These are how four administrators describe the Four Pillars of Student Engagement.
A vision begins to manifest
In his first interview with The Signal in 2019, Vice President of Student Affairs Aaron Hart said that any initiatives he implements would be “centered in assessment and strategic thinking.”
“We are trying to lay the foundation for the next 20 plus years,” Hart said.
Now, a year later, Hart is putting his words into action as he assembles his team for the Four Pillars of Student Engagement initiative.
Trying to define it
As an initiative based on assessment, the Four Pillars program is an upcoming initiative intended to honor students for their work on campus both inside and outside the classroom. A program of recognition that will appear on students’ transcripts as part of their “co-curricular portfolio.” The program is based on the assessment of a student’s ability to meet the four core values that define UHCL students:
- Community Engagement
- Career and Professional Development
- Social Responsibility and Advocacy
- Scholarship and Academic Achievement
“I would describe it as an acknowledgement of the culmination of all the great work our students on this campus are currently doing and will do in the future so we can provide metrics that will demonstrate what they’re learning,” Hart said. “The work that we do in student affairs is amazing. We know we are doing great work and providing great opportunities, but the students don’t understand what they’re learning until after they’ve graduated and go out into the real world. The four pillars [program] gives us the opportunity to demonstrate the work we are doing now so they can see how it is going to benefit them in the future.”
Who is behind it?
VP of Student Affairs Aaron Hart, Director of Student Involvement and Leadership Patrick Cardenas, Director of the Office of Student Diversity Equity and Inclusion Aliya Beavers, and Charles Crocker, director of career services, gave insight on this program that has been in development for a year.
Cardenas said Hart has tasked his office, along with the Office of Student Diversity Equity and Inclusion (SDEI) and Career Services, to develop and maintain the program.
Crocker described himself and the three administrators as the core leadership of the program. Nevertheless, he and his three co-workers stressed that this is a university-wide initiative despite its basis in student affairs.
“Our job is to pull all those teams and people together,” Crocker said. “We each kind of bring our own subject matter and expertise to the group.”
Each member shed light on the expertise they bring, revealing it to not be too far from the work done in their departments.
“While I definitely represent diversity equity and inclusion pieces, there is also leadership and professional development done in my office as well,” Beavers said. “While we each have different areas of expertise, the pillars definitely overlap, which I think is a good thing because the students can reach the competencies in a variety of ways.”
Cardenas agreed with the notion of overlap, while also saying how his focus is on helping students get connected and involved with organizations on campus, thus allowing students to be engaged and experience leadership roles.
“Ours is a little bit broader but it connects and weaves in and out of the other offices as well,” Cardenas said. He pointed out how through overlapping with SDEI, students can learn to lead many groups and know how to work with diverse groups of people.
Hart stresses this is a campus-wide initiative to which everyone on campus will contribute.
The history behind the initiative
UHCL is an evolving university. From the master plan to its 2025 strategic plan, the university wants to continue its transformation.
“The university, under the leadership of its president Ira K. Blake, is looking to transform itself to be a very innovative and competitive institution as far as taking its next step in its transition into its next chapter,” Cardenas said. “As President Blake was looking into making the transition happen, she was bringing on new leadership to help provide and contribute to this innovation of taking our comprehensive institution to the next level. So Dr. Hart was chosen as being that innovator in the Division of Student Affairs to bring on new innovations, this one being one of them.”
Hart acknowledged Cardenas’ words but said the truth of the matter is that student affairs groups across the country do similar work.
“However, each university looks at their student body and that’s where the work becomes unique,” Hart said. “And so when I interviewed for this position, during my presentation I said I would bring a four-pillars-of-student-engagement approach here. It was a concept and an idea, and it’s a concept and idea that has been implemented at other colleges and universities.”
Hart stressed that the initiative is something coming into fuller form this fall.
“We’ve never had this before on the campus,” Hart said. “And this fall is the first time on campus the four pillars have ever existed.”
