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During the standard campus orientation, incoming students are looking forward to meeting new friends and scheduling classes for their very first semester. For hours on end, they participate in sessions, learning about university policy as well as basics like obtaining a student ID and parking pass, where to eat, and how to get involved.

As university administrators, we have this fantastical notion that each and every student is mentally attentive and present, remembering all the details. Surely every student now knows how to be “successful”? And when an issue arises, they will know -- all on their own -- where to go to resolve it.

Most if not all of us know this to be an accurate assumption in theory, but not true in practice. For the record, I am not disparaging orientation programs or suggesting they are the source of the problems; rather, I use this as an illustration of an opportunity for improvement. In my career in higher education, I have worked with orientation programs and supervised orientation leaders. I thought I was making sure all the information we chose to share with incoming students was vital and worth remembering. We relayed a lot to students, but the notion that we only have to do it once is shortsighted.

In the Inside Higher Ed Student Voice survey on whether students are speaking up and feeling heard, half of respondents have minimal confidence in where to go on campus when they have an issue. This raises the question, “What is our responsibility to inform students whom they need to talk to about a concern?”

Student Voice explores higher education from the perspective of students, providing unique insights on their attitudes and opinions. Kaplan provides funding and insights to support Inside Higher Ed’s coverage of student polling data from College Pulse. Inside Higher Ed maintains editorial independence and full discretion over its coverage.

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If they have concerns about campus parking passes, do they know which office handles this or even the location of the office? If they experience a gender- or racially biased incident, do they know who will support them in their time of need?

Voicing Concerns to Faculty

Students feel more confident speaking with faculty than with administrators for support, the survey found. But are faculty aware of the wide range of resources available throughout the campus and where to refer inquiring students? We tend to look to faculty to instruct and academically advise students, not to be the primary support for student issues and concerns.

As this survey was conducted during COVID times where online classes are the norm, faculty probably have the most frequent “face-to-face” contact. Students are not on campus as much (or at all), and many administrators are staying in their offices or working remotely to minimize exposure. That leaves the faculty to primarily interact with students, but that is typically the role of nonfaculty administrators such as members of student affairs divisions.

Read more content from Student Voice.

The question then becomes, “How do we as nonacademic administrators frequently and consistently support our students?” I argue we need to be more present with the students. Even if we are not physically present, there are other ways to be better connected with our students. These options include:

  • Sharing opportunities for students to connect with administration through means such as open Zoom sessions or other virtual town halls. While we have shifted our programming to a virtual format, for the most part its content does not inform students about where to go when they have issues or concerns.
  • Creating check-ins or roundtables on specific topics a couple of times per month with students en masse to hear what they have to say.

A Self-Advocacy Problem

Another interesting piece of the Student Voice survey speaks to the lack of students who actually voice their concerns. Only one in five has actually raised a concern, with multiracial and Black students having been more likely to express their concerns.

Why is this? Are these students more accustomed to self-advocacy because that is how they have been forced to live their lives? Are these the students who have to speak up even more during a time of racial injustice and social inequity, especially during an era of Black Lives Matter? Their advocacy can teach others the importance of speaking up and not accepting the status quo.

Only one in five students speaking up about issues is startling. Are we failing to instill in students the importance of self-advocacy or even a sense that we want to hear their feedback? We need to make sure students understand we want and need to hear from them when times are good and bad. Students should be made to feel comfortable sharing, both when they are thriving or barely surviving.

Fewer than half of the survey respondents feel administrators make it clear we want to know about their experiences. In my experience, this is critical to enhance what we do and how we serve students. The students, it would seem, do not echo this sentiment.

“You spoke, we listened” or “We heard your voice” messaging campaigns can help show students that their voices matter.

How do we share that we want their feedback? How do we confirm we heard what they had to say and not only listened, but we then made changes as a result? We gather student feedback. It helps us inform future practices or changes to existing services, but we are not as good about letting students know their voice was heard and that it mattered.

“You spoke, we listened” or “We heard your voice” messaging campaigns can help show students that their voices matter. It is critical to let students know they inspired change, and to inform them of what that change looks like. A belief that their voices carry weight could be taken with them postcollege -- when their voices hopefully affect societal change.

A lesson to be learned from all of this is the need to be present for our students, even when we cannot be physically present. Students have little desire to only see or hear from administrators when there is a problem. We need to be out and about among students during the good times as well as the bad.

Students need to see administrators … and not just the front-line staff. Upper-level administrators and senior staff are well served to walk the campus, introduce themselves to students and ask them how they are doing. It is these kinds of interactions, especially for a more insular generation, that help tether students to their institution so they feel seen, heard and cared about.

Jon Kapell, the director for campus activities and involvement at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, has worked in higher education for over 22 years.

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