Reimagining Student Affairs

​The challenges facing students and institutions call for a holistic approach that centers student success, well-being and belonging, Mary Dana Hinton writes.

August 4, 2022
A female student, holding a book and notebook, stands outside, closes her eyes, looks up toward the sky, and smiles, a look of utter contentment and peace on her face.
The author’s institution has restructured its student affairs division to focus on holistic student success, well-being and belonging.
(Pheelings Media/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

The idea of holistic well-being has been a part of our higher education lexicon for decades. The iterations of this idea have ranged from one-stop shopping so students can address multiple transactional needs in one area to the now ubiquitous (and essential) offering of health and counseling services on campus. It is easy to find mission statements that discuss holistic support or refer to holistic learning. While we have long done an excellent job articulating the importance of attending to the whole student, we have been less attentive to what that means for us as institutions.

While a full-service approach to campus life does allow institutions to make life a bit easier on students, it’s rare that those efforts focus on the transformational elements of the collegiate experience so much as the transactional: pay your bill, see the registrar and get a parking pass all in the same place! Sign up for your classes, explore an internship opportunity and meet an adviser in one stop! While these are important efforts—the transactional often enables the transformational—when we talk about the holistic learner, should we limit our perspective and efforts to the transactional?

Perhaps that question forces us to take a step back and consider what “holistic” means. While I am certain the richness of each of our missions enables us to provide different definitions, there may be commonality in the assertion that holistic well-being is more than just adequately availing oneself of campus services. Holistic well-being calls us to attend to students’ mental, emotional, social, intellectual and spiritual health. As we look at these areas for attention, one may immediately say, “Well, our area focuses on intellectual concerns, but emotional and social concerns are someone else’s department,” or vice versa.

However, “holistic” cannot mean creating boxes we expect students to open for themselves to receive services, one at a time, but rather creating an environment where those services are a more natural part of their walk. Just making assistance available isn’t enough. The onus is on us, not the students, to ensure the needed services are utilized.

Further, if we are interested in the holistic well-being of students, can we explore that conversation without an intentional and sustained emphasis on inclusive excellence? How can we, as institutions, say that we are striving for excellence if a number of our students do not feel as if they belong, that they are a welcomed and valued part of the community?

Having been a leader in higher education for the better part of a decade, I would suggest that what’s preventing us from meeting the desire to serve students’ holistic needs and to consistently work toward inclusive excellence is not a failure to understand the need, but a resistance to completely reimagining how we have organized our institutions in order to do so.

Here’s what I mean: until our institutions are prepared to—and able to—reimagine their functions holistically and with an eye toward inclusion, we cannot truly support students. One of my favorite go-to books, Learning Reconsidered 2 (Human Kinetics, 2006) offers two key institutional considerations: (1) we must move toward transformative learning that engages and recognizes the value of the entire student experience, and (2) the holistic process of learning that places the student at the center of the learning experience demands collaboration and collaboration demands cultural change.

This notion is reinforced in 2016’s Becoming a Student-Ready College (Jossey-Bass). Here, the authors point out that in order to be student ready, we must focus—with deep intentionality—on what students need and how we can collaborate to meet those needs: “At student-ready colleges, all services and activities—from admissions to the business office, to the classroom and even to campus security –- are intentionally designed to facilitate students’ progressive advancement toward college completion and positive post-college outcomes. Student-ready colleges are committed not only to student achievement, but also to organizational learning and institutional improvement.”

In both instances, the call is for institutions to reimagine their institutional cultures and center student needs. While both books were written long before the pandemic, clearly what they call for is more urgent than ever. As enrollments decline, as students have more mental health needs than ever and as their academic preparedness is vastly uneven due to the learning disruptions during COVID, it is imperative that we heed their counsel and shift institutional culture to better—holistically—meet student needs.

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Over the past 18 months, that’s precisely what we undertook at Hollins University. In winter 2021, we spent six intensive weeks learning together as a community—all faculty and staff were invited to participate—in sessions focused on understanding who our students are, what their needs are, the impact of COVID and what our institution has to offer.

The conversations that grew from this initiative, known as the Imagination Campaign, forced us to confront the need to better serve our students, reimagine our student experience and develop the courage to undertake the institutional and cultural changes needed to implement such a cultural shift.

In spring 2021, we began to imagine what it would look like and take to create a signature student experience ecosystem that enables all students to succeed, persist and thrive at Hollins. We desired to create a division—or in our institutional parlance, area—that would be responsible for ensuring all student experiences outside the classroom are coordinated and focused on holistic student success and well-being: academic, social, physical, spiritual and emotional well-being.

We outlined what we meant by “holistic” and joined those elements in a single area, replacing the area that was previously known as student affairs. Our new Student Success, Well-being and Belonging area encompasses Student Academic Success; the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion; the Dean of Students, including housing and student activities; University Chaplain; Health and Counseling; and Campus Security. Our goal is not to merely create an integrated enterprise, but to leverage the expertise of each area such that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Principles at the heart of the reorganization include the need for deep collaboration between areas in support of student academic success—especially between the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion; academic affairs; and student life—and the need for a comprehensive structure to support student success and persistence.

We intentionally have cross-reports between the provost and the new vice president of student success, well-being and belonging. Student affairs has been reimagined in order to signal a holistic approach and to reflect that student academic success is intimately connected to student well-being.

Furthermore, by embedding DEI in this area, we are ensuring that every student—not just those who need or want to participate in DEI initiatives—engages in inclusion efforts, builds their own agency and works together, as a collective, to create a community of belonging.

Each of the above areas requires not only a structural redesign but a reimagination of institutional culture, a reconfiguring of how we think about and engage students and each other.

Our goals are:

  • To facilitate educative pathways and programming that promote centering of students’ mental, emotional, physical and spiritual well-being.
  • To support the development of student programs, workshops and activities to increase access, close the equity gap and support the ability of students to succeed in and outside the classroom.
  • To develop a comprehensive and inclusive strategic plan that addresses current emerging issues around student mental health, sense of belonging and well-being.
  • To increase access to mental health services utilizing a public mental health model.

To ensure this model works, we must provide significant, ongoing professional development utilizing the frame of student success, well-being and belonging. We have learned through our Imagination Campaign that shared professional development yields exponentially better outcomes for us all.

We look forward to assessing and learning from this significant shift, most importantly, to see improved success, well-being and belonging outcomes.

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Mary Dana Hinton is president of Hollins University.

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