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Small AND Mighty; Renewing our Commitment to Students

Student Success Small Colleges and Universities Division
May 31, 2018 Dr. Paul Raccanello Dominican University of California

This past January, President Mary Marcy of Dominican University of California wrote an opinion piece for Inside Higher Ed titled “The Long View.” In her message, she reflects on a challenging and difficult Fall 2017 semester - and in comparing current challenges to our nation’s historical accomplishments, she provides perspective on how institutions of higher education find resilience and persist through difficult times. She notes that small schools often feel the impact of these challenges more significantly because of the close connections and strong bonds we share with the members of our campus communities. We believe this to be true, as it may well be our favorite part of working at a small institution: we know and careaboutour students. We are uniquely positioned to hold their stories, to empathize with them when events and actions disrupt their lives and ways of being, and to reach-out to them to offer support and guidance. 

As student affairs professionals at small colleges, we more-often-than-not find ourselves immersed in situations with our students because that is where we do our best work. By being on the front lines of the various internal and external forces impacting our respective campuses, we stand with our students in facing these challenges.  This past year alone, we advocated for students and families impacted by immigration policy. We created spaces for free speech while simultaneously promoting a culture of civility and respect on our campuses. We responded to natural disasters and senseless tragedies by ensuring our students were safe and were provided with the support and resources necessary for healing. We did all of this in addition to the multitude of other duties and responsibilities expected of us on a daily basis - and we did it all with professionalism, integrity, and care. 

As the academic year draws to a close, I often find myself reflecting on the year that was; the experiences and the lessons learned, and how these might guide us as we move forward. Inevitably, these reflections move away from the specifics and details of the incidents and events themselves - and toward the interactions and conversations had with students. I think about what I did (and in some cases could have done better) to support, teach, and guide my students. I think about the relationships I have with my students and how being at a small school affords me the opportunity to create these important and meaningful connections. These bonds we build with students help us to establish the strong and dynamic communities on our small campuses. When our communities face challenges - as we did this past year - these bonds help us to persist and move forward together - and in doing so, we are reminded that the work we do in student affairs is both crucial and meaningful. 

I invite you to pause for a moment and think about the significant incidents mentioned above - and the ways in which our students worked through these issues. When challenged by changes to immigration policies and the rescinding of DACA, our students countered by engaging in civil discourse and bolstering their commitment to diversity, inclusivity, and social justice. When confronted by hate speech and demonstrations, our students created safe-spaces where disparate narratives could be shared in an effort to come to new and different understandings of complex societal issues. When natural disasters and senseless tragedies shook our campuses, our students strengthened the solidarity of their communities by banding together to support relief efforts and rally for change.  In their everyday actions and interactions, our students remind us that the work we do, and the lessons we impart, do indeed matter. 

As student affairs professionals at small campuses, we share a calling to serve our students - and as educators, we are committed to do everything in our power to help students in their learning and personal growth. We are small AND we are mighty, and we have a responsibility that is special to our small campuses. Let’s all take stock in the year this has been, let’s remind ourselves of what we have accomplished, and let’s use this summer to renew our commitment to the important work we will continue to do.

Dr. Paul Raccanello serves as the Dean of Students and Chief Student Affairs Officer at Dominican University of California.