four-year institution. But when I was studying for my undergraduate degree at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee, I was very lost. I didn’t understand that, going into the college world, there's a new language and set of rules. And so I didn't do well because I didn't know how to ask for help. But in the summer between my first and second year, a mentor reached out to ask me if I would like to come back early and help orient the incoming students. By leading that group, I learned a lot: I realized that higher education could be a career. After I finished college, I taught high school for a year before returning to work at the college. I never looked back – I’ve been in higher education ever since. I think there are two true keys to success: one of them is getting engaged, and the other is not being afraid to ask for help. 

Max: When it comes to first-year students, what are the key things to make them aware of when trying to build engagement? 

It’s not about how smart you are – it’s about how you navigate the system. I always tell students it’s important to turn up to class, just to have those conversations with faculty members and peers – both inside and outside the classroom. Find ways to expand your knowledge outside of the classroom, whether it’s through a student organization, extracurricular programming, or an internship. Seek out people who are like-minded and have shared interests with you. I encourage students to take an active role in their education. Too often, we think of ourselves as consumers, but in college, that won’t get you the full experience – you actually have to put yourself out there. It can't just be a passive, one way process. 

Max: Recent guests have discussed the issue of free speech on college campuses. How can we encourage students to engage in civil discourse across divides? 

As administrators, we really need to model good behavior. It's important for us to be very visible, very present. Students should know your face, and know who you are – I often say that my best work isn’t done behind a desk, it’s when I'm out there engaging and talking with students, and finding out what issues they might have. It’s important to show them that you don’t always need to agree: you can have a really productive dialogue with someone even if they hold different views. It’s not just our job to model that behavior, but also to provide opportunities for it to happen. We’re a public institution, so we really believe in freedom of speech. We have to give students the space and time to speak their minds. That being said, there are guidelines to prevent speech that harms another person. As faculty and administrators, even we will not always agree with one another, but we can model how to have productive dialogues across differences. After all, there’s more that unites us than divides us – and when we find difference, we should celebrate it.

Max: What’s your approach to engaging students beyond the classroom? 

There’s a time and place for classes and workshops, but it’s also necessary to encourage students to do their own research and have those individual conversations. Since the pandemic, we’ve been seeing more and more that students are afraid to speak up – many people feel safer behind a screen. So how do we encourage students to build those connections? Well, one approach is through passive programming around key issues. We also need to be continually thinking about providing space for dialogue – not just in the classroom, but also in common spaces. As part of that, we’re currently redesigning our student center so that it has more open seating where people can gather around a table. It’s not just about promoting engagement, but about providing the physical spaces needed for it to happen. 

Max: Students have many demands on their time. How do you address the challenge of engaging time-poor students on these key topics?

It’s a difficult challenge; I don’t think we’ve ever gotten it right, but we’re always trying. I’ve been told that flexibility is the hallmark of success: you need to be adaptable in your approach, and a lot of that begins with how you're onboarding the students into your community. So we need to think about how we are designing our onboarding and orientation programs so that students can find people who share their interests. It’s important to create spaces where they're not afraid to ask questions, especially for first-generation college students. Many of our students come to us from other countries – we’re right by Lancaster, which is the refugee capital of the United States. Right now we have so many people coming from these different communities, with different languages, and different religions, so we need to find a way to onboard them so that they all feel equitable in our community. We’re always adapting, working closely with our student leaders and professionals to help students get engaged, ask the right questions, and access support. 

Max: What’s your top piece of advice for anyone starting out a career in the field? 

Make sure you’re in an environment that inspires you. It's very easy to let the day-to-day things eat away at you. So you need to have that fire around you to really light you up. Put yourself in an inspirational environment – that will help you through the dark days. 

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