All universities provide a wide array of extracurricular resources to their students to help them achieve their highest potential and make the most out of their experience there. Often this also includes mental health services for those who may be struggling. The challenge, however, can sometimes be both making students aware of those resources as well as either encouraging them to seek them out when they’re needed or finding those students who don’t naturally seek help.
GoodCourse spoke to Shasta Buchanan, Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs at Austin Community College (ACC) District about the importance of helping students learn to make the most of their college experiences.
I’m a fourth-generation college graduate and a fourth-generation educator, which might be unheard of! I stand on some pretty strong shoulders, and knowing their story and their sacrifice had a major impact on me. I can’t imagine what it was like to be a Black person educating Black people in very rural Arkansas back then. I have a photograph in my office of my father in kindergarten, and his grandmother is the teacher! It really felt like the generations before me were passing me the baton.
Fast forward to my first semester in college, I made a 0.5-grade point average (GPA). I went to my dad and he told me that his first semester, his GPA was 0.6, and he went on to become a computer engineer! So I knew then that I never wanted any student to experience what I experienced. I came from a predominantly Black neighborhood and then I went to a predominantly white institution, Texas A&M. It was where I wanted to be, but I needed to flex my muscles more to learn how to use its resources better. Once I sought out help, the advisors were honest and transparent, gave me tough love, and met me where I was, and that’s what I try to do for students now.
I learned from my family, you always have to give back, regardless of your immediate role. When my great-grandfather retired, he walked every day to the courthouse to help Black people who couldn’t read their court documents, so they didn’t lose their land, and I try to follow that legacy. American YouthWorks is about helping underprivileged students who want to skill up get a second chance, giving them someone to say “I see you” and meet them where they are. Communities and Schools helps build confidence in students who may have difficult things going on in their lives. The Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership Council is about motivating other women to succeed. And I do similar mentorship work in my main job. Sometimes we paint the picture that everything is easy, but you need someone in your corner to confide in. To say that we can get through this together. This work allows me to help people see “You can do it. You have to, you need to, and you want to, so let’s get you there. You deserve it.”
Our ability to really hear the student and innovate in a way that keeps us forever evolving, because our students are always evolving. Understanding how to fill their needs and meet them where they are. Building with them, not just for them, because this experience belongs to them.
We have so much! One that stands out is a student organization that a group of our neurodiverse students started, called the Neurobats (because our mascot is the Riverbat). It’s been incredible to watch them build confidence and be able to communicate and articulate that within a community. We also have a Hispanic student organization, as well as BRASS, which stands for Black Representation of Achievement in Student Success. And we have numerous cultural centers. When you do this work with students, first you have to support them in feeling comfortable with expressing themselves as well as in allowing students from other communities to listen and hear, rather than with preconceived ideas. We have a Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation Center. No matter who you are, we want to give you the capacity to be confident in that but also understand that not everyone has the same insight because they haven’t walked in your shoes. But you have to be able to share who you are with confidence and build a community of allies.
When the pandemic started, we brought together an SA team to place phone calls to our students, prioritizing the ones living in zip codes at or below the poverty level. We wanted to check in on them, and when we did, our students talked to us about their mental health, even when they didn’t have that exact vocabulary themselves to define it. It was about asking them the right questions and often connecting them with our clinicians to help them through this difficult time. Since then, we’ve had workshops and different forums to help students feel comfortable, as well as student assessment surveys to help us identify and help students who don’t intrinsically have help-seeking behaviors on their own.
You have to want to do this work. You have to be ready to keep the student at the center. Be prepared to listen to them and innovate. Who we were as a college when we opened in 1973 cannot be who we are in 2023! Be ready to transform lives, systems, and practices, to be able to support the student who’s in front of you right now, and in the future.