Digging deeper into the history and reasoning behind the pillars
Hart said he felt such a program is necessary and is the product of over 50 years of educational research. Hart said 50 years ago, student affairs organizations realized that student engagement on campus made students more likely to keep a job longer.
“These four pillars are over 50 years of research of the common areas that lead to student success for their holistic development,” Hart said. “You have to remember that before the 1960s we only looked at the success of students in their classroom.”
Hart said such success did not guarantee success after college.
“But you started to see people who would graduate with honors and graduate with a 4.0 GPA, yet they couldn’t keep their job, because you can be the smartest person in the world but if you don’t know how to get along with people who look different than you or people who don’t have the same identity as you, or your fellow man, you will not be successful in society because we must learn how to work and live together,” Hart said. “That is what student affairs does. That is what these four pillars are about. The four pillars are about what makes you a whole person. It is your holistic development outside of the classroom.”
Hart said it is the philosophy of the four pillars that will prepare one for life outside of the classroom and represents the basis of student affairs.
“When you look at social responsibility and advocacy we must all have a responsibility to help our fellow person and that is where these four competencies come from,” Hart said. “These are the four pillars or competencies that 50 years of research have taught us are most beneficial in what students need to have to be successful.”
Revealing the challenge(s) of starting the program
In his interview with The Signal in 2019, Aaron Hart said he and his team wanted to lay the foundation for the next 20 years.
One year later came one of the greatest disruptions to anyone’s current and planned foundations.
“COVID,” Hart said. “We’ve been planning this program for over a year and we had a timeline but no one knew we would have this pandemic. So that’s been the biggest challenge.”
Hart highlighted the support of UHCL’s leadership by saying that if he had proposed this at another university, permission to implement the program would not have been so easily granted.
“It would have been a lot of politics, but the minute we presented this to our faculty and core leadership team, everybody was onboard and people were just fighting to see who would be involved,” Hart said. “If it was another university, it would be the exact opposite. So for me, the only challenge has been the pandemic.”
Cardenas and Beavers said COVID-19 directly led to their new challenges, like the “uncertain atmosphere” and their ability to market the program and make students aware of the program.
“A lot of that is due to the fact that we have had to switch gears,” Cardenas said.
Another challenge has been making sure they properly design the program amidst the pandemic since COVID-19 forced their focuses to change.
Beavers said she hopes that once the program rolls out, people will take an interest and realize the benefits of involvement.
“I think the simplest answer to that is get that student connected with UHCL GetInvolved,” Cardenas said. “That platform is going to act as the wheel in the driver’s seat to take them on this journey. They need to connect with GetInvolved.”
Cardenas said students using GetInvolved is vital to the program.
“GetInvolved is set up in a way where it is intuitive to where when a student attends an event, if that event is connected to the four pillars it will start building that experience for them,” Cardenas said. “So the quickest answer is get on GetInvolved. Explore it, look at the list of orgs, consider being a member, go to events. All of those things are tools or instruments that are going to contribute to the four pillars program. And more talking specifically, the conversation will go into explaining the four different pillars and how a student can look into achieving them. Now of course we are still building a menu item. But I think first and foremost, UHCL GetInvolved is the way to go.”
Crocker agreed, adding that Career Services will help students with goal setting.
“It would also be good to visit folks within our department to identify some goals they want to achieve and then get into GetInvolved,” Crocker said. “Then plug in to get that ball rolling for them.”
Four pillars united by one principle
Cardenas said the pillars were designed for students to be able to achieve all elements of the program, the “one item, skill or experience that weaves in and out of the four pillars is leadership.”
“Leadership is the overarching experience we hope students will take from all four pillars, as each pillar signifies a different type of aspect of the student’s journey here,” Cardenas said.
Hart added that while this is true, it should be understood that students will have different goals and that it would be a good idea for them to ask students what pillars they wish to focus on for themselves.
“We need to be open to the idea that we all have different priorities,” Hart said. “Some will say one is more important than the other.”
Hart said they very well may have students who are more passionate about one pillar over the other.
As UHCL continues in the global fight against COVID-19, this developing program gives a look at the university’s goals for its growing student population.