You have /5 articles left.
Sign up for a free account or log in.

Faculty and staff sit at round tables, some raising their hands in the background.

Faculty and staff at Texas A&M University at Kingsville participate in Caring Campus training in spring 2024.

Texas A&M University at Kingsville

To create a supportive setting for student success, the campus community must first care about the student and what success looks like at the individual level.

That’s Robert H. Vela’s mindset. The Texas A&M University at Kingsville president is one of hundreds of college leaders undertaking the challenge of shifting institutional operations to see the full student experience through a lens of love.

TAMUK began its launch of the Caring Campus program in January, laying the groundwork to evolve as a student-focused institution.

Caring Campus is a program from nonprofit group the Institute for Evidence-Based Change. Over the next year and a half, TAMUK will partner with Caring Campus coaches to learn best practices in the field and earn the trust of its community so it can best support students in a caring manner.

Belonging in Focus

Belonging is a key factor in college students’ retention, driving learners to remain engaged, involved and high achieving at their institution.

Peer connections are critical in student belonging, but students also want to feel supported by faculty and staff inside and outside the classroom.

The background: As a regional university, TAMUK is focused on serving its local community; “we need to own our backyard,” Vela says. The university is focused on recruiting rural learners by convincing them of the value of higher education and how they fit into the institution. First-generation students often face impostor syndrome, so making their experience less transactional is key.

TAMUK serves around 4,800 undergraduates, 75 percent of whom are Hispanic learners. The university has a 63 percent retention rate for first-time freshmen and a six-year graduation rate of 41 percent.

Vela previously implemented the Caring Campus model at San Antonio College, part of the Alamo Colleges District, in 2020. This work, along with other initiatives, was recognized by the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program in 2021. As president of TAMUK, Vela is the first university president to partner with Caring Campus.

How it works: The program’s goal is to create a culture of care that aligns with the university’s student success–focused strategic plan, Vela says. To do so, TAMUK leaders are creating a framework around behaviors and making a commitment to live them out daily.

TAMUK pulled together a team of 50-plus individuals from across campus to develop the behavioral commitments, which launched the last week of January. These behaviors are designed to change university operations from transactional to highly relational, as well as focus all stakeholders on how they contribute to the institution’s mission.

After putting together a list of commitments, they will present their work to the executive team to establish implementation stages, which will roll out in phases.

The whole project will take between 12 and 18 months and involve collaborating with coaches from IEBC to provide guidance on best practices, similar to a consulting relationship. This outside perspective is critical, as it helps spur creative thinking and cuts through practices that may be taken for granted, Vela says.

Earning buy-in: The greatest resource in this work is the faculty and staff, requiring their enthusiasm and commitment to the new framework.

University leadership is hosting conversations with different stakeholder groups to address why this change is needed and how it will impact student success.

These conversations must be “authentic and meaningful” as well as ongoing, Vela says. “You can’t just block out an hour and say that’s going to be that.”

One clear distinction Vela makes to his campus partners is that this is not a punitive measure or a consequence for poor performance, but rather a move to ensure the university is aligning to the overarching mission of educating students.

“Regardless of our role—president, account specialist, groundskeeper—we are all educators,” Vela says. “We are all at a school that is laser focused on educating students … formally in the classroom and outside.”

What’s next: In addition to implementing Caring Campus, TAMUK is looking into its data, relying less on lag indicators and transitioning to leading indicators and measures, Vela says.

Vela anticipates the processes will produce both trust and disruption, helping create transparency and accountability in the organization but also allowing for growth by shaking up old processes.

“This is the same advice we give our students. We tell them it’s normal not to know, to lean into that, because that’s how you grow,” Vela says. “I’m asking us to lean into those things, because that’s what’s going to help us grow.”

Get more content like this directly to your inbox every weekday morning. Subscribe here.

Next Story

Found In

More from The College Experience