APU Careers & Learning Online Learning Online Teaching Lounge Podcast

Student Affairs: Teaching Skills in Mental Health and DEI

Podcast with Dr. Bethanie L. HansenDepartment Chair, School of Arts, Humanities and Education and
Dr. Jan SpencerDepartment Chair, School of Arts, Humanities and Education and
Dr. Barry Dotson, Faculty Member, Student Affairs in Higher Education

The role of student affairs is to mentor and guide the next generation of students and help them navigate a quickly changing world. This requires new and evolving skillsets for student affair professionals. In this episode, Dr. Bethanie Hansen talks with APU professors Dr. Jan Spencer and Dr. Barry Dotson about the evolving role of student affairs practitioners. Learn why it’s so important to be trained in mental health issues, for example, to help students dealing with a variety of issues due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Also learn how to be increasingly comfortable dealing with students in an online environment as much as face-to-face.

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Dr. Bethanie Hansen: This podcast is for educators, academics, and parents who know that online teaching can be challenging, but it can also be rewarding, engaging, and fun. Welcome to the online teaching lounge. I’m your host, Dr. Bethanie Hansen. And I’ll be your guide for online teaching tips, topics, and strategies. Walk with me into the Online Teaching Lounge.

Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge podcast. I’m Dr. Bethanie Hansen, your host, and I’m here with Dr. Jan Spencer and Dr. Barry Dotson. We’re going to be talking today about student affairs and personally, I’m very excited about this conversation we’re going to have. But, first, before we jump in, I’d love for our guests to introduce themselves. And I’d like to pass it to you. Jan, tell us a little bit about you and your background.

Dr. Jan Spencer: Thank you, Bethanie. I’m Dr. Jan Spencer and I am the Program Chair, the Department Chair for Educational Leadership and Student Life. And within that setting, I lead the Student Affairs in Higher Education program, and I am very blessed to have some excellent faculty. And one of them is with us here today. And I’ll turn it over to Dr. Barry Dotson to introduce himself.

Dr. Barry Dotson: Thank you, Jan. I appreciate that toss. My name is Barry Dotson. I am the vice president for Student Affairs at Southeastern Technical College in Vidalia, Georgia. We are one of the smaller technical community colleges in Georgia. We’re in the Southeastern corner. If you’re not very familiar or from Georgia, we are in between Savannah, Macon, and Valdosta. We occupy a little corner there and I really enjoy teaching for APU. One of the things that I think that I bring is because we are a smaller Student Affairs Department, is that I have some experience in all areas of what you would typically call a Student Affairs Division or a Student Affairs Team.

A little bit of trivia: I have been a vice president for Student Affairs for a long time. Bill Clinton was President when I first became Vice President for Student Affairs. So I am the longest serving Vice President for Student Affairs in the State of Georgia. So I’ve seen a lot of changes through the years and been a part of a lot of the whiplash changes that we’ve had in our profession.

And I love teaching for APU. I love being a part of mentoring the next generation that’s coming in behind us, and I’m excited and delighted to be here today. Thank you for the invitation.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Welcome again, both of you, and thank you very much for introducing yourselves. I’m going to pass it to you, Jan, to go ahead and take it from here.

Dr. Jan Spencer: Barry, I am really struck by your capability in the area of student affairs. I hear from students regularly that you are one of the teachers they really like. And I know the reason for that is you are engaging. One of the things that you bring to the plate for us here at APU is a strong knowledge and experience in the area of the changes.

Just as you mentioned that you have been in your role for a number of years, you’ve seen those changes and not just in an on-ground setting, you’re seeing those changes in an online setting as well. So I’d like to ask you to get us going here and talking a bit about some of the changes that you’ve seen over the years that you’ve experienced in student affairs.

Dr. Barry Dotson: Appreciate that. And I appreciate the compliment and I just want to say it is an honor. When you think  about the student affairs profession, you think about those students coming have such a potential to impact and influence the lives of the students coming to college, because, you know, in student affairs, we see them in the beginning. We help them while they’re here, we help them to get out and we help them to get a job.

