Welcome, everyone. Thanks to the Special Collections Libraries for hosting us today and to our Staff Development team for their work in planning this event. Thank you all for being here. I encourage you to stay for the reception following the presentation and join with your colleagues in fellowship—something we should do as often as possible. This is a wonderful chance to be together in company with friends—and especially new friends. I hope that you all take full advantage of this occasion.
We are here today to talk about the State of Student Affairs. In that, we always start with students.
As I have said often, I think this is the best time in history to be a student at the University of Georgia. Today’s UGA students are the most academically-talented and diverse group ever to study at the institution—and one of the most accomplished student populations in higher education. Representing communities across Georgia and the world, students bring an incredible depth of experiences and perspectives to create a truly one-of-a-kind learning environment across UGA’s main, extended, and online campuses.
When it comes to the student experience, there are innumerable ways on campus and through Student Affairs for students to get involved and make a difference—more than 750 clubs and organizations, 60-plus fraternity and sorority groups, dozens of sports clubs and intramurals, hundreds of programs, dialogues, and community building opportunities, more than 60 University-approved experiential learning opportunities, and an ongoing daily discourse online.
Student Affairs offers students truly world-class facilities and services across the University, state-of-the-art healthcare, 22 residence halls—with another on the way, a beautifully-renewed Ramsey Center, an incredibly busy Tate Center with numerous amenities, vibrant cultural centers in Memorial Hall, critical student development and support through student conduct and care and outreach, wide-ranging academic accommodations and testing, top-ranked veterans resources, and so much more.
Last year, there were nearly a million student interactions with Student Affairs. We worked with students who spent more than 175,000 hours serving the community through over 20,000 student engagements. We taught 280 students enrolled in 12 credit-bearing courses. We scheduled more than 31,000 room and facility reservations. It was our fourth consecutive year of raising $1 million or more in private support for Student Affairs. More than 230 faculty members partnered in our work. We hosted 32 faculty and student research projects. We provided healthcare, personal care, and support to nearly 25,000 individual students.
In Student Affairs, when we say we impact the full student experience, we really do. We can be exceptionally proud. Give yourselves a hand!
I say to my colleagues at other institutions all the time that I am convinced we have the best student affairs staff anywhere. With more than 600 talented faculty and staff, and over 1,200 student employees, together we provide countless learning, development, and support opportunities that inspire students to lead, discover, and serve. That change lives. So when you think about the State of Student Affairs, you should know we are strong, and building from a place of strength, we will get stronger.
I know you are all aware that Student Affairs has just completed a highly successful 5-year strategic plan, which brought us to 2020. Through this plan we fostered a more open, welcoming, inclusive environment at UGA. We enhanced the student learning environment. We greatly advanced strategic partnerships, for Student Affairs and the campus. More than ever before, we promoted the impact of UGA Student Affairs. I think you can see a tremendous difference. And together we further ensured our long-term success.
All of these accomplishments are the direct result of your work and dedication to our mission: to inspire students. You are greatly valued. Thank you so much.
As we move boldly into a new decade, an exciting set of new opportunities await. Now is the time to build on our successes and strengths and create an even better student experience at UGA.
There is something in us—in all of us here today—that knows deep down there is always more to do. There is more to do to ensure that all students—ALL students—find a sense of belonging, develop the skills they need, engage meaningfully across campus, practice well-being, find success, and move forward, not only ready, but inspired to make a positive difference in the world.
That’s why we show up excited about our work every day. We know that what we do, every single day, has the potential to change the lives of our students.
As you probably know, for the last several months, Student Affairs has been engaged in a 2025 planning process in alignment with University strategic planning.
You may have heard the President introduce the University plan at the recent State of the University address. If not, I strongly encourage you to seek that out, as our efforts are closely aligned.
Our planning in Student Affairs started with some simple ideas:
In considering these questions, directors of departments across Student Affairs, along with the division’s senior Administrative Team, other staff, students, and numerous campus stakeholders joined in a time of study and discovery.
I offer a special thanks to our plan director, Kara Fresk, and the leaders of our planning teams, Jan Barham, Erin Benson, and Stan Jackson, along with all others involved, for their amazing work in this process. It has definitely been a team effort, and I am proud of the results.
Today is the day we share our collective vision. I am truly excited.
First, let’s talk about the intended outcome of our plan.
We focused this plan on students. As we thought about what we might do that would have the most impact for students, what we most wanted to see happen, we kept coming back to a couple of core ideas:
The first is to foster a greater sense of belonging among students.
We live in complicated times. Student needs are more wide-ranging than ever.
