Being a leader in Higher Education is often a case of reconciling the different priorities of students, staff and institutional bodies – this is even more so the case for Walter Snipes, Assistant Dean of Students and Director of Residence Life at Davidson University, North Carolina.
GoodCourse co-founder Chris Mansfield sat down with Walter to discuss his journey into the Higher Education sector, the approach he takes to meet the diverse needs of students, and the importance of fostering a sense of inclusion on Davidson’s campus.
I serve as the Assistant Dean of Students and Director of Residence Life here at Davidson College. We’re a private institution and we require all students to live on campus. I manage the department that oversees students’ residential experience. My job is a balance of making sure the buildings don’t harm the students, and the students don’t harm the buildings. Another facet of my role is aiding them on their journey to self-discovery.
Davidson College was founded in 1837 and is a small private 4-year liberal arts institution in North Carolina. We make sure students lead lives of service and leadership both in and outside of the college. Lots of our students go on to be exceptional leaders within their community.
My introduction to this industry was freshman year of college – I used to work for a fast-food restaurant where I had a leadership role. At one time I was going to serve as a lawyer for churches, but everything I learned I ended up applying to housing.
The most important thing I tell students to help aid their transition, is to acknowledge who they are and where they are. It’s a completely new experience for them, very different to high school – no one is there to wake you up and you’re still learning about yourself. That first year is all about learning what it means to be away from home and what it has to do with who you are as a person.
We ask students to answer questions about themselves to establish who they are: when they wake up, when they go to sleep, what they feel about athletics, spirituality, gender identity – what’s important to them? We try to be flexible and meet the needs of each student. If students have experiences and need help, we talk with them and ask, how can we make this a good environment for you?
Fostering a sense of belonging is very important for us. For our students coming to Davidson, we know they’ll change a lot – friendship groups reduce, and interests change. We’re trying to tackle the question of, what can and can’t students control? They can’t control certain things, like their professors, academics or roommates for example – but what can be controlled?
There are things we do formally and informally. Informally we try and foster that sense of belonging. There’s a great beauty of intersectionality on our campus but we also don’t want to tokenize people. I’m an African American male in a leadership role, but I’m working at a predominantly White institution. So what we look at is who can students see in leadership roles on campus.
The second thing we look at informally is just sitting down and allowing people to express their experience. Just because someone’s skin color might be the same as someone else’s, or their gender identity is the same – it doesn’t mean their experience is the same. How do we create a welcoming, inclusive environment in our residential spaces so people can easily say: this is who I am.
Sometimes we will add a bit of education to it. We know we’re not the experts, so we’ll work with the Center for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion here at Davidson and establish what we can do to foster inclusion. We don’t want to put it on any one individual or group – it’s a collaborative process to make our campus one where everyone feels they belong.
We also have a Lavender Lounge, which really highlights and celebrates our LBGTQ+ experience on campus in our residence hall. There’s still a lot of work to do though, in terms of what identities are represented and what we do for them. We’re considering how to bring people to the table when it comes to decision-making.
There are times when we have more students on campus than we have spaces, so they’ll have permission to live off-campus, but only for one year.
We can talk about the research around residential experience, but there’s also just the lived experience of it – like not having to drive home a long distance after hanging out with friends until 3AM. Our college is small, so having students on campus also allows us to really meet their needs in a personal way.
We also get students to sign a lease – we explain it to them so when they actually sign a lease out in the real world, they understand what they’re doing. Lastly, we try to communicate what an on-campus experience is all about to allow them to make the decision about whether it’s right for them.
Be open to continuing to learn and be humble. A lot of people come in and say they want to help students but don’t actually learn what that means.
There are two people. Firstly, Dr Stephanie Carter – seeing the impact she has had has been amazing – she does a lot of crossfit, I admire that too! Also, Dr. LaFarin Meriwether – the embodiment of wisdom, grace and queendom. They’re the two that come to mind!
I’m on a doctoral program reading about innovation at the moment, so my mind is on that… but to answer your questions, it’s actually a story: The Bridge by Edwin Friedman. It’s about the power of help. I feel I’m a helper at my core. The story is about giving people the power to help themselves.