The recent upheavals of the last few years have presented unique challenges for students. Mental health has been brought to the forefront of the student services agenda, and now more than ever, ensuring that all students feel a sense of comfort and belonging on campus is critical to academic and personal success.
GoodCourse co-founder Chris Mansfield spoke to Rich DeCapua, Senior Associate Dean of Students at Tufts University, Boston. Rich’s particular interest in international students has seen him channel his talent into work with the Global Alliance for International Student Advancement (GAISA), a cross-institutional body that informs and advises HE institutions on the specific needs of international students.
I’m a first-generation college student. Nobody else in my family had gone to college or even had plans to go, but my mother wanted me to buck that trend. I went to an undergraduate institution in Connecticut to study Communications because I wanted to be a sports broadcaster.
Sadly, during my college years, my mom got sick and passed away. The support I received from my college made me realize it was a field I might want to go into. I went into the student affairs world with the aim to help students navigate the barriers of life and make them successful adults.
A big question for me is how we get students out of spaces they are most comfortable in and interacting with other groups.
We’ve executed some big, bold and beautiful programs which I’m proud of – from orientations to concerts on campus. However, I feel my biggest achievement is the work I’ve done with students coming from vulnerable places, whether that’s mental health challenges, substance abuse, or students that are already in vulnerable categories like LGBTQ+, students of color or international students.
When a student opens up and tells you their story, it’s a privilege. I’m most proud of those moments where it’s just me and the student. No one else is going to hear what we’re talking about, but they’re going to remember that conversation for the rest of their life because it is so meaningful to them. So really, it’s not a huge program that I’m most proud of, but those small, quiet moments where you care for a student in a way they need. I remember these things more than the big programmatic successes.
Every student will go through an orientation program. There are various addendums to that which will hit on specific groups that might need a little more information. We have programs that target first-generation students, and also an acculturation program for international students. Some of these students literally come off a plane straight to campus – so naturally, they don’t really know what’s going on!
We have to ensure they understand their surroundings and we do this by providing a base understanding of campus life. In my career, I have found this demographic needs two things: a space where they can talk to other people who are like them, and programs that push them outside of their comfort zone.
If you’re a student coming from across the world, it can be the case that you will be two years in and still only socializing with students of your nationality. So a big question for me is how we get students out of spaces they are most comfortable in and interacting with other groups.
The increasingly globalized world we live in means that working cross-culturally is ever more important. There’s a vested interest in people getting to know those from other backgrounds as it helps them become better prospects when they eventually enter the job market.
During that first semester, we almost consider students as high school seniors. They’re still figuring things out, many of their classes are larger and most haven’t selected a major yet. By the time they hit junior year, they have a major, their classes are much smaller and there tends to be a higher emphasis on group projects. The savvier professors are also creating diverse groups to get the outcomes.
In many ways, the college cycle is split into the first two years and second two years. The first two years are about transition, time management, and of course, what am I going to do with my life? By junior year, you’re shot out of a cannon, trying to find internships, build resumes and those other crucial next steps.
To be frank, it’s a little crazy. Boston is the Higher Education capital of the world – we have more colleges per capita than anywhere else! Tufts has a main campus, and the School For The Museum of Fine Arts (SMFA) in downtown – that’s a whole population of fine arts students who are very different from our engineering students. The benefit of Tufts is that we are an academically elite institution that is also Research One graded. The academic rigor and interactions between these faculties is a lot of fun to see. From my standpoint, we have to go above and beyond to ensure we have programs that speak to the different needs of these groups.
A lot of what happens at Tufts is student-driven. They come to me with ideas and I help them make it happen. Students know what they need way quicker than I do.
GAISA stands for the Global Alliance for International Student Advancement. It is a group of about 15 folks like myself who work at institutions across the US. Our focus is on research targeting international students that come to the US. They are a huge part of the Higher Education economy, but they’re a group that are sometimes an afterthought and don’t get the resources they need.
One of our first projects centered around Covid and mental health challenges. We’ve heard about this ad nauseam, that everyone is anxious and depressed because of Covid. It’s different for international students – they come over knowing they can’t go home right now because of Covid. We also have some Ukrainian students that can’t return home because of the conflict. The state of the world is a significant stressor for young people, and we know these folks don’t have the typical support they would usually have. GAISA’s focus is to take these issues and magnifying their importance in view of the right people.
Orientation programs are only as good as how culturally aware they are of the students that are receiving the information. You have to be really intentional to make sure they understand the content and ultimately, learn to trust you. I want these students to know that I ‘get’ it.
Our aim is almost to provide a toolkit around what institutions could and should do – low-hanging fruit – to make these initiatives more welcoming and culturally competent for the students.
Chris: Talk us through some of the things Tufts has introduced in recent years that has had an impact on that support network for international students?
We have some students who come from families where they don’t believe mental health is an issue. Some say, ‘I was talking to my mom about this but she said it wasn’t an issue’, and I’m the one that has to say ‘yes it is, and I’d like to talk to you about it’. Of course, drug and alcohol consumption is another thing that is culturally specific – it presents as a different issue for different demographics.
It’s not all doom and gloom – we’re in Boston, so sometimes this integration means explaining what baseball is, and other parts of American culture they will be seeing a lot. It can be as deep as mental health, but it’s just as much about giving people tools so they feel more comfortable and able to ask questions. We have the benefit of being right next to the city. If you go downtown, it doesn’t matter where you come from, you’re already walking through a whole melting pot, and this really helps.
Understand that Covid has changed the game around what students need and expect. We’re dealing with students that for almost two years now, haven’t had the type of social development other adolescents have had. We put an emphasis on how to socialize, and we’re patient with them. Know that it won’t always be an easy process!
I don’t know if there’s one particular person. We’re a profession built on theory. Unfortunately, a lot of these theories are old and based on populations of White men. I gravitate towards theory that understands the complex diversity of student bodies and research that focuses on niche populations.
For example, I want to know the chief challenges for queer Black women in the northeast. That’s the type of specificity I’m looking for as our populations become more diverse. This research can be heartbreaking, but it’s also eye-opening and very well done. It excites me when I get one of these journals!
In the US right now, we’re having a lot of political arguments. HE itself should be a place of free inquiry – you should be able to say what you want, but you also need to be prepared for people to not like what you say and have a retort to that. Christopher Hitchen’s God Is Not Great is a wonderful primer as we are having a lot of conversations on college campuses about the role of religion and politics. This can be defined as theocratic encroachment on the rights of people – it’s a big issue that’s on my mind today.