In the ever-evolving realm of higher education, the role of student affairs plays a pivotal role in shaping the holistic student experience. GoodCourse sat down with Michael Davila, Vice President & Dean of Student Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford. With a wealth of experience and a deep understanding of the intricacies of student affairs, Michael shares his insights into his role, the campus culture, and his journey in Higher Education (HE).
We are a small, rural, regional campus of a much larger institution. We are located in Northern Pennsylvania and have a beautiful scenic campus of around 1,000 students. It's a great area to live in.
Before coming here, I was the Associate Vice Chancellor and Dean of Students at one of the regional campuses of the University of Arkansas. Before that, I was Dean of Students at Navarro College in Texas. Here I can affect positive growth in terms of shaping an entire division which has been my goal, to see all of the Student Affairs opportunities we have here, especially in a small institution where I could enact a vision and positive change.
I started in Student Affairs as a Residence Assistant, and by the time I had graduated, I had become a Hall Director. I didn’t think it would be my career, but building relationships with students and providing for them was what I really cared about, so I decided to do stick with that. I got my Masters in Education and got into Student Life, becoming a Dean of Students in 2015.
The first year in this kind of role is critical. That is the time when you learn about the culture of the institution, get to know the staff, faculty, and students, and build relationships that are foundational to the rest of the work you will do there.
Since getting here, I’ve built around half of my team and focused on building a culture within that team. Part of the reason my first year has gone so well is because of this institution itself. The sense of belonging here for me personally is one of the reasons I took the job. It’s a fantastic place to work.
Throughout my different positions, I was fortunate to gain experience in a variety of areas that aren't traditionally associated with student affairs. At Navarro, I was able to oversee academic advising and student success, which gave me a window into academic affairs and how these things all influence one another. The same happened with Title IX, which I’ve worked in since 2012 in various capacities, during a time when a lot of new policy was put into place, so I got great insight into that. Having that policy experience has been an asset.
As I’ve moved into this role, in a more traditional division of Student Affairs, I’ve been able to bring with me the bigger picture of how these things all interplay and impact each other.
We use the term ‘diversity conscious’ here, which is about being aware of others and yourself. We took a good look at the varying needs of our student population and had an external review, and found that there wasn't built-in support for students of marginalized backgrounds. Therefore it has been a task to develop a roadmap for how to accomplish this.
We started in Student Affairs by creating an Office of Inclusion and Belonging and included students in the process by getting feedback from them. Part of that office will also be a center with communal programming space and office space that centers minoritized students and provides resources and support to meet their unique needs. While the focus is on their needs, the mission is also to educate the rest of the campus on cultural competency and diversity consciousness - and how to apply those as we meet students’ needs.
We haven't had those conversations as urgently as some campuses have. Still, we’ve had opportunities in different ways this year, whether it’s freedom of expression in residence halls or changes to our policies. Our flagship campus has had some more urgent conversations around this based on some speakers that student organizations have brought to campus. Our students also wanted to know why such a speaker was allowed, so we had some conversations on protected speech off the back of that. A lot of it has been about helping students to grapple with the fact that a lot of speech that is hurtful is protected, and there are tests that legally are applied to determine whether or not it is inciting violence. Ultimately we want to focus on what is respectful and worthwhile speech — how do we want to speak to one another? And how do we edify and build one another up?
On a small campus specifically, engagement comes down to building relationships. We should know our students, and no one should fall through the cracks. This has been a challenge since the pandemic and exacerbated by students isolating in residence halls and attending classes online. That has changed how our campus is, and we’ve been focusing on that. We’ve seen students re-engaging in large-scale activities such as our annual Pride Night, and our Cultural Festival. These are huge joint efforts on campus.
I’ve seen the most engagement in clubs and organizations too. We have more than 40 clubs and organizations, so there is a lot of space for students to find what interests them.
Put in the hours. The relationships you build and the impact you have on students' lives takes time, and that time pays off in the long run. The other thing I’d say is a piece of advice a mentor gave to me, which is to say yes more and be open to everything.