Students can face many challenges outside the classroom. Economic hardship, discrimination, and abuse can force many out of education altogether. So it’s critical that universities fulfill their duty of care and ensure students’ basic needs are being met.
Talea Drummer-Ferrell, Associate Vice President and Dean of Students at Kent State University, has led the way in this regard. Talea sat down with Kira Matthews, GoodCourse Community Engagement Lead, to discuss her work improving student wellbeing, building cultural competence on campus, and providing crisis support.
As an undergrad, I became interested in student affairs through my experience in sorority life. I originally wanted to be a math teacher, but I soon realized there was a difference between being a mathematician and teaching math. So I was struggling to find my way when one of my sorority sisters recommended that I get involved in student affairs. It allowed me to pursue my passion for education in a different way.
When I was starting out in Higher Education (HE), most people wanted to become the Vice President, but I always dreamed of being Dean of Students. It seemed like the job was more focused on people, looking out for students and their interests. I spent six years in intercollegiate athletics, which helped open my eyes to unique identities. From there, I became the Director of the Student Multicultural Center. I got a lot of advice from the Dean of Students at the time, who also had a background in DEI. Then one day, three years later, he walked into my office and asked me to be the next Dean of Students. I almost fell out of my chair!
It’s a little bit like Middle Child Syndrome: you’re not the new, shiny student anymore, but you don’t have everything figured out yet. My passion comes from my own experiences; once I decided I wasn’t going to be a math teacher, it was difficult to find my way. You’re suddenly forced to navigate institutions you don’t really understand.
For me, peer mentorship is important — a lot of the programs I oversee now encourage it. Our peer mentors don’t just work on an institutional level but focus on building relationships. My research has focused on transition and how identity impacts that transition. I’m now teaching a course about supporting Students of Color to navigate historically White institutions.
We take a multifaceted approach. You have the mental health component, the need to create an environment where students feel safe, supporting students who have been impacted, and encouraging people to get involved in prevention. A lot of our work involves breaking down the walls we have unintentionally created.
We’re trying to foster collaboration to offer greater support to students. For instance, a student who escapes an abusive relationship might find themself homeless. So we can get them into temporary housing and qualify them for an emergency grant. We also need to be mindful of mental and emotional trauma, so we can prioritize students for counseling and psychological support. It’s necessary to act systemically: we have 30,000 students across eight campuses, so we need to ensure every student feels supported in times of need.
We started with our administrators, faculty, and staff. If we aren’t there, how can we expect to bring students along with us? We need to make these conversations happen among students. So one of the discussions we’ve been having is about identity-conscious leadership. I’ve had the blessing of coming up through the Multicultural Center, which really helped me understand what my identity means and how it influences my work. So I’ve been trying to pour that back into the students.
We need to make these conversations happen among students. So one of the discussions we’ve been having is about identity-conscious leadership.
At the same time, Kent State believes in the power of the First Amendment, and we expect our students to respect that right. So we need to teach our students how to exercise it — civil discourse sometimes involves polarizing discussion, and they need to be ready for that.
I have a lot, but our CARES Center is a point of pride for me. Years ago, we conducted a study where students told us their basic needs weren’t being met. We had students who had nowhere to lay their heads at night. When Covid shut everything down, we created an emergency grant. I read over 1,000 applications, and it helped me understand what students are really facing. Slowly but surely, we’ve built up a space and secured staff and funding. From nothing, we’ve created a fully operative center that is committed to making a change.
Remember your why. Take a deep dive into who you are and stay steeped in that. The higher you climb, the more you need to remember who you are.
It’s so hard to choose a single person. I’ve been supported by so many inspirational people who saw things in me that I could never see. I’m grateful for my classmates who encouraged me to get into student affairs, and for my supervisor and unofficial (but official) mentor Lamar Hylton. And of course, my parents, my husband, and my daughter.
Achieving Against the Odds: African American professional women in higher education by Dr. Anita Jackson and Dr. Marlene Dorsey