There are many opportunities to increase belonging and learning among students. Even something as simple as taking five minutes out of one’s day to discuss with a student how their learning connects to their campus job, and vice versa, can greatly impact an individual.
These personal touches are crucial to the work of Sarah Hansen, Vice President for Student Life at the University of Iowa. She sat down with Co-host of The Interview Charles Sin to discuss her career and the initiatives she is most proud of.
I am the Vice President for Student Life at the University of Iowa, an AAU Research institution in the Midwest. Student Life at Iowa includes essentially everything outside the classroom that supports students in their academic success from residence halls to cultural facilities as well as involvement and well-being support resources.
I was getting my master's degree and thought I would do counseling. I happened to do a practicum at the student wellness office on campus. Once I did that, I realized I always wanted to work with students or in a college setting. My career progressed from there.
The challenges are contextual, involving our national and international narratives and our ability to engage across differences in general. We have approached our work around DEI and campus culture from the perspective of helping students, staff, and faculty build specific skills for perspective-taking and being in difficult dialogues. You need to learn these skills; they don’t come naturally to us, and they aren’t role-modeled right now in our culture.
You can engage in a deliberate dialogue where even though you may never agree, you are debating without dehumanizing.
Right now, we are having our third day of dialogue with our student leaders, who tend to be our biggest culture transmitters. We have spent time teaching them these skills and putting them in situations where they aren’t around folks like them, helping them to discuss issues in difficult situations. You have to be able to form some sense of mutual respect and connection before a high-tension moment to understand that not everyone thinks the same way. You can engage in a deliberate dialogue where even though you may never agree, you are debating without dehumanizing.
We just had an incident of this on our campus where one of our student organizations brought a conservative speaker who has strong views around gender and identities. What we did successfully throughout the whole event was that we permitted the event to happen — which we need to if we uphold free speech — and we also had students who organized peaceful protests. Our staff did a lot of work to support students who might feel like they needed it. These are incredibly difficult situations and we spend a lot of time helping students across a range of viewpoints understand that the best response to speech you don’t like is more speech.
Everything has changed in some shape or form. We are in a time right now which is pretty divisive. We have a lot of student activism which is a great thing. I have noticed that students and families come with increasingly great expectations of what institutions will offer regarding, for example, support for mental health. More one on one support is needed for many students.
I think we also know a lot more now about what truly does contribute to student success in HE, so we have shifted a lot of what we do to help students succeed within the classroom and beyond.
I flunked out of school during my undergraduate. It’s important to talk about it for two reasons. One, a lot of people assume that student life is made up of people who were presidents of college organizations and followed a smooth path. But mine was windy. So my second reason is to communicate clearly that it’s okay if students don’t find their place or people right away; you need to give yourself a chance. Failure should not be a shameful thing. It’s a part of life.
GROW stands for Guided Reflection on Work. We created GROW about 15 years ago. We had been looking at everything around student success and had not previously thought about how we employ roughly 2,000 students in Student Life alone each year. This was a population of students we had daily contact with, but we weren’t doing anything more than letting them do their work. Work is a learning opportunity, but we realized that students needed structured help reflecting on their work and practicing what they learned in different areas. So now we have very brief conversations between student supervisors and the students, prompting them to reflect on their learning, for example, how what they’re learning in class impacts their work and vice versa. It has been a powerful intervention. We have 15 years of data supporting it: students employed in GROW settings in the university have a retention rate roughly 7 per cent higher. Student employment is a direct investment in student success.
We were looking into this as an institution. We have focused on embedding well-being into every aspect of life here; it’s actually part of our strategic plan. For a large research institution, it’s rare to have that as a specific goal.
After the death of George Floyd, I led a project reimagining campus safety. We are still in the implementation phase of the recommendations from that. Some things that have changed are that we have added and bolstered our student care and assistance office, which provides care coordinators who are an interim measure before a student might need something more intensive. We have a local phone/text/chat line that runs 24/7 all the time. We have invested a lot in skill-building around safety, mental health, and skills for dealing with distress. We embed mental health counselors into residence halls and colleges. Our data shows that students feel really safe on campus but slightly less safe off campus, so we have been working with our nearby downtown district to install lights and train restaurant and bar staff on active bystander intervention training.
It’s about humanizing each other. Understanding that diversity comes in many forms, both visible and invisible. But ultimately, everyone wants to feel like they belong. So we need to view each other with that understanding. We must see that we’re all humans struggling in a distressing world.