Diverse Conversations: The Crucial Role of Student Life

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by Matthew Lynch

Dr. Marcus Chanay, Vice President of the Division of Student Life at Jackson State University, is an expert in the area of student life, having spent a decade helping to shape his department. He was recently named president-elect of the National Association of Student Affairs Professionals (NASAP). In this interview, he discusses the crucial role student life plays within the modern university.

Q: What role does student life play at a medium-sized urban HBCU?

Student life plays a vital role in the holistic development of students, and this is especially true at HBCUs. At Jackson State University we meet the students where they are and ensure they are competitive in the global environment and are successful citizens. We believe in developing their mind, body, and spirit as they are engaging in their academic pursuits. We work with our students to help them become civic-minded professionals. All students are required to have a minimum of 120 hours of community service and/or service learning hours to graduate from Jackson State University. Because of our students’ community engagement, the university has received the Carnegie Foundation Award for the Advancement of Teaching for our Community Engagement Classification through 2014, as well as the 2010 President’s High Honor Roll for Commitment to Service.

We help our students become involved in leadership through our Student Leadership Institute and our Center for Student Leadership and Inclusion, in which our 120 student organizations are housed. We prepare our students for graduate and professional school and careers through our Career Services Center. Our students also participate in Tigers2Work, which alerts them of employment opportunities on campus, graduate professional day, Military Day, the Federal Works Forum, internships, and the Career Fair. Our goal is to provide as many opportunities as we can to ensure our students are successful.

Q: What is the relationship between student life and the academic program?

The relationship between student life and academics is seamless. Our Service Learning offering is a great example. For the past ten years, Student Life and Academic Affairs have had a great relationship in developing service learning courses and ensuring that all students enrolled in these courses have productive experiences. We have established a Service Learning Fellows program, in which deans and chairs make faculty recommendations. During this year-long process, faculty members learn how to include a service learning component in their courses. We now have course offerings for all five academic colleges.

Q: Please talk more about student life in the context of Jackson State University’s Strategic Plan. What excites you and what possibilities do you see?

The Division of Student Life was very much a part of the university’s Strategic Plan. JSU believes every student has an opportunity to be a leader and every student should be engaged in the community through civic engagement. Encouraging our students to engage in community service gives them an opportunity to give back. These students are our future, so we want to ensure that the preparation that they receive enhances their opportunities for success. We want our students to believe they are future leaders of tomorrow in their respective disciplines. Our president, Dr. Carolyn Meyers, fully understands this and fully believes in the “One JSU” philosophy. In her vision, it’s all about the students. Without our students, where would we be?

Q: How do you, as Vice President for the Division of Student Life, interact with students?

As Vice President I totally enjoy the interaction with students. I make myself accessible and support students and student organizations in their endeavors. I believe in walking the campus and hanging out with students in the Student Center. Involvement with students keeps the pulse going. I have an open-door policy for all students and will go all the way with students to help them achieve their goals. I am a mentor to many current and former students, which is something I do not take lightly.

Q: What do you think are the biggest challenges facing college students today?

There are many challenges students are facing today. Many of our students struggle each semester with trying to pay for school. The sad part is they have debt from their undergraduate studies even before they have stepped into a graduate program, and they are unsure of what they want to do. Students come to college with dreams of what they want to do or what their mom, dad, and grandparents want them to do, but they are underprepared. Students are also faced with trying to find themselves. They are not sure who they are or what they really want out of life. Social media has taken over our students. These days, they tend to be more engaged with Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook than books.

Q: What are some of the biggest changes you’ve witnessed during your time at Jackson State University?

The biggest changes at Jackson State are the combination of facilities, academic offerings, and support services being offered. I have been at the university since 2001. I have seen our academic offerings increase, including our engineering program, a Ph.D. in Urban Higher Education, and the establishment of the School of Lifelong Learning, to name a few. These past 12 years, I have seen the development of many support services for our students.

Q: What has been your proudest accomplishment in your time here?

I am proud of many accomplishments at the university. The one that really stands out is when a student from New Orleans came to the university as a freshman in the fall semester of 2005, which is when Hurricane Katrina hit. The hurricane hit during the first week of the semester. This student was hanging with the wrong crowd and found himself getting into trouble during freshman orientation. When the hurricane hit, his family was displaced, which actually increased his acting out.

In his first semester, he was in trouble at least three times and was on the verge of being suspended from school. At that time I was the Dean of Students. Two co-workers and I decided to take this student under our wings. As we begin to learn more about him, he began to trust us and slowly began to pull away from the crew he was hanging with. The trust led him to improve his grades, which led to a summer internship, which led to him participating in several student organizations and graduating with honors. He went on to pursue an MBA and is now successful and working for a Fortune 500 company.

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