One of the reasons why I love this program, and one of the reasons why I love to be a part of mentoring and being a part of the lives of the students who are with us is that they’re coming behind us. And we want an educated country. We want a country that is functioning at its best. And the students that we are teaching and mentoring and guiding through the student affairs profession are the ones who are going to be looking after our next generation.

And so I just can’t say enough about the time that we get to spend with them. It’s actually an honor. It’s a great honor to be with those, I say young people because they are younger, they are the next generation, but it’s a great honor to be with them.

Some of the main changes that we have seen in the online world and in student affairs profession were amplified starting in March of 2020. And I can’t even begin to describe all of the changes that we’ve seen since then. And I know we’ve been a part of that at APU. We’ve had extensive discussions, there’s been a lot of literature. Some students have asked me like, what do you think about this as a topic for study for doctoral dissertation? And they’re already putting COVID topics in.

And so I think it’s an area that is ripe for a lot of study. In student affairs profession, we all subscribe to the theory that a connected student is more likely to stay, more likely to be successful. We all follow the Tinto thoughts that getting those students involved early, getting them involved is essential, and keeping them involved.

And since March of 2020, it’s been a little difficult because we haven’t always had those students in the same level of engagement, because they’re in a national pandemic, they’re working, they also have families, they have other things going on in their lives. And so it’s been challenging to engage some of those students during a pandemic and each semester that we have been in the pandemic, I’ve sent a special note to each one of them saying, I salute you. You have my admiration for taking a course, a graduate-level course in the middle of a national pandemic.

I know you’re employed full time. I know you have a child. I know you have a husband. I know you have other things going on in your lives. And I send each one of them a note after the introduction to say, I’m here for you. What can I do to help you in the midst of this? Tell me what services that I can provide for you?

And it’s been a sea of change since March of 2020. And I know you and I have had some conversations about this a couple times about the differences in the students and in my own college, a sea of change. And we’re an undergraduate institution. We are a two-year institution, we do not have dorms. And there’s been a sea of change in the students that we are seeing as well in terms of student affairs and the need to make sure that everything that we are offering is now available at the click of a phone and that we have put as much thought as we can.

And one of the things that we did in the middle of the pandemic and we did it remotely, was to go through every single part of our admissions process at my home college and say from, start to finish, can we do everything online? Can we provide everything online to the students that we need to be able to provide for them in order for them to be successful?

Now it’s not always the same level of services, but we are trying to make sure that we provide the same quality of services and we’re trying to get to the same level. And it’s required a lot of creative thinking on our part. And I know that we have discussed that in some of our faculty meetings that you’ve held with us, is how to make sure that we are serving those students properly. And that’s one thing that I would say that is recent and on our minds. I’m not sure if you would agree with that thought.

Dr. Jan Spencer: I’m right with you all the way, Barry. One of the things that comes to my mind when you’re sharing there is that we’ve had the Delta variant now the Omicron variant. There’s an inner expectation that I feel that, “Well, sometime we’re going to get back to the way things ought to be.” And now I’m beginning to wonder if that will never happen.

We have to set ourselves for the long haul that some kind of an adjustment is now going to become permanent in terms of how we do business and how we conduct ourselves with our students. And hopefully, some of the practices that we’re now adopting with student affairs online in place of on ground will be the ticket. So can you comment just a little bit about how online being a part of an online program, such as an APU feeds into your effectiveness in an on-ground a program?

Dr. Barry Dotson: It really does. One of the things I’m going to cap onto what you were talking about. Early in the pandemic, most of my emails were with that little positive spin at the end, like we’re going to be out of this soon. We’re going to be at the end of the pandemic soon, just hang on. And then is they sort of transitioned and the communication was “Well, now we need to make sure, keep our guard up. Don’t let your guard down, make sure that you are continuing to practice social distancing and continuing best practices.”

And at one point, we had thought we were far enough through it, that we would start removing some of the posters that we have all around campus. And, as you know, in the college world, you plan graduations and orientations. I mean, your years in advance planning those things. And we scheduled a makeup graduation in August of 2021.