Technology is changing the world in front of us—and it’s changing the student experience, what students expect, how they work and study and interact, what they need.
Well-being and mental health challenges have become more prominent and complex. Some of this is good, as there is much more attention to well-being, but educating and empowering more students on well-being is a huge opportunity.
As our student population has grown much more diverse, in a number of ways, what’s needed to support individual students and groups of students and help them flourish has needed to adapt as well.
Many students continue to face financial, family, housing, and numerous other challenges that directly impact the quality of the student experience.
There are important generation and cultural changes to consider in working with our current student population. I may not quite embrace it, but I have heard the phrase, “OK, Boomer.”
And at UGA today, there are simply more students—enrollment is up over 10%—more than 4,000 students—since I returned in 2013.
All of that as context in saying that ensuring that all students feel at home and develop a strong sense of belonging at UGA has become even more challenging.
While we are thrilled at UGA to have an exceptional first-to-second year retention rate of 96%, and continually increasing four- and six-year graduation rates, not every student experience is the same. For many, it is often not easy.
Student Affairs has an important opportunity, and I say responsibility, to empower and support students to find strength and belonging here. Inclusive of a student’s background, life experiences, entry point, or field of study, we do and we must provide invaluable points of connection, transition, and growth. Belonging is the foundation of success.
The second core idea is to foster a greater commitment to creating positive change among UGA students.
Yes, UGA students are changing the world. Many of our current students and alumni are making an incredible difference every single day, and we are grateful. Yet there is more to do. As one truly outstanding recent alum, a former Homecoming King, Chip Chambers, put it recently in the Red and Black. Stan, could you read it for us?
“We came to Athens wide-eyed, having heard legendary stories of college and eager to see where we would fit into that story. But then, monotony hit. Around October of our freshman year, we found a group of friends who happened to look, dress and talk like us. We don’t have an issue with people unlike us. It sort of just happened that way…. Suddenly, it’s senior year. When asked what keeps us busy, we muster up “you know, school stuff.” During class, we kind of listen while on our laptop, uninterested in the people next to us. Then we put our headphones in, board the Orbit bus and let our minds drift beyond the crowd of people pressing around us, as uninterested in them as they are in us. We might all be on the same bus, but we’re being carried to distant locations. And come to think of it, we don’t really care…. When did our goals morph from becoming better people to just making it up Baxter?”
Of course, this is not every student, or even necessarily many. But for some students, commitment to creating positive change starts with a spark—the kind of spark we can provide. It expands from the individual to the community and world. As students practice and realize their own skills and get involved—really involved—they become more curious about those and the world around them, they find their voice, and they learn to take effective action in serving others.
For, as we say, UGA graduates to address “the grand challenges of our time on a national and global scale,” they must first find a sense of belonging and commit to creating positive change in their own lives here on campus.
I am beyond excited for the possibilities we have in achieving this outcome together. I trust you are too.
At the heart of our plan are three interrelated strategies: Essential Skills, Engagement, and Well-being and Success.
First, essential skills.
As we looked at how we could best help students to succeed in an ever-changing, interconnected future, we felt, more than ever, that students need to develop and learn to apply discipline-crossing essential skills. These include agility, collaboration, communication, creativity, critical thinking, and leadership.
Clearly in Student Affairs we provide all kinds of learning opportunities and coaching beyond the space of the classroom, as do other areas around campus.
What we don’t always provide is transparency and purpose. Do students really know what skills they should be developing, what their areas of strength or growth are? Other than with key student leaders, how often do we talk about essential skills? Do we know what skills our programs are developing? Or how they are aligned—from a student’s view?
The University has made a strong commitment through Experiential Learning to increase student awareness and focus on essential skill development. It is a visible and significant part of the University’s new strategic plan. I believe it is the very first goal listed.
Student Affairs embraces that opportunity.
Today I am announcing a new Essential Skill Development and Experiential Learning Initiative across Student Affairs.
Through this initiative, we will offer students much more robust and connected ways to develop essential skills. We will embed this work in the residence halls, across all of our programming in Student Affairs, and, with the University, provide a new technology solution to help students track and articulate their essential skill development.
To lead this initiative, Kara Fresk will become Assistant to the Vice President for Learning Strategy. Kara will work on my behalf with directors and staff across Student Affairs, the University Experiential Learning office, and many others to ensure that even more students find meaningful, practical experiences to build and test critical skills outside the classroom, receive personal guidance and support, and graduate ready to articulate and demonstrate their skills in any setting.
