Enhancing the Student Experience to Meet A Diverse Campus' Needs

As college campuses continue to diversify, higher education institutions must develop programs and resources that aim to provide an equally transformative undergraduate experience for all students.

March 1, 2020

As campuses continue to diversify, so does the range of students’ needs in order to succeed. Higher education professionals are tasked with ensuring every student has the access, resources and support to fulfill their institution’s unique student experience in and out of the classroom. With a background in medical sociology, Rice University Dean of Undergraduates Bridget Gorman is uniquely qualified to develop an equally transformative undergraduate experience for every Rice student. “I have a Ph.D. in sociology and demography with a focus on the social determinants of health and health disparities,” Gorman said. “Exploring how health differs for people based on gender identity, sexual orientation, race and ethnicity orients everything I do.” 

In her role as dean, Gorman applies a health and wellness lens to the Rice experience to determine if groups are not having as transformational an experience as others — and why. “We’re a great institution that graduates a very high proportion of students each year, but we’re also a campus that’s really diversified over the last two decades,” Gorman said. 

Gorman and her team are proactively searching for opportunities to design new programs and provide additional resources to support the needs of every student, considering race, sexual orientation and mental health, as well as students who are first-generation, low-income and those with disabilities.  

Meeting Every Need Through Student Collaboration   

Gorman finds that ideas work best when students can have ownership and engage collaboratively. “We want students to be actively involved in their learning experience in a very experiential way,” Gorman said. “And that requires us asking them: ‘How can this work better to provide an equally transformative experience for everyone?’” 

Treating students as junior colleagues and peers who have the best on-the-ground perspective, Gorman meets with Rice’s 11 residential college presidents every Monday to talk about what is on their minds. “We discuss everything from communication during crisis events to the ways in which we can help keep our communities healthy,” she said. “I’m constantly asking them: ‘What do you think? What is working well? What is not working?’”  

This commitment to student communication led to a major initiative Rice is set to roll out this spring. “Students brought up low-income accessibility funding at the residential college level,” Gorman said. “They wanted to set aside funds from their college budgets to ensure every member of their community could fully engage in the Rice experience.” 

Increasing Access to Opportunities 

Launching this spring, Rice’s Access and Opportunity Portal provides students with a platform to make requests for needs that will fulfill the Rice student experience. “This doesn’t focus on emergency requests — that’s something we already provide,” Gorman said. “This fund will ensure every student can engage in the social and cultural experiences that make up Rice student life — from attending a school dance and purchasing a residential college T-shirt to being able to take an unpaid internship and afford medical school interviews.”   

Gorman and her team have worked across campus to clearly define and articulate requests at the college, campus and emergency levels. The discussions have sparked other collaborative movements, such as working with Rice’s Housing & Dining team to ensure meal service options are available over holidays for students who are unable to leave campus.  

“We’re trying to be as proactive as possible,” Gorman said. “We think about what the student experience is while recognizing the diversity of our student population and all of their needs. As much as we can plan for the average, there’s a lot of variability that lies in the outliers.”  

Focusing on Mental Health  

Gorman places a significant amount of focus on student mental health, which continues to be a growing issue across college campuses according to a recent report from the American Council on Education. “Rice and our peer institutions are reporting the same significant rates of anxiety among students,” Gorman said. “Sometimes our students put a lot of pressure on themselves to over credential and achieve, leading to a spike in stress and anxiety.”   

Gorman and her team are committed to meeting students along their journeys to ensure Rice can be a value-added experience for them. “We know that stress and anxiety can impede students’ performances in the classroom and keep them from engaging in opportunities that they’d like to,” she said. “A lot of students romanticize what college is going to be like, or is supposed to be like, and that any struggles or issues they enter with will disappear once they’re here.” 

While a change in setting and support system can positively transform some students, for others, they are met with a continuation of issues or run into new problems. “For some students, it’s the first time in their life to not excel in classes,” Gorman said. “This can be a challenging moment when that’s never been something they’ve worried about before.” This is a theme that Gorman and her team put a great emphasis on. “These are independent adults that get to make their own decisions,” she said, “but we provide an umbrella of support to help them when they need it.”  

Gorman believes student mental health is an issue that isn’t going anywhere. “Any university setting is like talking to a parade because it’s always shifting and the student population is not static,” she said. “We’re constantly thinking about the number of resources that we provide to help strengthen every student’s mental health. Examples of these resources include the Rice Counseling Center and the Rice Health Advisors Program, which is a course that students can take to then operate as health advisers in their residential colleges. Rice staff are also trained through the Mental Health First Aid Program, which offers regular workshops on campus. 

While some students overcome challenges and achieve success, other students stumble and struggle the entire way. “It’s not always a straight line to graduation for students, and we welcome and anticipate twists and turns,” Gorman said. “We’re striving to offer the best programs and people so that if students look back and say college was the worst time in their life, hopefully they’ll say that Rice helped them through it. Everyone here cares very strongly about student life and every student experience.” 



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