And when we planned it in January, we thought, well, after the summer burn off, we’ll be good. Well, if you remember in August, the numbers went straight back through the roof again, and then we’d had our second scheduled makeup graduation, which will be held for us in December. And, of course, now we’re seeing the Delta and the Omicron variants.

And so, my latest communication, and we have a staff meeting on December 16th where we’re going to talk about some of the things that we had thought we were going to be putting behind us by January of 2020, but actually at the time of this recording, those events are still very much with us. And so, as you mentioned, I’m not sure if it’s not one of those things that’s going to be with us for a long time.

But one of the ways of that transitions to online effectiveness is that it helps me in terms of thinking, because I work at a smaller technical college and I get to see every single aspect of student affairs and supervise every single aspect because we are a smaller institution. It helps me when I apply that in the same line of thinking and classes.

And so for this past term, I was teaching a course on legal issue and we’re still in that course. And some of the things that we are talking about, and of course, legal issues go on and on. But a lot of the cases we’re looking at have been several years passed. And so, one of the ways that’s helping me as an instructor at APU is I bring to the forefront say, “Okay, well, this happened several years ago and this is a court case that we’re looking at. This is a FERPA court case that we’re looking, but thinking in terms of now and COVID and people being sick, here’s how it translates into our class as it is online right now.”

And so, I think being at a smaller college helps me as an instructor. And I think that helps me deliver a higher level of instruction than I might not be able to if I worked at a different institution and I say many times, I am not the smartest instructor in the room and I’m not the best instructor in the room, but I’m going to work as hard as I can for my APU students.

Because, again, as I mentioned, the students in the student affairs program, the higher education program, they’re going to be guiding our institutions for the next several years. And they’re going to be training the generation of students who are going to be running our country. And so I think being at a smaller institution helps translate for me into being a better online instructor. Again, I will say I won’t ever be the smartest instructor. I won’t ever be the best instructor, but I will work as hard as I can.

As the old saying goes, “I will die on a treadmill.” Of course, you can tell I haven’t done that in a while, but I would work as hard as I can for the success of our students and getting them all the information that they need. And I know that all of the APU instructors, when we have faculty meetings, they’re all the same way. And so, I think that results into a better program and for the APU students.

Dr. Jan Spencer: One of the things that comes into play when we’re dealing with the changing circumstances because of the pandemic has to do with mental health. We see different kinds of issues and circumstances that students are facing. Can you make some comments on the increased role of student affairs in the mental health of our students?

Dr. Barry Dotson: I think in times past what I’ve observed is that if we have an issue that we work as quickly as we can to get that student referred somewhere for professional help. But I think that I’ve noticed since March of 2020, that those students want to talk to the people that they are familiar with on the campus, whether it is an online instructor or whether it is a person in their office.

And so, I think that’s part of the changing landscape of student affairs. And one of the reasons why we need to make sure that we are producing the most well rounded and educated graduates of these programs that we can, because I think now that there’s an expectation that you need to be able to spend some time with a student in your office who is coming into your office to say, I have some issues and I just need to talk to you.

I don’t want to go to an office down the road. I want to talk to you. You’re my career counselor. You’re the person who helped me get through the front door. You’re the person who guided me through testing. You walked with me down to the financial aid office. You helped me complete this dreadful FAFSA. You’re the person that I know, you’re the person who has helped me the most. I just need to spend some time with you.

And so, I think, I know, I have seen, that there is now an expectation and I don’t know if March of 2020 and COVID pandemic has amplified it, or it was coming, and maybe I just didn’t see it, or COVID, as I mentioned has amplified it. But I think that there is an expectation that student affairs be more trained in mental health issues and be more prepared to deal with students who are experiencing a variety of issues since March of 2020. And I think you and I have had some conversation about that, and I think you’ve seen some of the same things.

Dr. Jan Spencer: Yeah. Some of the issues with regard to mental health and student affairs is I think facilitated in an improved manner by us having to focus on answers to similar issues, but in a stronger way, because of the pandemic we’re going through, it’s really exacerbated our problems.

Do you find a similar answer in an online environment as you would in an on-ground environment? It’s not like you can walk them down the hallway to the office to talk to a particular issue. There is an online facilitation. And so we give more people an opportunity to get in the boat of education, but then the challenges that they’re facing may be greater as well. So does online give us any help with that? Does it make it more difficult? I’m interested to hear your response to that.

