Skip to content Skip to navigation

Student Affairs Conference tunes into student voices

By Michele Chandler


Justice Tention-PalmerKamina WilkersonGabriella Badica

At the division’s eighth annual conference, Student Affairs staff and their partners across campus heard from students about the challenges they and their counterparts face and explored solutions for creating a healthier, more inclusive environment.

Stanford is proud of the work it has done to develop a diverse student body. But plenty of today’s undergraduate and graduate students are struggling on a variety of fronts, according to their peers and the faculty and staff who work with them.

Many students report being overwhelmed with anxiety and stress due to academic demands. Others are finding it hard to build social support systems outside of class. Some struggle to relate to professors in their fields and are left feeling out of place.

Finding solutions to the challenges facing today’s students was the focus of the eighth Annual Student Affairs Conference on Feb. 15.  More than 280 attendees  – primarily Student Affairs staff, but also university administrators from other divisions  — discussed efforts to support students, and ensure those graduates and undergraduates overcome potential academic and emotional barriers.

Stanford Vice Provost for Student Affairs Susie Brubaker-Cole called the gathering part of an ongoing process intended identify approaches and best practices for the division, which encompasses 25 offices and centers that offer resources, advising and support to more than 16,000 undergraduate and graduate students. Student Affairs’ current focus is “Our Most Important Work,” defined primarily as fostering equity and inclusion, community and belonging, mental health and well-being and integrative learning. A fifth priority for the division is “House in Order,” or ensuring excellence in the division’s core functions.

“Maybe you’ll think about a campus partner you want to connect with…or perhaps you’ll meet a new colleague here today, and you’d like to collaborate with that person on our project,” Brubaker-Cole said. “The focus of ‘Our Most Important Work’ is all about making these ideas become real and actionable for all of us in Student Affairs and for our campus partners.”

Student stories

Acknowledging that Stanford “provides students with a wealth of opportunities,” undergraduate Kamina Wilkerson told conference attendees that the university “can also be a place where students seriously struggle: struggle to be well, struggle to find belonging and struggle to succeed.”

Wilkerson, a human biology major, has provided insights that have contributed to the building of the Student Affairs priorities that will begin to find innovative solutions to these challenges. Through a series of recent focus groups with undergraduate students, Wilkerson said she found that that “behind the smiley façade… Stanford students may very well be having a much harder time at the university than they let on. For low-income, first-generation students, as well as underrepresented minorities, the trials and tribulations of Stanford can be magnified.”

Wilkerson described the experiences of three Stanford students who faced isolation, academic stress and financial pressures.

  • A student who’d had an exciting first year, but struggled socially as a sophomore in a dorm where students kept to themselves and where there were very few Latinx students like him. His sense of isolation deepened as his old freshman buddies pledged fraternities and sororities and planned spring break trips while he worked extra hours to make ends meet.
  • Another student who wrestled with self-doubt when he realized that even the Advanced Placement courses at his old high school were not as rigorous as Stanford’s introductory chemistry class. He found support and mentoring through an organization of black pre-med majors.
  • Another first-year student who was exhausted by the academic workload, but would not reach out to her family or friends or admit that she was struggling.

Justice Tention-Palmer, a senior and student body president, provided a view into what it takes for students to navigate university bureaucracy to initiate change.

He described the case of a freshman who sought to have a 24-hour emergency contraceptive vending machine installed at Stanford. For three years, the idea “was met with enthusiasm, but no support,” Tention-Palmer said. The student found herself being referred from one department to another. The vending machine was finally approved just before her graduation and was installed in Old Union last fall. Tention-Palmer questioned why it had to take so long.

“The one idea I hope you take away from today is not how to think about how to solve these problems ‘for’ students, but rather how to solve these problems ‘with’ students. No new student-facing project will succeed without student input,” he said.

Another student speaker, Gabriela Badica, related challenges from the perspective of a graduate student.

“It takes a lot to make it here,” said Badica, a doctoral student in the Division of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages.

Whether it’s uncertainty over spending years on a research project that might ultimately fizzle, finding it difficult to connect regularly with professors, or the delicate dynamics of relying on just a few advisers to provide their research funding, “grad school is an especially vulnerable time for mental health, I think, for even the most confident student whose work is going well,” she said.

