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Lori S. White, Southern Methodist University

2011 Jon C. Dalton Institute on College Student Values Panelist

Lori WhiteProfessional Title: Vice President for Student Affairs

Institution: Southern Methodist University.

White has spent over twenty years working in higher education at various universities including the University of Southern California, Georgetown, and Stanford Universities. Her work in higher education has involved serving as a committee consultant to the California State Assembly Committee on Higher Education and as a Special Assistant to the University of California, Office of the President.


In your chapter titled, “’Am I Black Enuf fo Ya?’ Black Student Diversity: Issues of Identity and Community” in the book African American Culture and Heritage in Higher Education Research and Practice, (1998) you focus on the diversity of experiences around Black student involvement and uninvolvement within Black campus organizations instead of comparing and contrasting Black organizations to White organizations. You emphasize that within African American organizations on campus there is much diversity because students who come from various backgrounds including countries, cultures, socioeconomic backgrounds, and so forth. Can you explain why this type of study is needed today in higher education research?

Research on Black students has tended to treat Black students as a homogeneous population with the assumption that such research is equally applicable to all students who self-identify as Black. There is much within-group diversity among Black students, as Black students come from a variety of cultural backgrounds (e.g., African, African American, Caribbean, etc.); have different socio-economic statuses; have grown up in different types of neighborhoods (e.g., all Black; predominantly White; mixed race); and also have multiple identities (e.g, Black woman; gay Black male), to name a few within group differences. Research on Black students in the 21st century should continue to explore and account for these within group difference in trying to better understand Black student experiences in higher education, and to develop the best strategies for the their recruitment, retention, and engagement in higher education.

How are the two themes “identity” and “community,” which you identified in your research, personified by students’ experiences in which you have been involved as Vice President for Student Affairs at SMU?

Within my research the theme “identity” and “community” emerged as the two dominant ways in which the Black students who participated in my research project described their experiences as a Black student at the campus where I conducted my research. In my research, Identity is defined as the ways in which students described their “blackness,” in other words, how the student identified or did not identify with a Black racial identity; and Community is defined by the way in which each of the students in my research described the larger Black collective on campus (and students had different perceptions of this community dependent upon their degree of involvement in the Black community and the student’s perception of whether they were a part of or a part from the Black community). Additionally, in my research there is an interaction between these two themes—for each of the students, their Black self identity was measured against their perception and definition of the Black community on campus. For example for a Black student who grew up in a predominantly White neighborhood and who was not involved in the Black community on campus, that particular student might perceive the Black community as a community that was inaccessible to the student because he or she did not grow up in an all Black community and that her Black identity was questioned by others—while another student from a similar background who chose to become very involved in the Black community on campus would perceive the Black community as welcoming and that her Black identity was not subject to question. For all of the students in the study, Identity and Community seemed to be two very important arenas to negotiate as part of their developmental process—resolving racial identity issues and negotiating the Black social networks on campus (in addition to the mainstream social and academic on-campus networks).

At SMU I have not replicated this particular study. Some of the key differences between the campus where I did my initial study and SMU are that: SMU is not yet a four year residential campus; does not have some of the key Black community organizations that existed on the campus where I did my study (e.g., a Black Cultural Center; a Black residence hall); and has a smaller number of Black students. While I think the identity development issues are a constant for Black students (really for minority populations in general), regardless of the type of institution that they attend, I am not sure if there is as strong of a Black Community influence on Black students at SMU because of the smaller population of Black students on campus and the fact that many more students at SMU are commuters. In other words, at the campus where I conducted my research, a Black student who did not participate in the Black community on campus was known (and labeled by other Black students) as a non-participator. At SMU, it would be much easier for a Black student who chose not to be involved in Black activities at SMU to do so without being noticed. Also, my study was conducted over 15 years ago so it would be interesting to know whether students of today are more accepting of students making choices to participate or not participate in particular cultural communities.

