Making time for students seems like it should be obvious when working in student affairs, but not everyone does it. Connecting with student organizations, embedding tradition and a sense of pride in one’s community, and not being afraid to change how a university does things are all essential when it comes to maximizing student support.
Michael Christakis, Vice President (VP) for Student Affairs at University at Albany, State University of New York, sat down with Kira Matthews to talk about belonging, the initiatives he’s most proud of, and how he puts students at the heart of everything he does.
My name is Mike Christakis. I serve as the VP for student affairs at the University at Albany, State University New York.
I came to Albany as a graduate student 23 years ago to work on my master’s degree. I didn’t think I’d make a career of it, but I did some initial work in residential life, which I did for several years. While I was completing my doctoral degree, also at UAlbany, I took on additional responsibilities in assessment and learning outcome development. I was given the opportunity to lead those efforts in the department of residential life. Then before our decennial accreditation, the VP of student affairs at the time leaned on me to help drive forward some of our assessment initiatives.
The rest, in some ways, is history. I was Associate and then Interim VP before starting this position seven years ago. Even on my worst days, I still love what I do, which says something about how central our work with students is.
To tell a quick story — when I was an undergraduate at Alfred University, I was close with the Dean of Arts and Sciences. It was the mid 90s, and she would invite students to her and her husband’s home for dinner. I remember her saying that having students over kept them young. I think that putting students at the center of my work keeps me engaged. We do heavy work in student affairs, but even in those cases I feel that we’re making a positive impact in students’ lives.
I’ve had a mantra since my arrival here: ‘make a difference.’ It’s not original, but it’s been a pretty regular touch point for me. How do we make a difference in students’ lives, how do they make a difference to the institution, or to each other. I often think the refrain ‘Am I making a difference? Am I empowering a young person to make a difference in our world?’
How do I do that? Staying connected to students is a really critical part to ensuring that we know their needs, challenges and opportunities. Sometimes I hear people say they don’t have time for students, which drives me crazy because it’s not accurate. We are actually in a position where we can very intentionally make time to connect with young people.
I’ve tried to leverage social media to stay connected, and also try to engage with students regularly. As organizations and individually — I have conversations once a week where I try to meet with different student organizations. Our current hashtag is #coffeewithchristakis, but we keep it fresh every semester. Meeting with them has been eye opening to me. We have about 300 organizations at this university which all have a tremendous, unique impact on the culture and sense of belonging here; they’re really critical to the fabric of life on campus. I try to feature them on my Instagram and I do open office hours every Friday. I’ve also maintained a class a semester, teaching public administration. People ask if it’s too much — and it might be — but I have a deep passion for teaching, and being in the classroom allows me to connect with the young people sitting in front of me.
You center students by centering students. It’s what you have to do.
I saw a now retired colleague at reception this morning who asked me how things are going in the student space. I said that this was the first semester in the past few years where we’ve had what I consider a semi-normal rhythm with students being back and engaged. What I have found though is that students are more engaged than they were in the fall of ‘19.
Our division has always prided ourselves on high levels of engagement. How do you measure it? Attendance? Impact? The takeaways of learning? Regardless of how you approach it, there are physically more young people yearning for social interaction, predominantly with their peers but also the institution. Even pre-pandemic we were struggling a little bit with our Thursday, Friday and Saturday night programming — that hotspot where you’re competing with people going off campus. But now we have very high participation.
Regardless of how you approach it, there are physically more young people yearning for social interaction, predominantly with their peers but also the institution.
I think it was about not subscribing to the notion of one and done. For example, during Welcome Week, we do a high energy glow party. Historically we would never revisit that until the following fall. I posed to the team that we should do these high energy, well attended events again, which we did with a couple of things, like the glow party and silent disco. Students would come out in the hundreds for hours at a time. It wasn’t completely keeping them from going downtown, but I think people have been very pleased with the level of interaction they’ve been able to have.
One of them was instilling a greater sense of class identity and pride. We introduced class colors and gave everyone a class T-shirt when they arrived. We started taking an all class photograph. The coolest part of this when you’ve done it for four years, is that we can display the photos in our Student Union. The students go and find themselves in it, and we send their parents the class photo, too.
Introducing new traditions has been great. We installed a bust of our mascot, Damien — a great dane — in the Union. The first fall it was installed, I remember saying that traditionally it’s good luck to rub Damien’s nose as you walk past. Some people told me that I couldn’t just make up traditions, which is fair enough — but suffice it to say, I will stand in the lobby and students rub that nose as they walk past that dog. I think these things contribute to a sense of belonging that help students be proud of who they are, where they are, and the impact they’re going to make.
It’s heavy work. Our students come to us having overcome challenges, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult, especially for Black, Latino and Asian students, which we need to be conscious of. I fully acknowledge my privilege as a White male. To fully support the diverse student populations that are coming to our campus, we need inclusive environments. Diversity and inclusion are not the same thing — what is the campus culture like in terms of how we welcome people? We also need to continually challenge ourselves in issues around equity. If you’re not espousing equitable practices then you’re not doing it right.
I had the real privilege of being part of NASPA’s Equity Leadership Academy, which they did in conjunction with the University of Southern California’s Center for Race and Equity. I was there for a four-day academy with fifteen colleagues. They, to me, are my DEI role models. It was transformative for me, raw and real, and I left that space knowing myself better.
It’s hard work that we engage in, but it’s also heart work. Sometimes you need to lead with your heart, today more than ever before.
Albert Bourla’s book Moonshot. He’s the CEO of Pfizer. The book isn’t very long, it’s about developing the vaccine. It struck me from a leadership, equity and team building perspective — how do you lead a team through a crisis? I recommend it to everyone; it’s a great leadership narrative about changing the world in a time when things were dark.