Editor's note: Jon Jacobsen is a professor of mathematics for Harvey Mudd College, in Claremont, California. He previously was vice president for student affairs and dean of students.
I love teaching, especially for its role in making a positive impact on students' lives. As a first-generation college student, I am particularly drawn to helping students who are facing challenges as they navigate their own college experiences. For this reason, I became associate dean for academic affairs (ADAA), a part-time, faculty administrative position designed to help students facing academic challenges.
After more than 20 years of teaching mathematics and five years as ADAA, I was promoted to vice president for student affairs/dean of students in 2015, an opportunity I accepted with optimism and humility. The experience has transformed my understanding of student life and the role of student affairs. It has demonstrated how student life today is saturated with the conflicting duality of the joy of learning and the hardship of life.
Indeed, social media amplifies this perspective. For students fused in this interconnected world at every moment, as is the case for virtually every American college student, there seems to be something to be genuinely delighted or viscerally angry about. Add in the high cost of college and the fact that this generation feels no clear path to financial stability and one gets a sense of the many pressures today's college students experience. This more volatile reality exacerbates the divide between generations but has yet to impact classroom dynamics drastically.
By contrast, my three years as dean of students revealed how student affairs staff have had to continually adapt to this modern paradigm and how it continues to reshape their professional experiences today. My sense is that this is also the case on many other campuses across the country.
The nature of communication and information flow — particularly at small colleges — means everyone knows a lot about everyone else. The student affairs office also knows quite a bit about students, especially the challenges they are facing from elements such as anxiety, depression, chronic health conditions, relationship issues, social media stressors, safety concerns, drug and alcohol use, and other issues. Knowing these details about students while still watching them shine and form community and live and support each other is heartening.
Their resilience and care for each other are inspiring. It is truly collegial in the best possible ways. However, supporting these students and ensuring their safety, in a strange hybrid of parenting and supervising, can be both rewarding and incredibly labor-intensive.
While student problems and situations are rarely compact or easily resolved, often deans can help just by listening and affirming. Deans also can mobilize resources or connect students with appropriate professionals to provide additional layers of support.
Student issues also are not limited to business hours — a dean's work is 24/7. At any moment an email or call can arrive about a student in need. Social media amplifies this rapid awareness and sense of urgency for swift action. Over time, the support team accumulates a set of students of care with related emails and meetings ever rising. Crises emerge and get managed, often quelling after a few days or weeks, but rarely being totally resolved.
The deans must have strategies for navigating this emotional work. Being empathetic is generally a strength, but the cumulative impact of feeling students' adversity and seeking compassionate paths forward takes its toll. Deans need to prioritize and support self-care as an essential component of their profession.
It can be hard as a dean to take comfort in the professional reality the job entails, especially when the job is not well-understood by most faculty. It is typically not compensated at a level commensurate with the workload, often requires sacrificing one’s personal life to navigate an urgent student matter, and carries a constant threat of student protests, social-media outcry or even litigation.
While faculty members play the central role in carrying out the educational mission of the college, they are significantly bolstered by the work of their student-affairs colleagues — colleagues who are less able to choose what projects they work on, less often recognized publicly for their achievements, and less able to advance professionally at the same institution.
Yet these same staff members work continually to support and educate students, adapt the campus environment to be safer and more inclusive, collaborate with campus partners to develop innovative programs and services, and guide students through a myriad of leadership and co-curricular experiences, some of which may be their most memorable or important in college. Their work is critical to the educational mission and well-being of any campus community.
I now understand the importance of staying current on ever-evolving student affairs programs and services so I can have a more complete picture of available opportunities and resources to refer students. And, as a faculty member committed to inclusive excellence teaching at a college that shares the same commitment, I will continue to embrace learning from my student-affairs colleagues who are active scholars engaged in vibrant national communities focused on best practices. The more we understand our students, the better we can connect with their lived-experiences and energize learning through inclusive and equity-minded learning.
Colleges and universities function more effectively when they are engaged in building understanding between faculty and staff in all major campus departments. I would encourage all faculty members at higher education institutions large and small to participate in student-affairs events and programs — you will gain new understanding and grow as a teacher and a colleague. We are united in our common goal to create the best possible educational environment for our students to grow personally and professionally.
I am indeed fortunate to serve with a team of professionals who bring a wealth of expertise and experience to campus. Without a doubt, I am a better and more understanding faculty member and colleague thanks to the lessons I've learned from them.