With that being said, there are some other ways the themes of identity and community play out at SMU that I think are relevant to this discussion in ways I had not really thought about until you posed the question. SMU has a very strong Greek community, and students at SMU very much define themselves vis a vis the Greek community on campus. There is very much a sense among SMU students that there are two different social networks and SMU experiences on campus between those who are Greek and those who are non-Greek. And for many SMU students their most salient campus self-identity is defined by whether they are Greek or non-Greek. On any campus there are bound to be a multitude of social networks. I suspect the interaction effect of the themes of identity and community as I defined them in response to this question, come into play most often when there is a dominant community on campus (Greek at SMU) or sub-culture (the Black Community) that students feel that they need to measure their identity against. From a researcher’s point of view, a key to understanding the student experience at a particular campus is to explore how both of these themes play out on the particular campus that one is studying.

What has been the response to your Student Leadership Fellows Program in terms of student involvement and success. Can you provide some examples of what students do in this program that relate to character development?

The Servant-Leadership Fellows (SLF) program is a new SMU program, started this past August. Seventeen first-year and sophomore students were selected to be part of the inaugural SLF class.

The SLF students had the opportunity the first half of the fall semester to assist with the coordination of SMU’s Community Service Day (CSD). The SLF students helped to contact agencies in the Dallas area as potential service sites, and served as site leaders for their projects and others on the actual day of service. During the reflection and processing activities after CSD, the SLF members felt like they had developed in ways they hadn’t anticipated through the experience. For example, they were challenged as freshmen & sophomore students to contact non-profit agencies in DFW to arrange service projects (many of them had never done this type of calling and making contacts prior to this) they were asked to serve as site leaders for teams of students, many of whom were older than them & upper classmen they were sometimes frustrated with individual participants or had challenges with their projects and had to learn to problem solve in the moment or work to compromise with difficult individuals they learned to be flexible, communicate well, and learned a lot about planning large events. Towards the end of the semester the SLF students participated in a series of workshops to further develop the vision for the organization for the spring semester and beyond. This series of events required them to:

  • research service-learning
  • think about SLF beyond being an organization to provide service opportunities for students
  • think about how SLF members and the organization can be “change agents” within society
  • think about SLF in a context beyond themselves and beyond just this year (what will this organization be in 10 years from now?)

For the spring semester SLF will focus on raising awareness of service-learning opportunities for faculty, staff, and students within the social issue framework of poverty. The students will be learning about poverty within Dallas, the United States, and globally, and trying to increase awareness of opportunities to connect social need with classroom learning at SMU.

The Orientation Leadership Institute at SMU challenges students to become leaders of their peers. In what ways does character development fit into this program?

The Orientation Leadership Institute is a one credit course taken pass/fail by all of the student directors selected to be part of the Orientation staff. An overarching goal of the class is to teach students strategies to be effective peer leaders and to work as role models and advisors to our incoming students. Character development is one of the course’s key constructs and there are class sessions specifically devoted to ethical leadership, civic engagement, and diversity. There are also class assignments focused on students’ personal strengths assessment. Through these assignments and discussions, students begin to not only understand their personal strengths, but also gain a realistic view of areas where they need help. The strengths assessment helps students understand each other better, and value what each member brings the team.

What has been your most gratifying experience as Vice President for Student Affairs at SMU?

I absolutely love the students at SMU they are: smart, involved, care very deeply about the university and our traditions, great student leaders who go on to become loyal alums, and are excited to be a part of a university that is on the move. To date, I think the most gratifying experience that I have had is working in partnership with the provost to present a plan to the Board of Trustees to re-conceptualize our residential life program as a residential college experience as part of our move to a sophomore live-on requirement. The provost and I have the full support of the faculty, academic deans, residence life, and other student affairs staff to move our residential life program in this new direction. Collectively, we all believe the opportunity for faculty to be more intentionally involved with students outside of the classroom, and for students to live in the same community for two years, will help us to continue to attract and retain the very best students and to provide a common SMU experience for all students (whether students chose to be Greek or not). The Board of Trustees approved our proposal last spring, and we are deep into the planning for building 1250 new beds (five new residence halls, each with a faculty-in-residence apt and classrooms) and retrofitting our existing halls to support a Residential College Model. Beginning fall semester, 2014, all first and second year students at SMU will have the opportunity to be part of a residential college (at SMU we will be are using the term residential commons). It is not often that one has the opportunity to be on the ground floor of a cultural shift on a college campus—I am very excited to be a part of the SMU Residential Commons project.

