Rollins College’s Vice President of Student Affairs works closely with President Grant Cornwell
There’s no doubt that presidents have a large role to play in their students’ health and wellbeing, from directing policy to setting a tone that affects campus cultures.
But the myriad of factors that impact student wellbeing – from mental health support and physical safety to co-curricular activities and residential communities – are largely influenced by student affairs professionals, making the synergy between these two offices critical to the college experience.
At Rollins College, there appears to be a solid connection between the president’s vision for student life and the way it is interpreted and managed on campus, thanks to Dr. Mamta Accapadi, Rollins’ Vice President of Student Affairs.
In a separate interview, Accapadi talked more specifically about student affairs policies, how her own experiences have shaped her approach, and why she wishes she knew more about the students who arrive on campus.
Mary Christie Quarterly: What encompasses student affairs at Rollins?
Dr. Mamta Accapadi: I think of student affairs as the holistic life of a student. Thematically, we put this into three categories at Rollins: care, community, and career.
The theme of care includes mental health, student conduct, title IX, as well as transitions like orientation. The theme of community is really about how students cultivate a sense of belonging on campus, relationships with their peers, and meaningful connections with their faculty members.
Students build community in residence halls, but they also engage in the community. We want them to think about the ways they build connections and empathy outside of themselves. The theme of career focuses on career services, internship support, student employment, work study, philanthropy-funded experiences, and opportunities that allow students to make meaning of the experiences they have on campus so they can enter the world of work with both the recognition and confidence that Rollins has prepared them well.
MCQ: Where are you with student mental health support? Are you seeing the same uptick in request for services as most colleges and universities?
MA: The Director of the Wellness Center is a direct report to me, and plays a key institutional leadership role at the College. We are definitely seeing an uptick in students seeking help for a variety of reasons, particularly anxiety and depression.
We are also seeing an increase in students seeking sustained, or continuity of treatment from home – I think this is another area where we are resource-challenged.
We need to think about what the role of a wellness center on a college campus should be.
Are we a primary care provider? Are we an emergency services resource? Are we here to take care of the emergent situations or are we here to maintain care for students who are looking for ongoing support?
In our current environment at Rollins and nationally, we need to identify where our resources provide the best support for a community of well-being on campus.
One area we have significantly strengthened is suicide prevention. We’ve received a SAMHSA grant for our wellness center to work with faculty, staff and students in the QPR method of suicide prevention – Question, Persuade, Refer – to be able to assess and monitor suicidality.
We have seen a steep increase in the number of students who are seeking support and services for active suicidal ideation and behavior.
Another urgent need we are addressing is in the area of eating disorders. We now have a treatment team for eating disorders on campus.
This integrative team includes a nurse practitioner, mental health counselor, consulting dietician, and consulting psychiatrist who work together to provide an integrative approach to support students.
This level of care allows students to stay in school and receive treatment and support, when they might otherwise have to seek treatment at home.
MCQ: Do you think the president’s agenda aligns with what you are doing in student affairs? Do these kinds of things make a difference?
MA: Absolutely. What is great about President Cornwell is that he champions and prioritizes the whole student experience. At Rollins, we talk a lot about how we prepare the whole student for who they are going to be upon graduation. It dovetails really nicely with our mission, which is to prepare students for global citizenship and responsible leadership so they can pursue meaningful, productive careers.
What does it mean to be a responsible leader and what does it mean to have a life of meaning? The work that we do with students ties in beautifully with what we do in the classroom, with engagement experiences, with study abroad, and beyond.
MCQ: What is your background? What drew you to this work?
MA: I often tell bits and pieces of my story because it has defined why I entered the field.
My parents are immigrants from India. I grew up lower-income in a strict household, and with a cultural frame where you never spoke up against your parents. Because of their struggles and sacrifices, they wanted a better life for my siblings and me, and their dream and expectation was that I would become a medical doctor.
When I started college, on a full scholarship, a low-income kid who didn’t know how to navigate the American higher education environment, I fell apart. I tried talking to my mother and she just told me to work harder and everything would be okay. I tried my best to seek help, but I didn’t have the navigational capital to advocate for myself.
Culturally, seeking counseling was considered taboo, and perceived to be ‘shaming my family,’ as is common with many Asian cultures. Even seeking support from academic advisors was seen as showing weakness.
My college experience informs how I show up as an educator: I went to college, struggled, and had a breakdown emotionally and academically, and no one noticed. I completely slipped through the cracks. There is not a single day that I’m not thinking, “what are we doing to make sure no one falls through the cracks today?”
MCQ: As head of student affairs, what do you wish to be different or better?
MA: I’ve been thinking a lot about how much we don’t know about the students who are entering higher education today. I think we need to be in better partnership and relationship with PK-12 systems and educators, because we actually have the ability to anticipate what our students will need by the time they enter post-secondary education.
We should know about their level of academic preparedness, class stratification, food insecurity, mental health and well-being needs, and beyond. How are we thinking about education for a healthy democracy in a broader ecosystem?
I’ll give you an example. We admit talented, capable students at Rollins and I was shocked to realize that, in one of the courses that I taught last year, I had a student who did not know how to write a research paper.
Meanwhile, I had been reading an article about the No Child Left Behind legislation, passed in 2001, which bases its metric of success on student performances on standardized test performance, often multiple-choice tests with limited critical thinking assessment capability. So, in the case of my student, she was certainly smart, and capable, but for her and for this cohort of college students, all of their assessments of academic excellence have been based on things that they’re actually not prepared to do to be successful in a learning environment like ours.
We have a responsibility as educators to know this, and to be sensitive and responsive to what our students need.
I think about parenting trends in the early 2000s and what we might have observed in elementary school that would give us a window into how students are showing up in 2019. In what ways have parenting trends in the 2000s impacted coping skills, ability to deal with conflict, and social engagement skills of today’s college student?
This may not be very scientific, but it is what I think about. Ultimately, as an educator, I feel it is my job to believe in other people’s children, and I feel deeply grateful to serve our young people and honor their souls on their college journey.