As the pressures of modern education continue to mount, one crucial aspect often overlooked is the profound impact of mental health on a student's overall well-being. To build a learning community in which everyone can thrive, institutions must make sure students feel empowered to speak up about their mental health and let them know that they are not alone.
Steve Sutton, Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs at the University of California (UC) Berkeley, met with Kitty Hadaway, Co-Host of The Interview, to discuss issues ranging from the debate around free speech in higher education to supporting mental health on campus.
I’m the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs at UC Berkeley. Berkeley is one of the ten schools in the UC system. We have one of the largest campuses in the state, with over 40,000 students. Our numbers are growing every year, and we have an agreement with the state legislature to enroll more California residents. My role oversees four key clusters on campus: admissions and enrolment, the Dean of Students, housing operations, and university health services. Berkeley is a highly selective and internationally diverse institution with a student body that is focused and driven, and a lot of that’s attributable to our academic culture and campus history.
We have a community of people who really want to change the world. I find it highly invigorating and positive. I also love that we have a strong tradition of free speech, which is a core part of our identity.
It started even earlier than that. I grew up in a small town in Southern Ohio, and I was a first-generation college student. I attended a large state institution, and I struggled at first. Then, I started working as a resident assistant to pay my way through college. But it really changed my life and inspired me to make a difference. At Ohio State, I had a mentor who encouraged me to take a look at a career in student affairs. After I finished my Master’s Degree, I moved out to California, and my career really took off from there.
All institutions are different, but they all operate in similar ways. No matter where you are, new students will come in the fall, and others will graduate in the spring. I’ve had a chance to work at private universities like Rice University and the University of Miami as well as large institutions and a college focused primarily on transfer and graduate students. All institutions of Higher Education have regional influences: local culture and government can all make a difference. Wherever they are, students are all dealing with similar issues such as exploring their social identities, developing their autonomy, and finding their purpose. As practitioners, we need to promote campus culture and assist students in navigating their paths forward.
This is a timely issue — just last week, the Supreme Court ruled on Affirmative Action, and several states have moved to curb DEI programs. For me, DEI is a core value, and I’m fortunate that Berkeley shares that commitment. After the murder of George Floyd in 2020, I realized that we needed to do more, like many people across the world. So I appointed a new DEIBJ advisor and an advisory board, and our senior leaders in my division have just completed a 12-month DEI fluency series. It’s an ongoing effort, but we’ve made excellent progress.
Students want to be seen, to be heard, and to feel like they belong. Fear and misunderstanding lead to conflict, so we need to show them how to live in a diverse world. So we start at the very beginning, from our outreach efforts to our orientation programs. We’ve also implemented several campus initiatives, including the Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institutions Program (AANAPISI), and we’re also working towards becoming a Hispanic-Serving Institution. Finally, our African-American Initiative has a Scholarship Program designed to improve access for Black and Brown students. These are campus collaborative efforts, by the way, not just Student Affairs work.
I started my role in January 2017. Within a month, we had a controversial speaker who caused a huge storm on campus. So we were faced with the need to balance freedom of expression against the safety and security of our community. Each situation is different, but we have built a collaborative effort across campus to provide venues for speakers while also upholding the safety of our campus community.
In 2021/2022, we scheduled 24,000 mental health appointments and brought down waiting times from fifteen days to three days. The answer isn’t just to hire more counselors; instead, we have implemented a Step-Care model which looks at students individually to address their unique challenges. We’ve also increased access to group sessions and telemedicine to allow students to access support quickly and remotely. Today, students are much more willing to talk about mental health, and that can only be a good thing.
As an institution, we’re fortunate to have a highly-engaged student body. It’s part of our tradition here at Berkeley. Right now, there are many causes that students are passionate about, such as tuition fees and the use of campus space. But we’re seeing less engagement in some of the traditional outlets, such as Greek Life, though we’re working hard to change that.
Think about what you want out of your work. Then find an institution that can provide that for you. So many challenges people face in their careers come from a mismatch between themselves and the values of their institutions. So you really need to take stock of what you want. What campus community will enable you to have joy in your work?