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Leaders Listen to the Student Experience

When I began in higher education as an academic advisor, I interacted with undergraduate students daily. From each conversation, I gleaned insights into needs, barriers, and successes students experienced at my institution. As I moved into university administration, that student-centered perspective greatly informed my work on retention and graduation initiatives. Heading into my fifth year in administration with little direct student interaction, my sense of the current student experience feels a little out of date. I realized this challenge was likely not unique to me and set out to learn what’s worked for seasoned university administrators to remain connected to the current student experience at their institutions. Here’s what I learned.

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Current Student Experience

conversationKeeping a pulse on the current student experience is challenging but incredibly important for higher education administrators. I spoke with many leaders who immediately recognized the importance of staying connected to students as an administrator and the challenge of making time to do so. They described starting out as faculty and professionals interacting with students regularly, which decreased over time as they moved into leadership roles.

“If I’m not intentional about making connections, I might never meet students except when big issues arise,” explained Dr. DeLaine Priest, Associate Vice President for Student Success at the University of Central Florida. DeLaine, as well as others, cited the importance of understanding the lived experiences of students from a wide variety of backgrounds including underrepresented minority students and students from all socioeconomic groups. The experience is constantly evolving, making it all the more important to listen to current students. “As administrators, it’s important for us to listen and not project our own experience,” said Dr. Cissy Petty, Dean of the Student Experience at George Washington University.

Student Perspectives

listen-icon-200x200Administrators also find creative ways to listen so they stay knowledgeable about the student experience. And their limited time encourages them to be efficient with their connections to students. Here are some of their tips to staying connected.
  • Include a representative from the student government on committees for university projects.
  • Hire first-year students as student workers and talk to them about their experiences.
  • Empower student workers to speak their minds and raise issues they see on campus.
  • Teach a yearly class, such as a senior capstone or first-year orientation course.
  • Volunteer with co-curricular activities that involve getting to know students. Dr. Leslie Webb connected with a small group of students while serving as a cluster leader for the six-day LeaderShape Institute at Boise State University. Her involvement led to ongoing conversations and mentoring relationships.
  • Participate in a faculty mentoring program. Dr. Priest serves as a mentor for an incoming student throughout their first year via the Black Faculty & Staff Association.
  • Advise a student organization. Dr. Jesse Nelson advises the Student Autism Community at Oregon State University.
  • Attend student events—sit in the front and just listen.
  • Live in a residence hall as faculty-in-residence. Dr. Jennifer Brown mentioned this opportunity at University of California Riverside, and many other institutions have similar programs.
  • Engage on a variety of social media platforms to connect with students’ interests, particularly on Twitter.
  • Read threads on the university’s subreddit to see what students talk about anonymously. Social listening strategies are a great way to stay connected to your student audience without a lot of research or effort.
  • Ask frontline, student-facing staff what they hear from students. Although indirect, this strategy is a helpful supplement since students may share differently with staff they have a relationship with.
  • Appoint a student advisory council. The council for Student Life at Purdue University meets three times a semester for dinner and informal conversation and feedback on both student-driven and administrator-requested topics. Vice Provost Dr. Beth McCuskey says she learns something new from them every time they meet.
  • Strike up conversations with random students on campus. After low attendance at pre-scheduled listening breakfasts, Dr. Renata Opoczynski and Dr. Mark Largent decided to visit the library and other campus locations with free food to ask students directly about their experiences at Michigan State University.

Take Action

What administrators learn from students deeply informs their work and drives change. “Student voice informs my work on a daily basis,” notes Dr. Webb. “It’s my responsibility to know what’s going on and bring the student experience to the cabinet level.” Others described how student stories help them think differently about barriers to college completion and examine policies and procedures through the student lens. Dr. Priest had lunch with a student employee who worked five part-time jobs to afford college. She frequently thinks of that student, and others who may be in similar situations, when discussing designs for retention and graduation initiatives.

social-communicationStaying connected with students also leads to inspiring campus impacts. At the University of Central Florida (UCF) student representatives on the university’s academic calendar committee recommended a “down day” to study between the end of classes and finals−that day is now on the UCF calendar. Student perspectives on UCF’s Think 30 initiative committee led to substantial revisions of the marketing campaign to better communicate the benefits of on-time graduation for students. At George Washington University, listening to public online conversations via social media allows Dr. Petty to provide near real-time feedback to student service units via social listening. She uses social media to identify pain points, and initiated quick fixes like providing students access to visit other residence halls. A conversation with a computer science student about the difficulty of a course series led staff at Michigan State University to dig deeper into the data where they identified a larger trend. The department is now redesigning the sequence to better support students. In these examples, listening to and valuing student perspectives led to changes that further student success.

Connect with Your Students

Administrators had helpful advice for others who want to listen and learn from students.
  • Start by connecting with students who are likely to have an interest in work you are trying to do. (Dr. McCuskey)
  • Use multiple strategies to stay connected and learn from a variety of student perspectives. (Dr. Priest)
  • Jump in on social media and try it. Pick an area you’re passionate about and highlight it daily. (Dr. Petty)
  • Look for themes across multiple student conversations to identify trends. (Dr. Opoczynski)
  • Think about how you’ll respond in the moment if a student presents an immediate need. Don’t take it personally if students are angry or negative; just listen. (Dr. Opoczynski)
  • It’s not easy to prioritize student connection. You’ve got to be “all-in” or it will get pushed aside. (Dr. Nelson)
  • Don’t use time as an excuse. It’s on you to get creative and make this happen. (Dr. Webb)

After all of these conversations, I’m inspired and excited to try these new strategies both in person and through online engagement. Like the administrators I spoke with, even though I no longer interact with students daily, I can still keep in touch with the current student experience at my institution. Listening to and learning from students is critical to informing the perspectives of those working to improve retention and graduation. And through these strategies, administrators can maintain student connections regardless of their roles.

Special thanks to the following university administrators for sharing their strategies and advice.

  • Dr. Jennifer Brown, Vice Provost and Dean of Undergraduate Education, University of California Riverside
  • Julie Carpenter-Hubin, Assistant Vice President of Institutional Research and Planning, The Ohio State University
  • Sukhwant Jhaj, Vice Provost for Academic Innovation and Student Achievement, Arizona State University
  • Dr. Mark Largent, Interim Associate Provost for Undergraduate Education & Interim Dean of Undergraduate Studies, Michigan State University
  • Dr. Beth McCuskey, Vice Provost for Student Life, Purdue University
  • Dr. Jesse Nelson, Associate Vice Provost for Academic Achievement, Oregon State University
  • Dr. Renata Opoczynski, University Innovation Alliance Fellow, Michigan State University
  • Dr. M.L. “Cissy” Petty, Dean of the Student Experience and Associate Vice Provost, George Washington University
  • Dr. DeLaine Priest, Associate Vice President, Student Success, University of Central Florida
  • Dr. Leslie Webb, Vice President for Student Affairs and Enrollment Management, Boise State University
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Subscribe to Brain Waves!The post Leaders Listen to the Student Experience originally appeared on the Campus Sonar Brain Waves blog.

Alex Aljets

Alex Aljets is a project manager and facilitator with expertise in process mapping and human-centered design. Alex currently serves as the University Innovation Alliance Fellow at Oregon State University, where she manages cross-campus projects designed to improve experiences and success for undergraduate students from all backgrounds. She is a graduate of both The Ohio State University and Oregon State University. You can find Alex on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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