Empowering ambition: student affairs’ role in supporting women students

Student affairs departments, often the heartbeat of campus life and well-being, can significantly influence the personal and professional development of women university students. Here, Frances Keene looks at proven ways to nurture and support female students

Frances Keene's avatar
1 Mar 2024
bookmark plus
  • Top of page
  • Main text
  • Additional Links
  • More on this topic
Three young female college students

Created in partnership with

Created in partnership with

Virginia Tech logo

You may also like

Women in academia are doing too much non-promotable work – and that has to stop
5 minute read
Woman at a laptop holding temples with stress

To paraphrase former US first lady Michelle Obama, we cannot flourish as a country if we stifle women’s potential and undermine the contributions of half of our citizens. In today’s evolving educational landscape, that means fostering an environment that empowers and supports women students. Education must promote gender equity, increase diversity, fuel economic growth and address systemic inequalities.

Coming from a very small town in Virginia – my high school graduating class had only 15 students — I struggled as an undergraduate student at the College of William & Mary. I had academic challenges and I felt lost and intimidated on a campus that seemed so large. I remember those feelings, and I have dedicated my career to helping students find their connection and purpose on campus.

My own experience informs how I lead the student affairs division at Virginia Tech, and I understand how pivotal our division’s role is in shaping the overall student experience for everyone. I launched my career at the university as a victim services adjudication coordinator in the Office of Judicial Affairs. The experience gave me a clear perspective of what a student facing daunting challenges goes through.

To help support women students at Virginia Tech who may be facing similar anxieties – about studying, parenting or working – student affairs emphasises the importance of support networks, listening, promoting leadership opportunities and addressing challenges that inhibit student success, well-being and belonging.

Use university resources to create a network of support

Students should know that they’re not alone. Universities have countless systems and potential mentors available to support all students. At Virginia Tech, student affairs is a large team of faculty, staff and student employees; it includes more than 20 departments and several critical student life programmes – including new student orientation, residential well-being, student organisations, counselling, health and well-being services, international student services, our dean of students office and more. Student affairs strives to do whatever it takes to support the individual success of every student.

Listen to your women students

When I was a student, it mattered to me when women I admired listened to me, guided me, supported me and gave me feedback. So, I strive to truly hear and understand women students. Being there for students means asking often-difficult follow-up questions in conversation to get to their pressure points. It’s a delicate balance. As a young woman, I didn’t want anyone to know that I was struggling – but once my challenges were no longer a secret, it was a relief to be heard and helped.

Make connections to people and to opportunities

Relationships drive the way we help students meet their goals. When a student is seeking a connection to a programme or person on campus, student affairs staff can use their networks to help. This is why relationships are so critical; they are the vehicle to connect students to their passions. We may assume this is a small thing, but at a place as large at Virginia Tech, this is critical to helping students connect to the myriad opportunities.

My experiences have helped me to understand the support students are looking for or to identify what is missing so that I can connect students with people who can help with their needs. If I, or anyone on my team, can help a student connect to service learning, student employment opportunities, internships or mentorships, I know we have helped that student feel connected and appreciated.

Promote leadership development opportunities

We can amplify women students’ ambition when we give them the chance to hone their leadership skills. The best leaders and mentors are those who are generous with their time in helping others.

For example, my supervisor of 13 years, and former vice-president for student affairs at Virginia Tech, was an extraordinary mentor. He believed that nurturing talent was an integral part of his leadership. He helped me grow as a professional and when we were in spaces where I was junior to many others, he would actively amplify my thoughts and opinions. In doing so, he lent me his authority; he expressed his confidence in me in front of others. He took my potential seriously and signalled that publicly.

Throughout student affairs, we offer workshops, seminars and training sessions that cover topics such as effective communication, decision-making and strategic planning, which empower women to take on leadership roles both within the university and in their future careers. At Virginia Tech, we offer a cohort experience for women leaders. The I WILL (Inspiring Women in Lifelong Learning) connects undergraduate, graduate and professional women students with alumni and friends of the university for transformative conversations on leadership and professional development.

Address gender-specific challenges

Women students may face unique challenges that impact their academic and personal development. Let’s be clear; despite our – and society’s – best efforts, gender bias, intimidation and harassment still exist in many spaces. We must proactively address these challenges through targeted resources and support, through education and, when needed, access to supportive counselling services.

Student affairs can play a crucial role in shaping the holistic development of women students and in nurturing their ambitions. We empower students to connect knowledge to the possibilities for improving humanity near and far.

Frances Keene is vice-president for student affairs at Virginia Tech.

If you would like advice and insight from academics and university staff delivered direct to your inbox each week, sign up for the Campus newsletter.

See our International Women’s Day spotlight for more advice and resources from women leaders in higher education.


You may also like

sticky sign up

Register for free

and unlock a host of features on the THE site