Following the student presentations, Brian Cook, director of assessment and program evaluation for the university’s office of Institutional Research & Decision Support, presented data that resonated with some of the themes in the students’ stories.

Finding solutions

Later in the afternoon, conference attendees examined strategies to foster more inclusiveness at Stanford.

Shannon Brady speaking

Students from all backgrounds worry and experience difficulties of some sort when they arrive at college for the first time, Shannon Brady, a post-doctoral research fellow in the Department of Psychology, said at the conference. Tailoring messages differently can help strengthen students’ resilience in responding to difficulty as they adjust.

Brady used the example of two versions of letters sent to students who had been placed on academic probation. The original letter was impersonal, simply outlining the facts and actions students were expected to take.

The second letter, which Brady defined as “psychologically attuned,” still made it clear that probation was a serious matter, but added a more personal touch. It communicated that the recipients weren’t alone in their difficulties and assured them that many students emerge successfully from academic probation if they connect with the appropriate help. The second letter also included accounts from other university students who had gotten back on track.

The revised letter aimed to “emphasize the potential for growth and for learning, and to say that the university is here and wants to support you,” Brady explained.

A year later, about 43 percent of students who received the revised letter were no longer on probation, compared to 26 percent of students who received the original letter.

“This is what we want for students who struggle,” Brady said. “We don’t need to protect them from struggling, but we do need to help them make adaptive meaning and persist in those moments of difficulty.”

She urged conference attendees to consider the day’s findings the next time their offices send their own communications to students and to always think about how to make their information “more psychologically attuned.”

The conference included an interactive exercise led by Dereca Blackmon, director of the Diversity and First-Gen (DGen) Office.  A card game called “I Hear You” created by Lily Zheng, former design and evaluation associate for DGen, is intended to facilitate difficult conversations around a range of issues including race, gender identity, socio-economic status, physical ability and immigration.

Looking ahead

Harry Elam, Patricia Gumport,Jane Shaw, Susie Brubaker Cole

The conference closed with a discussion, facilitated by Brubaker-Cole, and featuring Harry Elam, vice provost for undergraduate education (VPUE); Jane Shaw, dean for religious life and Patricia Gumport, vice provost for graduate education (VPGE). They wrapped up the day with thoughts about what university officials must focus on while striving to create a more inclusive campus community.

“The work that we’ve identified as ‘Our Most Important Work’ is a larger “our” than just Student Affairs,” said Brubaker-Cole.

The panel discussed the importance of sharing the stories and data presented during the conference with faculty. They discussed designing spaces for inclusion and intentionally being present and candid and honest in interactions with students, particularly on difficult topics. They appealed for finding ways to give students permission to pause and reflect without it becoming an additional responsibility of burden. They also echoed the call for less red tape.

“Too much bureaucracy creates a ‘can’t do’ attitude as opposed to a ‘can do’ attitude,” Shaw said.

Gumport and Elam thanked Student Affairs professionals for the work they do and acknowledged the importance of that work to VPSA and VPGE.

“You are each so essential to us fulfilling our mission and making this a great place every day,” Gumport said, noting that there is no longer a line between student life and academic life. “That makes us appreciate the work that you all do and [the work] we do in partnership all the more,” Gumport said.

Asked by Brubaker-Cole what must change and what Stanford should hold onto, Elam said that more work needs to be done to increase the diversity of the university’s supervisory staff, faculty and senior administration.  In addition, Elam described the campus as a “helping community” and said he hopes Stanford preserves “that sense of even if we grow or even if we change, [we do] not leave that essence that says we want to help other people that it’s all of us working together that makes Stanford the great place that it is.”

Brubaker-Cole closed with a reminder of “how much we all have agency in creating the type of community where we all are actively working toward creating that inclusive community that we aspire to...engaging everyone in taking these big ideas and making them a reality”

Michele Chandler is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Stanford publications. 

Photos: Top, from left: Justice Tention-Palmer, Kamina Wilkerson and Gabriela Badica. Center right: Shannon Brady. Bottom: Harry J. Elam, Jr., Patricia Gumport, Jane Shaw and Susie Brubaker-Cole.

All photos by Angie Chan-Geiger/Student Affairs