Dr. Barry Dotson: I’m not sure if it makes it more difficult because we’ve all become very familiar with Zoom since March of 2020, and we’ve all become semi-experts in the world of Zoom. And I was in a Zoom session, I don’t want to give too many details cause I don’t want to do anything that would violate any confidence, but I was in a Zoom session with the student not very long ago. And it was about mental health issues. Just, I need someone to talk to, I’m in this class, I work here, I’ve got this going on. I need someone to talk to. And so we talked about a variety of issues and at the end I was able to make some referrals based on what the university offers for that student. But the Zoom session, I think, was really good for that student, because we could see each other, we could talk to each other. It was clear. He had a laptop. I was sitting with my laptop.

And so I think that in 2020, it’s a little bit different instead of sitting in someone’s office, but we connected and he spent some time talking and I was happy when he requested, I’m always happy to meet with any student, and when he requested, can we meet like at 7:00 PM, one Tuesday evening for a quick Zoom. It turned out not to be a quick Zoom, but, again, I am happy to talk with that person and to spend as much time as they need, because there are a lot, our students are facing a lot of issues. And so I think it is just different and you need to become comfortable as a practitioner in student affairs, you need to become comfortable with a student in an online environment, just as well as a student in your physical presence.

Dr. Jan Spencer: Great. Barry, one of the things that’s come to the forefront, especially in these last couple of years . . . and we see this topic as very critical to what we’re all about in education, wanting to give everybody an opportunity to have a seat at the table . . . and I’m thinking of the issue of equity, diversity, and inclusion.  How is that facilitated by our approach to student affairs?

[Podcast: Steps to Developing Strong Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Policies]

Dr. Barry Dotson: I think one thing as you mentioned is we need to make sure that we have everyone with the seat at a table. I think we’ve always been pretty good about that in higher education. But, there’s always room for improvement. One of the things that I saw yesterday, either in inside higher ed or in the morning Chronicle snippets that I get, is talking about the coming enrollment cliff that’s coming in a couple years, as you know, going back to the recession in 2007, 2008, and 2009 fewer people who were having babies. And so now 18 years later coming up, there’s a lot fewer students graduating from high school. And so as part of that, you see a lot more attention being paid to first-generation students, students of color, all sorts of students. And it’s also helping with retention. I’ve noticed a lot of retention efforts being put into place.

Now I hope that it’s because of a growing awareness that we need to always make sure that we have everyone with a seat at the table, but if enrollment concerns are pushing it, I feel that the outcome will be good. And so, for a variety of reasons, I think there are a lot of issues that are being pushed to the forefront now. So retention and then diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts are among those. And I think that they will be among those efforts for a good long time.

One of the articles that I saw yesterday or this morning “Inside Higher Ed” also had an article about how to make sure that we are serving single pregnant mothers. Now back in the late 1990s, when the TANF was going through, there were federal dollars for programs called like new connections to work. So you had extra funds to help single pregnant mothers, single parents to go to college, get a job upon graduation and go to work.

After about five years, all those funds went away. And so I was very interested in seeing the article yesterday, talking about how we need to bring some of those federal programs back or there needs to be some funding for those programs. And I’ve said that forever because when the money went away, of course the programs went away and we had no funds to keep those programs going. They were excellent programs.

So for whatever reason, I think there is well for a variety of reasons. I think we know, but for a variety of reasons, there’s a lot more attention being paid to diversity, equity, and inclusion. And I think that is awesome. And we have a section that we do in every one of my classes. I always try to make sure that we are including some topics for discussion focusing on diversity, equity, and inclusion. I think I told you at our last faculty meeting that we had, that we are doing a program with eighth grade females called “This Girl Can,” and I just have to talk about it for a second.