This initiative will require many of you, and many of our teams, to take a close look at our programming and advising to align and maximize opportunities for essential skill development. It will require you to invest time and dedicate a staff member as a liaison for skill development in your area. It will be an involved process, but as I have shared, this plan compels us to help students understand and demonstrate the skills they will need, not only at UGA, but for a lifetime. I look forward to this effort.
Our next strategy is engagement.
As we looked at how we could best help students find a stronger sense of belonging, we quickly realized this is really hard if students aren’t engaged. All of the higher-level involvements we want for students, building community, taking responsibility and leadership, learning to serve, start with meaningful engagement.
Meaningful engagement opportunities allow students to connect more deeply to the campus and local communities and more readily see and take advantage of opportunities to create positive change.
Student Affairs provides a full array of engagement opportunities, including student activities and organizations, student and cultural centers, campus programming, leadership and community service opportunities, and student employment, among others.
But the reality, as you see in our data, is that many students don’t show up. Certainly we have some students who seemingly engage in everything. You see them at every event. And while there are many other valuable places across campus and the community where students engage, we know from the data that many don’t engage there either. Or it’s one and done.
On top of that, we thought about how—and how effectively—are we reaching students where they are, instead of expecting them to come to us? I think we all acknowledge one of the most familiar campus sights of all: students on a device.
Today I am announcing two new initiatives to increase meaningful student engagement.
The first is an initiative for engagement, leadership, and service.
Through this initiative, we will get more students engaged—and moving to higher levels of leadership and service. No matter where students engage in Student Affairs, we will have a unified leadership curriculum, advising approach, and alignment and sequencing of programs. We will infuse leadership and service across student involvement.
To lead this initiative, we are uniting existing staff from two departments to lead student engagement, leadership, and service for the campus, infusing leadership, service, and common advising across all types of student involvement.
The combined department will be called Engagement, Leadership, and Service (ELS). It will be an independent Student Affairs department and report to the Associate Dean of Students, Jan Barham. We expect to launch a search for a director to lead this department and initiative later this spring, with the department starting on July 1.
Under the leadership of this newly formed team, I am confident we will reach new levels of student engagement—and that engagement will be even more meaningful and interconnected across Student Affairs and the entire student experience.
The second initiative in this area focuses on digital engagement.
Through this initiative, we will meet students more where they are, digitally, with more personalized services, more interactive support and connections with resources, and new ways to engage and serve.
To lead this initiative, we are bringing together three related functional areas into the VP’s office that span all of Student Affairs: data, information technology, and digital engagement. Under the leadership of Stan Jackson, who will become Assistant to the Vice President for Communications, Data, and Technology, we will launch new collaborative teams in these three areas to bring together information, leverage technologies, and create a cohesive and creative approach to engaging and serving students digitally.
Again, these initiatives will require many of you, and many of our teams, to be more collaborative and integrated in our approach and work. As we think about how students work and interact today, it is absolutely critical that we be as adept and involved in these ways as possible. Both face-to-face and online we must work together to inspire more students to engage meaningfully, build community, and learn to lead and serve. And I am confident we will.
The final strategy in our plan is well-being and success.
As President Morehead shared in his State of the University address recently, “College students today are much more attuned to their personal well-being, including issues of mental health. Our [University] strategic plan recognizes this reality and seeks to expand wellness programs and services available to our students.”
I think we all appreciate the vital importance of student well-being for all that we want students to accomplish, and what we hope to accomplish as an educational institution. Like belonging, well-being is foundational – like food, housing, basic needs.
Through a wide range of clinical and non-clinical resources across Student Affairs, we do a superb job, in world-class facilities, of caring for identified students in need. Through this plan, simply stated, we want more students to practice well-being, and for their groups and friends to practice well-being, before there are major needs. The best investments we can make in the care and support of students are toward moving the baseline and community norm of well-being.
Today I am announcing two new initiatives to increase student well-being and success.
The first is an initiative for well-being and success.
Through this initiative, we will empower and support students to improve their own well-being and success—and that of their groups and peers. We will bring together resources and partners and students and look to improve well-being in areas across our community.
To lead this initiative, we are creating a new Well-being and Success Network, which will involve, among others, leaders of the Health Center, Garth Russo; Student Care and Outreach, Beau Seagraves; Housing, Linda Kasper; Rec Sports, Keith Wenrich; and the Disability Resource Center; Erin Benson, who will assume new responsibilities related to the Network. This team, along with Student Affairs and campus colleagues, faculty partners, public health experts, and students, will take on these critical challenges for students and the campus.
I am assured that we will all come together to support this effort, as we each have an important role in the well-being and success of our students, across all aspects of their development and experience here.
