For Richard Gatteau, Vice President for Student Affairs at Stony Brook University, the Student Affairs profession has been about creating tangible pathways for students to find employment in the Higher Education (HE) spaces, ensuring inclusivity and diversity at every point in the journey.
GoodCourse Community Engagement Lead Kira Matthews sat down with Richard to discuss the importance of taking action on inclusion, the initiatives he’s most proud of and more.
I went to Bucknell University in Pennsylvania and decided to study business management with the intention of doing something in the corporate world. I worked in several fields and began crossing things off that I did not want to do, and without realizing it, I got very involved in student affairs while in college even though I didn't know it could be a career route. I spoke to my mentor about going into student affairs, and looked into graduate programs for getting back into HE. I ended up going to the University of Vermont to pursue their graduate program in higher education and student affairs, and that’s what changed my life; I knew I would work in higher education forever.
We are trying to prepare students to be strong, ethical leaders. When I was doing my dissertation I focused on leadership and, more specifically, women college presidents at selective institutions. This was my first time looking at HE through a different lens and it was a chance to understand what skills presidents have, what challenges and goals they have, and what inspires them. I have taken so much of this into what I do now and I currently teach a leadership and ethics class and explore what makes a great leader. Being a good leader is a constant process of improving your qualities and skills.
From a leadership perspective, we focus on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) which is vital. Other skill areas are problem-solving, critical thinking, and good communication. Ethical decision-making is also important. For these and other skills, you learn and test them over time. There is no checkbox to say “you’re done”; these skills are honed and developed throughout our lives.
It’s also important to not just talk the talk; we need to walk the walk. It’s about what we do and not what we say we are going to do; we want to see values in action, not just hear what someone believes. Our society has a lot of challenges, and our job is to prepare students for success in whatever role they go into.
One of my favorite things about Stony Brook is how diverse we are. There is no majority group on our campus, and there are many cases where we talk about diversity but here it is a lived experience. But then the question is, what do we do with that? How do we get better and learn? So we focus on communication within and across community groups.
There is no majority group on our campus, and there are many cases where we talk about diversity but here it is a lived experience.
There is also the Higher Education graduate program which I helped launch. We wanted our diverse undergraduates to know about employment opportunities within HE and create pathways so they can get there. We also want there to be more representation, and the way you do this is by providing tangible opportunities to make it happen.
Another initiative we just started is an undergraduate fellowship program that includes undergraduate students from underrepresented backgrounds who might be interested in HE, we get them engaged during their earlier years of college through internship and mentoring opportunities across multiple student affairs areas.
For me, Covid was one of the biggest challenges that changed how we thought about safety. We don’t think about things like safety and health until we feel at risk, and Covid brought us back to the basics of what students need on a fundamental level. For us, it has been very important to get students involved in the process of promoting health and safety, whether it's mental health, sexual violence prevention, or alcohol and drug use prevention.
Having students be engaged in that process is vital because otherwise we are just issuing instructions to them and there's only so far that can go. We ensure that students have the tools they need to be good communicators and to be advocates for the health and safety of one another. We also want them to feel connected and have a sense of belonging which promotes a wellness culture too.
Anyone who wants to join the HE space needs to know their own values, and serving students is fundamental to this. The other part is about taking initiative; if you have an idea to share and pair this with service to others then we have a recipe for success.
I don't have anyone in particular to mention, but I’ve always had such admiration for women in the HE space. They have been my mentors throughout my journey and I've learned so much from them in how they collaborate, build relationships, and solve problems.
In my undergraduate studies, I read a book called The Goal. it’s centered around a manufacturing company and the issue of bottlenecks. It may seem unrelated to education, but we face a lot of the same issues because HE is a value proposition. We have a responsibility to spend money wisely to get the best return that serves our students. I utilize a lot of the operations-related concepts from the book in my everyday work.