And I know we’re not talking about middle school programs, but I feel like one of the ways that we tackle diversity, equity, and inclusion issues later is start earlier. And so for our college and we stole this idea from a college in Wisconsin. So for three weeks, one afternoon a week, we had 25 middle school females on campus. One week they were in the welding shop and they all got to weld something. The next week they were in the automotive shop. And it was hilarious to hear some of the comments, but they all had hands on practice. And then the next week they were in electronics where they got to build some kind of circuitry or something way above what I know, what I’m talking about is probably not even building a circuit or something, but they were building something. And I went down to take pictures and to see. And tomorrow night we are actually having a graduation.

The week after that, they got to spend time on our commercial truck driving track with a female truck driver. And so tomorrow night we are actually having a graduation for them on our campus. And we want to continue the efforts that we are trying, at a younger age in stressing the importance of, diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace and diversity, equity and inclusion among our staff.

And when I actually brought this idea up to my diversity, equity and inclusion team, they were like, “What, crazy idea do you have now?” And I’m like, “Y’all, this is going to be great. I promise this is going to be great.” And so we have T-shirts for them tomorrow night and they get to graduate. I think it’s an excellent program and I’m looking forward to, we’re going to do it again next semester. And I hope that we can continue this program.

But I think one of the ways that we tackle some of the issues that we are having now is to start at an earlier age. And I think regardless of what type of college that you have, you should be active in your community. I think all colleges should be what we call community college, active in your community, and you should be doing programs like this. We get no dollars for this. We had to scrounge up money for this and it actually didn’t cost a whole lot.

And so I think every college should be doing programs like this. If we are in the business of producing better citizens, and that should be one of the purposes of education, then we should all be doing programs like this. And so I’m so excited to see what fruits it might bring as they start high school next year, and then what fruits it might bring when they graduate from high school and what career paths that they may tackle and that they may go into.

But, as I mentioned, it’s an honor that we are training the next generation of higher education professionals and student affairs professionals. We need to make sure that we are working with them on diversity, equity, and inclusion areas and issues. We need to make sure there’s a full understanding.

I know you’ve seen the little clip art of the guy standing at the fence trying to look into the baseball game and it’s got equity and then equitable. And it kind of shows the young man finally being able to see the ball game over the fence. And I try to make sure it’s a simple way of explaining equity.

I try to make sure that all of my students, whatever we’re studying that in an announcement and at APU, we do weekly announcements and we touch on a variety of things. I try to make sure that whatever we’re studying, that we spend some time on diversity, equity, and inclusion. It is only going to become more important in the future to make sure that we are producing individuals who’ve had a chance to fully explore those topics, to fully explore those ideas, to push new ideas out in a safe environment in a class where we can throw out ideas, some that maybe need refining and reshaping as they progress.

But I think it is important that we provide that atmosphere and that classroom environment, where those students are able to finesse and help their ideas grow and expand of what they know about diversity, equity, and inclusion. And that we are responsible instructors at APU in helping those students reach their fullest potential around those issues.

Dr. Jan Spencer: One thing that you have certainly underscored for us in this podcast is the important role, the key role, that student affairs professionals can play in the lives of students, whether it be online or on-ground. And I’m very appreciative of that. And I’m so glad that you’re a part of our program here at APU. Dr. Hansen, perhaps you have some questions or want to add to this conversation, please do.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Thank you so much for the invitation. I’ve really enjoyed hearing about your experience, Dr. Dotson. Really insightful when you also shared the outreach program to help young girls know they can do things too, start thinking about their future before it’s time to make those decisions. I’m curious about the online educators. How they can learn more about this at whatever institution they’re in, how they can get involved in things with student affairs, connect students to departments like this, what do they need to know?

Dr. Barry Dotson: Are you saying online educators in terms of future online educators or current online educators and what we can do better to help with that?

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Either one of those would be great. Our audience of listeners includes a vast array. So yeah, your thoughts on both fronts.

Dr. Barry Dotson: So I know at APU, the college, the university has done a great job of putting programs together and inviting faculty to participate in different programs. And APU has a world of training opportunities and they have a wealth of organizations available for APU faculty to join. Other institutions, again, if your institution does not have a program in place, put something in place, get it going. I think it’s just very important. Take that initiative.