The second initiative in this area is for student transitions.
In this process, we have acknowledged there are certain times in a student’s experience when a major shift or transition may be needed to progress and continue to be successful. These would include entering and acculturating into the University, development of an educational pathway and fields of study, changes in residential status or funding, and preparation for future study or work following graduation. While there are numerous resources and programs across campus aimed at incoming and current students, we felt there was a missing piece and need for coordination and leadership in helping students navigate these special times of transition, which may occur across a student’s tenure at UGA. This is especially true for underrepresented, rural, first-generation, and other underserved students, who may face unique challenges.
Through this initiative, we will provide new dedicated support, in coordination with campus partners, for key times of student transition across a student’s time at UGA.
To lead this initiative, we are refocusing existing staff and resources through the merger of the Center for Leadership and Service and the Center for Student Activities and Involvement, to create a new Department of Student Transitions. It will be an independent Student Affairs department and report to the Associate VP for Student Affairs, Michele Howard. We expect to launch a search for a director to lead this area and initiative later this spring, with the department starting on July 1.
As a new area in Student Affairs, and one that relates so closely to much of our work across Student Affairs, the Office of Instruction, schools and colleges, the Graduate School, the Career Center, and many others—and one that spans the student experience—it will be incredibly important that we all come together and embrace a shared vision and approach to support our students through these times of transition, growth, and ultimate success.
I think that increasing student well-being and success is an absolutely vital strategy, and I look forward to joining with all of you and many others in this effort.
When we started our planning, I told our leaders that if we come out of this process and everything was the same, then we would have failed. I am sure you will agree that we have created something different, but also something, that, in the long run, will be better for all.
While I know there will be some challenge and learning, particularly in the short term, I am fully confident in you and us that we will come through this plan much stronger, more together, and even more capable in the most important goal of all: our support of students.
I can feel in the room excitement, energy, but also anxiousness. I feel that too, and I encourage us all to lean in to the discomfort. For some in this room, I know it feels like we’ve been at this for a long time, but this is only the beginning. I am the first to tell you we don’t yet have all of the answers at this stage. This is a process that’s continuing and will continue for the next five years. We will discover—TOGETHER—along the way.
But we are committed to be transparent throughout, particularly in the next few months as we get this plan underway. We have created a website, as you will see on the handbill, which includes many more details about the plan than we could cover in this setting, including key performance indicators, annual targets, full operational details, org charts, a timeline—all of those things I can imagine many of you are eager to have spelled out. We will also be meeting individually with staff in every department in Student Affairs in the coming days to talk through the specifics of what this plan means for you and your area, and take all of your questions. If you have questions that aren’t covered, please let us know, and we will ensure that question is addressed on the website moving forward.
For our campus partners, we look forward to joining you in this as well. All that you do is amazingly important for students, and we are thrilled to work with and learn from you in this effort.
So with what I have shared here, what’s available online, our upcoming meetings, and a continued open door, I believe you know what there is to know today. Are we good? Where we go from here is up to us. If we trust and believe, I have every faith that we will learn and grow in our work and help students succeed together.
I recently heard a metaphor that helped me think about where we are.
Stay with me now: our 2025 plan is like a trip on an airplane.
To this point, we have been the flight planners. Checking all of the available options and destinations. Looking closely at the needs of students, our passengers. Where do we want them to go? Where do they want to go? What are the best routes to get them there? What will they need along the way? We have been thinking about our strengths, as a crew. On our team, we have marketing, booking, finance, HR, gate staff, baggage and ground crew, traffic control, caterers, flight attendants, pilots, everyone has an important purpose.
In announcing our plan today, we are choosing a destination. We have determined the three key parts of our route and how we intend to get there. We still have some work to finalize details, get the fuel, stow the bags, load the plane, and get off the ground. While we hope that all goes smoothly, there are still details to cover. But before you know it, we will be fully ready to take off.
Once we’re airborne, we hope to sail along at our cruising altitude in perfect weather and blue skies. But more likely, there will be some bumps along the way. Plenty of unexpected things may happen, and we will adjust, and fly on we will.
In the end, if we’re smart, we all play our parts and work together well, we keep the needs of passengers—our students—foremost in all that we do, and we persist through what comes, I promise we will arrive at our destination.
And when we get there, UGA students will not only know they have belonged and felt at home with us throughout, they will be ready to fly themselves.
Thank you for all that you do, for all that you are doing to make a difference in the lives of our students every single day. I am incredibly grateful for your leadership and colleagueship, and I am ecstatic to take this journey together.
Please join us in fellowship following. Thank you for being here.