The Interview USA
Rutgers University
Senior Vice-Chancellor for the Student Experience

Salvadore Mena

Universities have a vital role in a world increasingly divided by differing opinions: equipping students with the skills and desire for respectful dialogue. Students thrive when they feel safe expressing their views and have the readiness to navigate personal differences constructively. We want students to develop these skills throughout their university experience as they prepare to engage with the diverse world beyond campus.

Chris Mansfield, our Client Services Lead, caught up with Salvador Mena, Senior-Vice Chancellor for the Student Experience at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, to speak about their efforts to offer students experiential learning opportunities to support their personal growth beyond academics.

Salvadore's Journey

Chris: Let's start with a brief introduction to yourself and your institution.

I’m Salvador Mena, Senior Vice-Chancellor for the Student Experience at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. Rutgers-New Brunswick is the senior flagship campus in New Jersey, with 45,000 students. We’re a vibrant institution in the Big Ten Academic Alliance with a keen focus on student access and success.

Chris: What are you prioritizing in terms of student safety?

We’re looking at student safety through a lens of wellness. We’re conscious of the need to stay aware of the impacts of the pandemic; COVID-19’s after-effects are now a part of life. Life post-pandemic has also presented mental health challenges for students; many students now at Rutgers were still in middle school when the pandemic occurred. We provide robust mental health services in person and online to ensure equitable access for all students. As an urban institution, we also make efforts to ensure students know how to keep themselves and their peers safe on campus. 

Chris: What have you found most effective in communicating the availability of support services to students? 

Rutgers is a large campus, and students can become inundated with communications, meaning it’s common for students to be given information during orientation that they later forget – so reinforcement is key. By law, we’re required to remind students of the mental health services available to them each semester. We send similar communications to faculty and staff so they can further reinforce this through their classroom and campus interactions with students. We also collaborate with other university offices, such as our Housing Department and Off-Campus Student Services Office; these collaborations allow us to target segments of our student body more pointedly with relevant information. Peer-to-peer communication is another valuable avenue for sharing key messaging; our students often support their peers on social media and platforms like Reddit.

Chris: What have you found most effective in equipping students for respectful dialogue?

We run town hall events so that students have space to express their opinions. We also offer programs led by our interfaith affiliates to facilitate student discussions across different faith communities. We’re currently seeing tension on campus because of the current conflict between Israel and Hamas. We’re currently thinking about ways to provide students with opportunities to learn how to navigate personal differences at scale. We want respectful dialogue to become embedded in our university culture, particularly considering the current political climate and the upcoming presidential election.

Chris: What other areas are you providing students beyond their academic studies to enrich their Higher Education (HE) experience?

We have a significant focus on experiential learning. We want to ensure all students have access to high-impact, hands-on experience through internships, community-based service learning opportunities, and so on. We want students to walk away with high-value skills, including soft skills, that they can take into the community and their professional careers.

Chris: What have you found most effective to engage time-poor students with these opportunities?

We offer different pathways for students to make the most of their time at Rutgers; we want all students to find their way here. That means providing multiple routes to take advantage of our services, and meeting students where they are. We also strive to get the foundational elements right; students need to have their basic needs met and build a sense of belonging to truly take advantage of the opportunities we offer at the university.  

Chris: What is the best piece of advice you’ve received across the course of your career?

Give yourself grace. HE is, at times, not for the faint of heart. It can be highly politicized, resources are limited, and perspectives are diverse. Understanding the complexities and nuances of a HE context takes time; you're going to make mistakes. You must give yourself grace, especially when you’re driven by your commitment to serve students, colleagues, and the broader university community. Be kind to yourself.

Curious to see what the future of training looks like?
Chris Mansfield
Client Services
Chris is one of the Client Service leads at GoodCourse, dedicated to helping institutions better engage their audience to create a more inclusive, safer, and more successful environment. To request to be featured on the series, get in touch at chris.mansfield@goodcourse.co
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