Developing Students into Leaders & Beyond

This past year I had the opportunity to co-advise the University of Northern Iowa (UNI) Student Admissions Ambassadors (SAA), an all volunteer group that gives campus tours, assists with student panels and much more. I will say it is a bit different to be on the "other side," as I was a member of this exact group during my time as an undergrad at UNI.

Last summer upon taking this role as advisor, Shelly and I as SAA co-advisors, started meeting to see what direction we wanted the group to go. One of the main areas we wanted to focus on was to make the group more diverse, as it has historically been predominantly, if not all white and had very few transfer students. These students serve as the faces of the university and we knew that they needed to be able to highlight many experiences of students on campus. Prospective students needed to be able to hear from more than white students who came directly to UNI from high school, as that is a very narrow view of the UNI student experience. This plan took action in a number of ways and, to be quite honest, was not smooth sailing. However, it was what needed to be done.

First, we wanted to make sure the group, which has historically been predominantly white, was better educated on topics of racism, diversity and inclusion. This included a number of trainings and conversations throughout the year about the LGBTQ+ community, white privilege and white fragility, racism and mental health. Then we took a look at our recruitment and interview processes. We removed our mandatory minimum GPA to apply, altered our interview questions, required all members who were involved in membership selection to go through implicit bias training and made significant changes to interview procedures. With these changes, we now have more members of color and transfer students, which are two of the populations we were looking to expand.

With these changes came pushback from members in SAA. I know change is hard, especially when there are changes to the way “things have always been done.” There were some students who did not see the need for these changes. Others said the group was becoming too political. A few spoke up about wanting to learn more and liking the direction the group was going. While we always say our doors are open for students to drop by with concerns, we formalized this by having times set up for students to schedule individual meetings with us. As an advisor, it was very eye opening to have individual conversations with members about how these changes were affecting their experience in the group. While not all members were in support of the direction the group was taking, I knew as an advisor and a higher education professional, it is my job and responsibility to have and encourage these conversations with students. One student came to us and said that we still have work to do (don’t we all) and that they felt they were not supported - as advisors we must listen and learn, then take action to assist in making the group even better. This is a good reminder that while we are making strides forward, we still need to be cognizant of areas that still need to be addressed and as always be open to hearing students stories and address those issues.

Personally, I did not understand systematic racism or have open conversations about social justice until graduate school. It is time that we look at how we directly impact the students we work with and how that impacts the university as a whole.

As we look forward to what this year will hold, there will be a new committee of SAA that will be overseen by the SAA president. This committee will focus on ongoing training to help develop our members about issues of diversity, inclusion, social justice, campus updates and student services. We will also be looking at our constitution to see what ways it imposes systematic oppression and creates barriers for students. I am not saying we fixed all our problems or that we are where we want to be with changing the makeup of our group and developmental opportunities, but I do think it is important to take on a challenge and say, “We have messed up in the past and we need to change the way we have ‘always’ done things.”

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