Students are telling us what they need, just not where we expect it

University administrators must meet students on their own terms to truly understand their needs, says Tessa Bravata 

November 30, 2019
Source: iStock

Leaders in higher education often use terms like “student success”, “student retention”, and “student-centered learning”. The buzzword here is “student” and yet their needs seem to be one area that administrators neglect most in their jobs. 

Students aren’t going to walk through an administrator’s door and tell them what they need in order to be successful (for the most part). Students are busy socialising, maintaining a never-ending list of extracurriculars and completing myriad homework assignments. 

Even when they do schedule appointments, there’s a high likelihood of it being a no-show. Are students intimidated by administrators or apathetic? Take a look at social media comments about your institution and you’ll find that it is probably not the latter. Students are voicing their concerns, but not to administrators themselves. They’re doing it online, in residence halls and cafeterias, and in free speech zones. The only way to hear those authentic thoughts is to go to the places where they’re being expressed. 

In order to lead students, and accurately understand their needs, administrators should live among them. Students today function very differently from when administrators were at university. Technology and current social trends have created a very different world that can only be observed from a first-hand point of view. 

I knew an academic advisor who kept Funko Pop bobbleheads on his shelves so that he could connect with students through their common love for the Avengers. At a previous institution I attended, the vice-president of student affairs taught spin classes at the university gym. Another time, I worked with a dean who had moved into a first-year residence hall upon his acceptance of the dean’s position. He lived like a freshman for a year – including eating in the dining hall occasionally. My current institution’s president skateboarded to move-in day and helped students carry in their belongings. 

This is what I mean by attempting to connect with students in a way that students relate to. 

Working in the dean’s office at a public institution has shown me that students are nervous of talking to administration about their problems. Because of technology and changing methods of communication, Generation Z hasn’t been socialised to address people formally in a face-to-face setting. Sure, I’ve seen students come in and air their grievances. But the communication is more self-censored than it would be in a less daunting environment where they feel comfortable to speak. 

The main goal of connecting shouldn’t be just to hear complaints. Administrators have a responsibility to build relationships with students to make decisions that positively affect them. Think of the key principle behind teaching or advising practices: build rapport. Students don’t just attend classes and go home; they have a holistic experience on your campus that integrates learning in all aspects of their lives. If administrators want to know what will help them succeed academically, they should be asking questions about what they’re passionate about outside the classroom. 

Here are some suggestions that could help to break down the barriers between students and administration:

1. Count how many students you interact with you on a weekly basis. How does that compare to the number of decisions you make that affect students?

2. Think about your assessment practices. Are the students who fill out online surveys indicative of your entire student body? Are there better methods (or environments) to gauge their feedback?

3. How do students perceive the physical space when they meet with you? If you’re meeting them in an office how does it feel to enter the space? 

It’s understandable that administrators need a healthy work-life balance and there are boundaries that shouldn’t be crossed. I’m not advocating that administrators hang out in residence halls or spend their time attracting a huge Twitter following, but I do believe there needs to be some attempt to listen to students’ real thoughts. And those authentic thoughts are voiced most frequently in environments where students feel like they can be themselves. 

Meeting them where they’re at, rather than making them come to you, might be one small step in closing the divide between administrators and the student body. 

Tessa Bravata is a graduate student in the University of Connecticut’s Higher Education and Student Affairs master’s programme. She works in alumni relations for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. 

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