The AVP Spotlight series is an initiative of the NASPA AVP Steering Committee and is designed to highlight many of the outstanding contributions to the profession that are made by AVPs across the country.
This edition features Dr. Melanie Miller, AVP for student success at Georgia Southern University. She has approximately 30 years of experience in student affairs. Learn more about Dr. Miller below!
Dr. Miller, please name the institutions where you have worked, units you’ve worked in, and total years of service.
I have worked in Student Affairs and Community Affairs at the University of Alabama, Student Services at Florida State College at Jacksonville, and Student Affairs at Georgia Southern University. I have worked at Georgia Southern for 3 years but in higher education for approximately 30 years.
What motivates you most in your job?
I think all positions within Student Affairs are largely motivated by the desire to eliminate barriers and to contribute to creating a transformative educational experience for students. As you move up in administrative positions, your sphere of influence often resides less in individual impact and more in organizational change, advocacy for policy change that eliminates barriers or increases access, and the development of new partnerships or initiatives that support student success. I am especially motivated in my job when:
- I facilitate a new, collaborative partnership between departments who have not previously worked together
- I work with a department, that reports to me, to change a policy or improve a process that eliminates a barrier for students
- I provide feedback, coaching, or mentoring for a former or current employee that helps them grow as a higher education professional
What areas of your portfolio now or in the past have helped you grow as a professional and why?
Over the course of my career, I have had the opportunity to develop completely new departments/units and create new initiatives. For example, I developed a Women’s Resource Center from its inception. In the 12 years that I was Executive Director, I gained experience in program development, grant writing, budget development, public speaking, professional development, personnel management, etc. I had the opportunity to build something ‘from the ground up’, which provided me with a wealth of knowledge and valuable experience.
What are times/seasons (or important initiatives you’ve helped launch/promote) in your Student Affairs career that give you the most pride and why?
At two of my previous institutions, I was able to start student food pantries. Food insecurity among college students has become a growing need in the last several years. Food pantries are an important resource for students as we know, students who are hungry often do not have other basic needs met. At one of these institutions, I helped develop a 24-hour crisis/case management response team that provided much-needed case management and support for students in crisis situations. It is rewarding to know that those services continue today and have provided support for dozens of students allowing them to remain in school and complete their education.
What partnerships are essential for an ever-evolving landscape in higher education?
It is important for student affairs to have strong partnerships with many units but I would prioritize a partnership with academic affairs. Student affairs professionals should be viewed as co-educators in support of the academic mission. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. When that partnership is not strong, we have to work even harder to tell our story and to strengthen our alliance with academic affairs. We bring expertise in student development, DEI, adult learning strategies, and creating co-curricular/experiential learning opportunities that support learning in the classroom.
In what ways have student needs changed during your time in Student Affairs?
I think the biggest change I have seen has been during the post-Covid time. A higher proportion of students have more significant mental health issues. There also seems to be a cohort of post-Covid students that have experienced challenges related to their social and emotional development. This is likely related to their isolation and remote learning environment during Covid. I think it is too early to say what the full impact will be as these students continue to enroll. We will need to continue to strategize regarding appropriate services and support.
Life is not always predictable. What have been 1-2 examples of you needing to adjust to unpredictable life circumstances? How did you/are you navigating those and what are you noticing in a different way because of the changes?
I have had a major life circumstance that has required me to adjust, literally, everything. In 2021, I fainted in my home, resulting in a C4 spinal cord injury. I returned to work 6 months after the injury. Since I’m no longer able to use my hands, I have had to learn voice activation software to use my computer. I also now use a power wheelchair for my mobility needs. Using a wheelchair is one example of a change that has provided me with a unique perspective on many social interactions, especially those at work. I have worked with people with differing abilities in the past and was aware that people respond in varying ways to individuals using a wheelchair. I have certainly seen this to be true in my experience. There are some people who interact with me as they did prior to my injury. There are others who may speak to me but may not make eye contact or linger in conversation. Others ignore me altogether. I understand the many reasons that this may occur, but it was still somewhat of a surprise when happening with colleagues in a higher education setting. As I continue to navigate this ‘life circumstance’, I will use humor when appropriate, educate and inform others, and make the best out of a difficult situation.
What issues do you see most on campus that affect a student’s ability to succeed?
One major challenge for a growing number of students is significant mental health issues. These students have a hard time balancing getting the help they need with a rigorous academic schedule. The stress of getting behind or being overwhelmed by tough assignments can increase anxiety and depression making it even more difficult to remain in school. Another challenge for students is not being academically prepared. Their high school may not have had a rigorous curriculum, they may not have adequate coping skills, or they may have poor time management or study skills. When these issues can be identified early, we can provide the support and resources needed to be successful.
What advice do you have for AVPs and #2 who aspire to a VPSA position?
- Always strive to produce high-quality work that reflects positively on your VP and your institution.
- Cultivate a network of mentors – not just one! Choose mentors who have a variety of strengths, i.e, one may have financial management skills, another grant writing, another may have change management skills.
- Enrich your portfolio by seeking opportunities beyond your job description. Serve on committees, teach a class, serve on a nonprofit board.
- Lead with integrity and courage. Leaders are called upon to make hard decisions and frequently face ethical dilemmas. Be prepared and know your boundaries. It doesn’t get easier as you move to higher-level positions.
What are your favorite snacks and foods?
Sweets! Cakes, cookies, pies, I don’t discriminate.
Who matters most to you in your life?
Family and friends. This has especially been true in the last two years as they have all provided enormous support and encouragement in a hundred different ways.