The Interview USA
Southern Connecticut State University
Vice President for Student Affairs

Tracy Tyree

Every Higher Education institution is different, and for Student Affairs teams to create a positive campus climate, they need to understand the needs of a unique student body. In the case of Southern Connecticut State University, where most students commute from the surrounding areas, creating a sense of belonging is challenging but critical. 

Tracy Tyree, Vice President for Student Affairs at Southern Connecticut State, sat down with Max Webber, co-host of The Interview, to share how her team connects with students, understands their needs, and creates a sense of belonging through tailored physical spaces. 

Tracy's Journey

Max: Let’s start with a brief introduction to yourself and your institution…

I’m Tracy Tyree, the Vice President for Student Affairs at Southern Connecticut State University, affectionately known as Southern. I’ve been here for nearly eleven years, so it’s been exciting to see the impact of my work over time, and offer stability to the team. Southern is a regional, public university with around 9,700 undergraduate and postgraduate students. We primarily serve urban Connecticut, so 70% of our student body commutes to campus, and that’s a significant part of our identity. 

Max: What drew you to a career in Student Affairs?

As my father was a community college president, and my mom taught K-12, most of my upbringing was in the context of education. However, I went to college to be a chemical engineer because I preferred math and science to teaching. I ended up graduating in business finance, and that experience during my undergrad led me to Student Affairs as a profession. I had so many wonderful mentors and great co-curricular leadership experiences at the University of Florida that, when I graduated, I immediately enrolled in a Master’s in college student personnel administration. 

Max: How do you create a positive campus environment at Southern?

Over the last eight years, Southern has embraced a commitment to being a social justice, anti-racist university. Our most recent president, who left in 2023, identified the need for us to be more intentional in creating a community for that purpose. One crucial tenet we adhere to is enabling students to see themselves and be seen on our campus. More than 50% of our students are people of color, so we’ve tried to racially diversify our faculty and staff to give students access to people who share their experiences and identities. We’ve also rolled out training in Student Affairs to help our staff grasp the ideas of power, privilege, and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). With that understanding, we can show up in our collective work and contribute to a positive campus climate for all our students, connect with them, ask the right questions, help them feel seen, and offer them support when something’s awry. 

Max: With such a diverse student body, how do you help all students feel a sense of belonging?

Four years ago, our Student Affairs team developed a framework called Thrive, Matter, and Succeed. It laid out the responsibility of every member of our team to help students thrive, enhance their capacity to learn by supporting their mental health and well-being, and to matter in our community. That combination of support and a sense of belonging ensures they’ll succeed, and in the last two years, we’ve focused on whether the built environment is in line with that framework.

For example, many of our commuter students sat in their cars between classes because they couldn’t chill out and eat lunch in the library. So, we renovated our existing student lounge and opened a completely new one, giving commuter students somewhere to make food, watch TV, and relax in comfortable furniture between lectures. We also introduced nap pods so commuters can get a quick power nap before returning home. On top of that, we have Zen Dens, low-stimulation spaces where neurodiverse students can decompress, engage in sensory activities, and reset throughout the day. We also have two prayer rooms, one designated explicitly as our Muslim student prayer room because they require a space they can shape to their unique needs. All that is to say, we’re putting a lot of effort into designing spaces and places that meet student needs so they can come to campus knowing there’s somewhere waiting for them. 

Max: Amidst an increasingly polarized political landscape in America, how do you facilitate conversations across difference among students? 

We’re no strangers to challenging political situations. Still, the nebulous nature of right and wrong, and the abundance of different perspectives nowadays have made navigating conversations on those topics much more complex. To assist students, our DEI division runs a virtual series that brings in speakers, members of the community, and people of different perspectives to share their views, and educate students on difficult topics. We also ensure physical and emotional wellbeing for speakers and students alike so that they can explore different perspectives in a safe environment. If I’m honest, we have a lot of work to do in engaging students in these conversations because, throughout other difficult periods, we’ve tended to take a united front behind a specific viewpoint. That approach no longer works, so this is an improvement piece for us moving forward.

Max: How do you engage time-poor students with your initiatives? 

Our students have bills to pay, part-time jobs to work, and family obligations to worry about on top of their learning, so if something is not present in their everyday lives, they’re far less likely to have the capacity for it. Due to that, where the co-curriculum is concerned, we try to meet students where they are, occupying places where they congregate physically and virtually. One good thing that came out of the pandemic was that we improved our virtual programming, and put a lot more effort into communicating with students through social media, which has also benefited our commuter students. Thanks to that work, there’s less of an expectation for them to come to something we’re putting on because they know we’re thinking about what they want and need, and bringing it to them.

Max: What’s the best advice you’ve received during your career? 

People matter. That means investing in Student Affairs personnel, taking the time and energy to prepare student-facing staff, and ensuring they have what they need to be their authentic selves and make an impact in their work. However, it also means remembering how vital students’ opinions and feedback are to Student Affairs work. All too often, administrators forget to connect and communicate with students, so always keep in mind just how much they matter.  

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