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End Note

Student for a Day

Student engagement, perspective essential for keeping on course
University Business, Jun 2010

Just for a day I became a student again, and the opportunity to learn from that perspective about the University of Idaho was priceless.

Student leaders extended an invitation for me to spend the evening and night in our residence halls, and that invitation was accepted because I thought it would be a unique experience. More importantly, I want to be grounded - aware of student wants and concerns - and represent them in a positive way as I move forward with university business.

Students are our priority. Our job is student success and statewide leadership. This is the work our flagship land-grant university is known for. It will define our future. My job, working with the university community, is to ensure we have the strategy and resources to do that work to our greatest capacity.

Believe it or not, students have a great grasp of current issues facing universities. Students who live on campus are more connected to support services through academic advisors, residence hall staff, and other living group leaders. They are also more fundamentally engaged in their educational experience by being involved in student activities, campus organizations, and intellectual activity. But if we as university leaders don't take time to find out what students need, value, and desire, we will have a more limited or incomplete vision for the institution.

I take great pride in the open communication and dialogue we have with students at Idaho. We meet frequently with student leaders to gain their input, and have worked to be open about the challenges we're facing so they're informed. I have great respect for them and their perspectives.

So, invitation in hand, I met with students over dinner in our residence hall cafeteria. I played ping pong and pool with students in their game room, and conversed with freshmen at an ice cream social. I shared my vision and thoughts for the university, and listened to the students' feedback at a fireside chat. I worked out with them in our Student Recreation Center. And I went down memory lane as I fell asleep in a twin bed for the night.

If we're just looking at academics, we're woefully missing an important part of the picture.

One of the things I enjoyed most about my experience was watching students relax enough to say what was on their minds. Initially, the students had a lot of questions about me, including my academic interests and my thoughts on the university (as I finished my first year as president).

But as the evening went on, they felt comfortable talking about issues of importance to them, such as bolstering recycling services and improving food services with more local options, and asking questions about credit loads and advising. They were very positive about their experience in the residence halls and at the university, and they raised some good questions. I appreciated the opportunity to hear their perspectives about college life and learning outside the classroom.

The experience gave me time to reflect on my own student experience. When I was a student, I couldn't imagine seeing the university president in the residence halls conversing with students. And it made me ask why that is. It's easy to become bogged down in the day-to-day business of running a college or university and forget our primary purpose: students. It's not just educating students - but ensuring they're successfully prepared for life after college. If we're just looking at academics, we're woefully missing an important part of the picture.

At the University of Idaho, we've made it a priority to develop well-rounded citizens. Our graduates will live, work, compete, and prosper in a global and multicultural environment. So, in addition to their academic studies, we must provide ongoing opportunities for self-discovery and personal and professional growth through cultural, social, recreational, diversity, and service-learning experiences.

There's a saying: to get respect, you must show respect. Through hands-on interactions, such as this night in the halls, we show respect for the students and their place in the university, which in return garners respect for the institution's leaders. It'd be easy to relegate student interaction to other members of a university's leadership team, but I know I'd be missing an important element.

My challenge to those of you in leadership positions - be it university president or other roles - is to take time to interact with and learn about your students. Who are they? What's important to them? Why do they value your institution? And, from their perspective, in which ways can you improve? The results will be priceless.

M. Duane Nellis is president of the University of Idaho, the state's land-grant university.