What recommendations do you have for those young people who aspire to be student affairs leaders?

First off, I have loved my career as a student affairs professional. I very much enjoy the opportunity to watch young men and women grow, develop, and change as they take on new experiences and find out more about themselves in the process. As student affairs professionals we are often key mentors and advisors to students as they negotiate their way through college. We are able to work closely with students as they make important choices and decisions about how they want to become involved on campus and what they want to do with their lives once they graduate. There is nothing more gratifying than a student who comes back some years following graduation to let you know that you (or a colleague or a particular student involvement experience) had a profound impact on her. That is the reason I often describe my work as a student affairs professional to others as “good for the soul.”

My advice to anyone who aspires to be a student affairs professional is to:

Gain experience in as many areas of student affairs work as you are able either through work experiences; internships; collateral assignments; volunteer opportunities. In an era of increased specialization in the field (for example, someone might describe themselves as a “housing” person; someone else might describe themselves as a “student activities” person), I think one of the reasons I was a successful candidate for a vice president’s position is because of the breadth of my experience in the field. Before becoming a vice president, I had previous work experience in almost all of the areas that I now supervise. As such, I believe I have a good grasp on the variety of issues with which those I supervise are wrestling and the ways in which I can best advise and support their work. There is certainly nothing wrong with someone who decides that they want to stay in a particular area of student affairs as their long-term career choice (for example, I once worked with a director of Greek Life, who, when I asked him what he wanted to do next, told me, “I don’t want to do anything next—I have my dream job now!”). However, if you decide you would like to assume a senior leadership position in student affairs, then I think the more experience and exposure you have to different departments within student affairs (and even across the university) the more attractive a candidate you will become and the better prepared you will be to assume a senior student affairs position.

Be an active and engaged student affairs professional: Student Affairs is not a static profession and the longer we are in the field the older we become and the more students stay the same age (we may be 53—my age—but our traditional-aged students will always be 18-22). What that all means is to be a successful student affairs leader you must be aware of the literature and current information about the students with whom we work. If you are, then you will have a sense of what to expect from the student population with whom we work today and the future students who will be arriving on our doorstep any day now. There are a myriad of ways to be in touch with the latest information and trends—from publications such as the Chronicle of Higher Education to the many publications offered by NASPA and ACPA and other professional associations. There are also numerous conference and workshops on a variety of topics that are also good sources of information. In addition to keeping abreast of the literature and important trends, being an active and engaged student affairs professional also means being involved professionally in one of the many higher education associations. Each of the professional organizations has leadership development programs for individuals aspiring to more senior positions in the field, and all of these organizations also have a number of different volunteer opportunities that are great ways for you to meet colleagues from across the country. Once I became a mid-level position, every single one of my positions forward has come about because of my professional involvement and networking—once you establish a good reputation in the field—the opportunities will come knocking at your door!

Cultivate relationships across campus: The best vice presidents of student affairs (VPSA) are those VPSA’s who have good relationships with their colleagues in academic affairs, business affairs, legal affairs, development, and athletics (generally those are the major divisions at most universities). To become a student affairs leader it is important that you understand the work and culture of these other important areas of the university. For you to be successful and for the university to achieve its mission and goals, it is important for you to identify ways your colleagues in these areas can help support your student affairs work and strategies in which you can engage to support the work of their respective areas. Sometimes those of us in leadership positions at the university forget that while we may divide the university into particular “boxes,” students, parents, and friends of the university do not—to them we are all one entity, “the university.” In order for a university to be most successful at its core mission—to educate its students—then all parts of the university need to be working together and in sync toward that goal.

