The issues of safety on campus can be broken down into numerous categories. On the one hand, we have students’ physical and emotional well-being, which includes things such as basic nutrition and mental health. On the other, safety can be defined in terms of students feeling protected from adversity or negativity — the sort of security blanket that can’t be promised to them after university.
Co-Host of The Interview Charles Sin sat down with Tim Miller, Vice President (VP) for Student Affairs at James Madison University (JMU) to talk about the importance of not only looking after students’ well-being but also challenging them to step outside of their comfort zones to grow as people.
As an undergrad, I worked in a number of different fields at my college — as a resident advisor; catering; summer conferencing… Organization-wise, I was president of my fraternity and was in the Criminal Justice Association. I also coached the women’s soccer club team. What I didn’t realize at the time was that all of these things were really SA work! A few years later, I was a faculty advisor on a school break trip. That’s when I finally decided, “Yup, this is what I want to do!” So I got my Masters in Higher Education (HE) here at JMU. I kind of fell into SA accidentally, but I believe I was called to this work.
This is another area I fell into. One of my grad students in my last position, at George Washington University (GWU) — Max was his name — brought this issue to my attention. I started meeting with students who spoke to me about choosing between buying their books and getting food. I’ll never forget one who told me their approach to not having enough to eat was going to sleep. “Because when I’m asleep, I’m not hungry.”
Thanks to these students using their voices, I became a huge advocate for food insecurity. I was part of creating a group in Washington DC that helped all the schools in the area set up food pantries for students. I became a voice for it because I felt that, as a higher-level administrator, I could help boost and raise awareness for the work that various coordinators, assistant directors, and more had been trying to accomplish for a long time. We set up a food pantry at GWU called The Store and ended up being featured on National Public Radio (NPR) and The Washington Post. We elevated this conversation that other people were already having. We were just standing on their shoulders.
Food insecurity is a reality holding tens of thousands of students back every single day. If you can’t focus in school because you’re hungry, it’s really hard to be successful. We looked at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and expanded The Store to be about all those things: clothing, toiletries, and sanitary products for women. I’m really proud of the work they’ve done since I left. Now they have an endowment, which makes a huge difference for students. And we helped about fifteen other institutions create their own pantries, as well.
When I interviewed here, one of the first things I said was, “I want to be the JMU VP for all students, not just those with the same background as me.” One of the things we’ve done since I arrived is add an associate VP for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI). That’s because the areas of services for disabled, multicultural, and LGBTQ+ students — which we call Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity, and Expression (SOGIE) — were all under different departments. So I really felt we need to pull them together so they could not only be a home for people of those identities but also work to educate the entire community.
Most people come from a homogenous place but find themselves in a heterogenous place in college. This is a great opportunity for us to help our students get comfortable with and embrace difference so they’re prepared for the outside world after college.
Most people come from a homogenous place but find themselves in a heterogenous place in college. This is a great opportunity for us to help our students get comfortable with and embrace difference so they’re prepared for the outside world after college. We’ve run numerous training sessions with our students on topics such as diversity and mental health, and it isn’t always easy for them. I believe we have to put them through hard, challenging moments to prepare them to become the leaders we want them to be after they graduate.
I don’t know that it’s our job to create safe spaces. We have to create spaces where our students can feel comfortable standing in front of someone they disagree with and have a hard but comfortable debate with them. But I don’t think they should necessarily feel safe per se because they should get challenged. What’s important is that they know they’re in a place where they can disagree respectfully and civilly.
I believe strongly that you grow the most from being around people who think differently than you. And I also don’t know how many of our students have ever really thought about why they think what they think until they have to explain it, defend it, or answer to someone who thinks differently. So I like putting them in spots where they have to unpack why they believe what they believe.
Ever since the pandemic, engagement has gotten harder across the board. And it was already on a downhill trend because so many of our students never learned how to make friends. So many of them went to kindergarten, elementary, middle, and then high school with the same people.
So we have to help students by providing opportunities to find their people and make them realize it’s not an easy or fast process.
Create environments where students from different backgrounds, experiences, and identities can be around each other, and then slowly add more and more difference into the space. You have to start exposing students who have never experienced diversity to environments that feel comfortable enough for them to begin to ask questions, learn, and grow.