The Mental Health Crisis and Higher Education
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The Mental Health Crisis and Higher Education

A new study conducted by Gallup and Lumina Foundation found that three-fourths of students in bachelor’s programs and two-thirds of adults seeking associate degrees have considered taking a break from college due to emotional stress. Dr. Zainab Okolo of Lumina discusses the growing mental health crisis across the country and explores how it is having a great impact on adults and students of color. Dr. Jo Blondin, president of Clark State College, discusses how they are supporting students, staff, and faculty through a culture of care.

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Episode 35

The Mental Health Crisis and Higher Education

Lumina podcast episode 35

Full transcript

0:00:08.7 Dakota Pawlicki: Hello and welcome to Today’s Students, Tomorrow’s Talent, the show with newsmakers and leaders in the field of learning after high school. I’m your host, Dakota Pawlicki, and we are grateful to have you with us today. You know, normally on this show, I avoid featuring conversations that are scheduled on or around awareness months and days, and frankly, there are just a lot of other shows, journalists, and organizations out there that do an absolutely wonderful job of bringing perspectives about the important people and issues these designated months and days cover. But there are a few times where I break my informal rule, times when it’s critically important, and when we have some truly great voices that we can uniquely bring to you. This is one of those times. May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and we have dedicated today’s show to exploring the growing mental health crisis, how it shows up in higher education, and what is being done to holistically support the well-being of students, staff, and faculty. Higher education is not immune to the mental health crisis in the United States.

0:01:08.9 DP: A new study conducted by Gallup in partnership with Lumina that surveyed over 11,000 adults found that three-fourths of students in bachelor’s programs and two-thirds of adults that are seeking associates degrees have considered taking a break from college, just due to emotional stress. This is an important and dramatic shift, and the reasons why students decide to either not enroll in the first place or leave before they complete their credential. While we are accustomed to hearing that money is the most important factor in the decision to stop before completing, the new study points to the growing role that mental health is playing. Mental health was cited twice as often as the pandemic, the cost of college, or the difficulty of course work as the reason college students considered stopping out. On today’s show, we will go to Clark State College in Ohio to hear about the many ways that they are supporting students, faculty and staff through their culture of care.

0:02:04.3 DP: But first, I asked my very good friend and colleague, Dr. Zainab Okolo to join me to give us a national view of this crisis. Dr. Okolo is a strategy officer with Lumina Foundation and is also a licensed mental health practitioner who has worked on college campuses prior to joining the foundation. She has a very unique perspective as a provider and now a thought leader in this space, and I really couldn’t think of a better person to bring us into today’s conversation. One quick last note before Zainab joins me. Zainab and I made a transposition error while we were talking, you hear us mention that the Mental Health Awareness Month began in 1946. It actually began in 1949. Okay, let’s listen in. To help us get into the conversation today, I’m bringing back an old colleague of mine who hasn’t joined our podcast since April of 2020, Zainab Okolo. Dr. Okolo, hey, welcome back and thanks for being with us.

0:03:00.8 Zainab Okolo: Thanks for having me, Dakota, good to see you.

0:03:02.2 DP: Good to see you. I could not believe when I look back, that it’s been over two years since you’ve been on the show. You were here, I think when you were pretty new to Lumina and doing some college-based education work, so I am delighted to have you back today to talk about another very important topic, but very different than the one last time we chatted about.

0:03:23.4 ZO: Yeah, Dakota, time flies when you’re in the middle of a pandemic and quarantine for a month or so. I think at that point we had only been quarantined for about a month, so it’s great to be back and it’s great to be talking about this important topic.

0:03:37.0 DP: Yeah, I mean, you’re such a specialist on this topic for a lot of reasons, not only have you been exploring what this looks like from the context of Lumina and higher education, but you yourself are a licensed mental health practitioner, and so I just thought, Hey, if there’s anyone who can give us the context and help us get into the conversation, it has to be Zainab. So Zainab, anyone who’s been looking at higher ed headlines knows that there is a mental health crisis happening in higher education with students that are traditional age and non-traditional age, the mental health crisis at large, let alone one in higher ed. But for those who may have not been following this, can you just give us a quick thumbnail, what’s going on? What’s happening in the world?

0:04:23.9 ZO: Yeah, so first, it has to be said, and I feel like I’ve said this a couple of times now, what we’re witnessing today with mental health in higher ed is just the awakening of a sleeping giant, so it’s not a new issue, but it’s been exacerbated by the COVID pandemic. As a former student services, Advising Director and an actively licensed trauma-informed mental health clinician, I’ve been fortunate enough to spend my early years of my career at the front lines of this issue, working directly with students and institutions around the best modalities to use, particularly for college students that were facing and witnessing trauma.