Find mentors and emulate those professionals whom you think are the most successful at what they do: All of us need mentors—some mentors we actively chose, some chose us and some mentors are invisible ones (I call the invisible mentors the guardian angels in the background—those individuals who nominate us for particular opportunities or serve as unofficial references and we sometimes never have any idea that they have done this for us until well after the fact). I think mentors are important because it is great to have someone who is in your corner, helping

Take a risk: A university where I previously worked asked me if I would write an essay about failure. The context of the request was that the staff and faculty at this particular university were worried that their students did not have enough experience with failure. As a result, students were devastated when they did fail (as we all when we inevitably do from time to time) or they avoided involvement in situations where they might fail. None of us want to fail—however, one of the ways that we grow is by taking risks. ometimes when trying something new or by reaching for a stretch goal, we just might fail; and sometimes, in those same situations, we succeed beyond our wildest imagination. We won’t know which of these outcomes we will experience unless we try and even in failure we almost always learn something about ourselves that we can apply the next time a similar situation arises. No one gets to be a leader in student affairs without taking some risks—whether that means applying for a stretch job for which you think you might be exactly qualified for, or moving to a new city to take a dream job, or trying a bold new initiative on campus. I would never have become a Vice President for Student Affairs without taking risks and experiencing some failure along the way.

Think of yourself as an educator. Your fundamental role as a student affairs professional is not “administrator,” or “programmer” or “counselor” or the job title that you hold. Your fundamental role in higher education is educator. Your value to the university and to your students is the extent to which your work is facilitating student learning. One of the things that most student affairs professionals don’t do well is articulate the learning that should and does occur as a result of student involvement and engagement in student affairs programs and activities. For example, the fact that a student who is president of a student organization is probably learning public speaking, group facilitation, budget management, and organization skills, to name a few. One of the reasons that some members of the academy think about student affairs professionals as second class citizens is because student affairs staff have not taken the time to identify for, and share with, faculty (and with students) the rich array or learning outcomes that undergird the work of student affairs professionals.

Love what you do. No matter what career path we chose for ourselves in order to be successful at what we do we have to love our work. Of course there will be some days when you would rather be a greeter at a local super-store than doing your current job—whatever your current job might be. However, if on balance you are excited to go to the office every day and you find your work challenging and invigorating, then your work and your path to leadership will become the reflection of your positive energy and dedication.

What can K-12 do to prepare students to assume personal and social responsibility?

I think parents, more so than K-12, have to set and hold their children accountable for personal and social responsibility. One of the challenges we face in higher education is that because many students have never before been held accountable for their actions or they have never really been free to make their own choices, independent of their parents, many students are not really sure or fully prepared to manage the freedoms that come with being college students. In that regard, perhaps college administrators should spend more time talking to high school teachers and administrators about ways in which we might work together to better prepare young people to be not just ready academically for college, but to be ready for the college social environment (e.g., decisions about alcohol; drugs; sex relationships; etc.).

What sorts of partnerships are evident between academic and student affairs at SMU?

Student affairs and academic Affairs at SMU have some wonderful partnerships. I previously mentioned the partnership between student affairs and academic affairs toward the development of the residential college program at SMU. In fact one of the phrases the provost often repeats is “Academic is part of Res Life and Res Life is part of Academics.” Student Affairs at SMU publishes an online guide titled “The Faculty Guide to Student Affairs” ( http://smu.edu/studentaffairs/facultyguide/) to provide faculty with information about faculty involvement opportunities in student affairs and the ways in which student affairs can be helpful to faculty (for example if a faculty member has a student in their class about whom they are worried). Additionally, the new general education curriculum for SMU will allow for students to fulfill one or more of the general education requirements by demonstrating proficiency through taking particular courses or through outside-of-the classroom experiences.

How has your psychology background helped to prepare you as a student affairs professional?

I originally went to college to become a clinical psychologist and really ended up in student affairs by happenstance. Fundamentally, psychology is the study about what makes people tick and how they grow, develop, and change. I also think psychology is about helping people become the best of themselves. For those reasons I think my psychology background has been extremely helpful in my student affairs work. For me to be successful in my work I have to think about what do my students need; how can I best support their growth and development; how can I challenge them; and how can I lay the foundation for what they will become?

What main ideas do you hope to convey to your audience at the Institute that might translate into programs or practices that relate to moral development?

Through my speech I hope to help the audience reflect on why we do what we do every day—why are we doing this tough, sometimes messy, always interesting, fundamentally important work to help shape the lives of our students and our institutions to be more intentionally values and character-development focused? My speech is titled, “I have been in the Storm So Long, And I am Still Here!”