It took three planning meetings to get “This Girl Can” off and running, and it has been an overwhelming success. It doesn’t take a lot to look around and see a need. If we are about making the world better and leaving it a better place, I think any of us can look around and say, “Oh, this is a need. Well, that might cost something.” Well, I mean, we paid for T-shirts, our faculty all volunteered.

We paid for T-shirts that they’re getting tomorrow night and we’re paying for a meal tomorrow night and they wanted fast food. And I’m like, “No, we’re going to give y’all a nice banquet. No, we really want fast food. All right. We ordered fast food boxes.” I mean, so we’re not talking more than $400 or $500 of money spent on a very worthwhile project.  So if you look around and you see that there is not a project that fits your desires or your area of interests, a place that you want to push, create it, get it going, jump in.

And so I know for our APU students, they have the opportunity to participate in several programs here at APU. And it’s mentioned every faculty meeting that we have. And I know for our APU instructors that I get constant emails from Faculty Connect about professional development opportunities.

And Dr. Spencer, Jan, provides us with information about the clubs and organizations that have been started for the higher education professionals. So I know at APU, there’s opportunities to get involved. If you are not involved, then check your email, check your messages.

At other institutions, there are so many opportunities that are around us and we are a very small institution. I’m sorry. Let me shift gears. Not APU. APU is not small, but Southeastern Tech is small, is a small institution. And so you might think we don’t have the resources. We can’t pull it all together. I’m telling you there are opportunities to get involved and there are opportunities to make a difference wherever you are, whatever community that you are in. And so I would just encourage, what is your interest, jump in and get involved and make a difference.

This is an area that I want to say not go away. That doesn’t sound right. It’s only going to increase in its importance. And we need to make sure that we are leading that charge. That needs to be us. We need to make sure that we are training those individuals leading the charge.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Fantastic. Thank you very so much for those thoughts and, Jan, any closing comments as we wrap up our podcast today?

Dr. Jan Spencer: Well, my closing comment is just a huge kudo to Dr. Barry Dotson and the team of faculty here we have at APU who really go beyond the expectations that we have to provide exemplary educational opportunities for people in student affairs and in higher education. So I want to thank you, Barry, for your role in helping to construct and change and keep current what we’re doing. And your commitment to our students so they can come away with a whole lot more than they expected, perhaps when they started. Thank you so much.

Dr. Barry Dotson: Well, again, it’s an honor. It’s my honor.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Barry, is there anything more you’d like to add for our listeners before we close it out?

Dr. Barry Dotson: No. I just want to thank you for the opportunity to be here. And I appreciate, always, the opportunity to talk about APU and its programs. The Student Affairs in Higher Education program is a growing program. And if anyone has any interest, I encourage them to contact Jan Spencer. It is a wonderful program.

I have taught for other institutions. And I think I sent Dr. Spencer an email several classes ago. I said like, I’m not sure who put this together, but this is one of the most incredibly well-assembled courses I’ve ever seen ever. And so maybe because it’s a newer program that the curriculum is just fresh and top notch, but I would encourage anyone in the profession looking to expand their knowledge base, expand their credentials, to take a look at APU’s program.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Fantastic. Thank you both. Today, we’ve been in conversation with Dr. Jan Spencer and Dr. Barry Dotson about student affairs. We’ve learned quite a bit about what students face in their higher education journey and some ideas about how to get involved and even an outreach example that was fabulous. I’d like to thank both of our guests for being here today and encourage our listeners also to check back to episode number 87 with Dr. Jan Spencer, which also talks about the APU program in Student Affairs. Thanks to both of you again, and we wish our listeners all the best in their online work and their online teaching this coming week.

This is Dr. Bethanie Hansen, your host for the online teaching lounge podcast. To share comments and requests for future episodes, please visit bethaniehansen.com/request. Best wishes this coming week in your online teaching journey.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen is the Associate Dean (Interim) in the School of Arts, Humanities and Education. She holds a B.M. in Music Education from Brigham Young University, a M.S. in Arts & Letters from Southern Oregon University and a DMA in Music Education from Boston University. She is also an ICF Professional Certified Coach (PCC). She is a Professor, coach, and teaching excellence strategist with 25 years of experience helping others achieve their goals.

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