The Interview USA
Fairleigh Dickinson University
Vice President for Student Affairs

Uchenna Baker

For Student Affairs teams, open communication with students is vital for building support structures and launching initiatives that have a positive impact. But, when students are too busy or uncomfortable to have these important conversations, it’s much harder to understand and meet their needs. For Uchenna Baker, Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students at Fairleigh Dickinson University, the solution to this issue lies in reaching out to students first. 

Uchenna took the time to speak with Co-Host of The Interview, Max Webber, to share how her team makes the all-important first step in engaging with students, and creates spaces wherein students feel safe enough to have fruitful conversations. 

Uchenna's Journey

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

I’m Uchenna Baker, and I’ve been working in Higher Education (HE) and Student Affairs for two decades. My current roles are Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey. We’re the largest private HE institution in New Jersey, with 12,000 students across two campuses in the city, and a third in Vancouver that mostly serves non-residential postgraduate students.  

Max: What drew you to the world of HE and Student Affairs?

My father is a doctor, and throughout my childhood he encouraged me to become a doctor too. However, after taking my first biology class in college, I quickly realized that medicine was not for me. I ended up majoring in English and sociology, and minoring in psychology, before completing a Masters in counseling psychology. During that time I became a residence hall director, which combined my passion for education, my desire to do something related to counseling, and my ability to think strategically. No two days were the same, and I loved helping students, so I worked my way up in Student Affairs from there. I fell into it, but I also fell in love with it.

Max: What is your biggest focus regarding student safety on your campuses?

For students to feel safe, they have to feel seen. Safety means different things to different people, so while some students need to feel emotionally safe in order to thrive, others will prioritize physical safety. That’s why the key to success in this area is the ability to ask students about their individual needs. We place a focus on creating spaces where students can share their experiences and opinions, and we maintain an open door policy in our office so they can drop in at any time and speak honestly because they know we’ll support them. Equally important is that we act on what we’ve been told by speaking to relevant personnel, connecting students with the resources they need, and ultimately finding solutions to their issues. Lastly, you cannot allow students to suffer in silence, so there has to be spaces for them to say ‘This is what I need’, and feel safe in the knowledge that those needs will be met.  

Max: What are the best methods for communicating with students about their issues?

Creating dialogue between staff and students has been much harder since the pandemic because students are generally burnt out. They’ve had to deal with so much, and our communication requests are just one more thing on the pile. That’s why we make ourselves available in student spaces, attend their programs, talk with them in the dining hall, and generally take that tricky first step to begin important conversations. I also formed our Dean of Students Council, bringing together undergraduates, postgraduates, student-athletes, orientation leaders, RAs, and a general mix of students to share their experiences and suggestions. Recently, that council drew up a report on the main issues students have been facing since the pandemic, and the information they presented has really helped us gain a deeper understanding of our student population. If you give students opportunities to talk, especially if they know change is going to be made as a result of what they share, they’re often surprisingly willing to engage with you.

Max: How are you tackling mental health and well-being at Fairleigh Dickinson?

A lot of our students struggle with mental health and well-being, as well as accessing the support they need. To tackle that, we train our staff and faculty members to have foundational conversations with students in times of crisis. We don’t ask our faculty to be professional counselors, but we make them aware that students have a whole world outside of the brief time they spend in classes. Many of them are dealing with financial, family, and health-related issues, and the more awareness of these struggles there is among staff, the more likely they are to refer students to the right resources. Our Student Affairs team also visit the freshman introductory courses so we can share information about counseling, career development, and residential resources. Once they’ve accessed those resources, our students  inform their friends about support structures and encourage others to keep on top of their mental health.

Max: With the upcoming election in America, how are you facilitating conversations across difference among students? 

As staff, we first have to model that behavior ourselves. Some of the most rewarding conversations I’ve had have been with people from different backgrounds, where a recognition of our shared humanity meant there was also the mutual respect necessary for communication. For example, I met a man on a plane to Seattle, and I was so fascinated by how well we got along despite our opposing political views that I ended up writing a book about him. When difference holds power over us, it keeps us silent, and that’s why I tell my team that we have to be comfortable enough to have uncomfortable conversations. Even if students say things that don’t align with our personal views, we will always offer them the grace and lack of judgment that they deserve. As a result, they feel safe enough to ask questions, engage with resources that help them think critically, and learn from our example. It helps students understand that despite our differences, we will always have more similarities. 

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

Embrace being a lifelong learner. If you go through life with a desire to learn, it will give you a deeper understanding of your institution, and your career, as a whole. For example, I want to succeed in Student Affairs, but I also want to know what success looks like in Enrollment Management or in Financial Aid because that knowledge will help me become a more well-rounded professional. Be curious, have the humility to continue learning, and be open to life’s possibilities. 

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