0:05:08.3 ZO: I’ve also witnessed first-hand how the lack of mental health resources or support of mental health resources impacts the ways in which folks on campus, particularly those in Student Services, are able to best deliver services to students. So, the difference now is just the demand on resources and services and how those experiences from the students’ perspective, have astronomically uptick the need for a more collective holistic response to the crisis. So just to zoom out to a global perspective, what we just collectively faced as a nation, as a world, is what I would call a collective trauma, so we watched at a global scale how a fatal public health crisis, one of which we honestly had no time frame for and no frame of reference for at all, impacted us in how we did daily life. And there are three forms of trauma, basically: One is acute…

0:06:17.7 ZO: One is chronic, and one is complex. When you see an acute trauma, you’re talking about a singular incident, so maybe you were robbed at gun point, for example. A chronic trauma describes a trauma that’s happening consistently for a prolonged period of time, often times we refer to chronic trauma when we’re thinking about domestic violence or abuse, and then we have a complex trauma and this is exposure to several varied, multiple layers of trauma all at once. And so thinking about the pandemic and the context in which it was happening and all the things that were happening in the world at the time, we have faced a complex trauma, and with that comes different ways in which individuals are impacted: Emotionally, behaviorally, cognitively, interpersonally. And our systems, like education, are run by people, and so what we hope for was that things would go back to normal, but instead, we’ve been affected and so the way in which we do business has to shift, the way in which we dole out our services at institutions has to shift, and so what we’re seeing in a lot of the conversation within our nation is just how to best respond to how we’re seeing our systems and people within them change, and what those demands mean for the types of services higher education has to be ready to provide.

0:07:48.7 DP: Yeah, at the opening of the show, we talked a little bit about some of the data, the Gallup poll that’s come out and some other pieces, and as you just said, there is the pandemic and economic crisis, and of course, our continued and escalating racial tension and reckoning that’s happening across the country, which creates really quite a trifecta here, which informs that kind of complex trauma that you’re talking about. As you’re diving into the information, the data that you have and seeing a little bit deeper, wondering if you can start to point to, make a little bit more tangible for folks about what some of the up-tick is around the increased demand for mental health services is, particularly for students of color. We know that there’s these big forces, but because everyone interacts with those big movements individually, and I think it’s a good opportunity for us to go a little bit deeper and say, as we look at specific people who are interacting with our systems, what’s there been experience like and why are we seeing such an uptick for mental health needs among certain populations?

0:08:56.9 ZO: Yeah, that’s a great question. So this question reminds me of a quote that I heard recently, which said that we’re all in the same storm, but in different boats. And so when we think about students of color and folks of color, when it comes to those that were at the front lines of the pandemic, being hardest hit by the outcomes and being faced with the most inequities within our society and the most complex systemic barriers to their mental health, even prior to the pandemic, we find that there just is not as much engagement with psychological services, including evaluations and assessments, there’s still a mistrust continuum that has to be healed with folks of color, and even engaging psychological services, which has a longer history and a longer story to tell. And folks of color have become practitioners like myself to help bridge those gaps and ensure that there’s culturally responsive and appropriate practices and modalities being utilized for folks of color, and to just create a bridge for folks that oftentimes don’t feel a sense of trust when it comes to engaging others around the supports that they need mental health-wise. I mean, it’s no secret that even as a larger society, mental health has not always been seen as an issue that we talk about with the same comfort and fluidity as we do physical health.

0:10:38.4 ZO: May is Mental Health Awareness Month. I wonder if our listening population knew that that was established in 1946, not last year, [chuckle] not this year, 1946. So we’ve been talking about this for a while, but it’s just entered our common discussion point and language, because we’re having to shift around how we talk about mental health and normalizing it, ensuring folks have a widespread understanding about how they might have been impacted and getting them connected to resources. So particularly when it comes to students of color, it’s the increased exposure, it’s the lack of resources, the lack of tailored resources, and it’s a very nuanced conversation about how we’ve made room and how we’ve centered folks of color in the larger conversation when it comes to psychological services.

0:11:29.7 DP: I also hear you’re saying too that it is really about the resources that are or are not available and also not keeping up with demand. And two episodes ago, we had our mutual friend, Scott Jenkins on to talk about state policy and financing of higher education at the state level, and he gave a couple of examples of how many states have inequitable funding formulas. And he gave one reference about one state, that 60% of the funding goes to only two institutions, which do not primarily serve students of color, leaving all of the other institutions to fend for 40% of the state resources and accounting for pretty much the lion share of the state’s students of color. And so I have to believe, you’re right, I had no idea that Mental Health Awareness Month started in 1946. If I were to put a guess on it, I would have said maybe like what? The ’70s, not the ’40s. So, how are folks like you, practitioners who are there, who have been trying to call attention, you said this was a sleeping giant. You hear from folks all the time… How are they feeling? How are the practitioners on college campuses feeling right now?

0:12:44.7 ZO: I think the term I’ve heard used most often in talking to colleagues of mine is burnt out, [chuckle] so I remember in my role as the Student Services Advising Director, I wasn’t even on campus to work as a therapist, but I worked with so many students that I had relationships with them, that they were comfortable enough with me, talking about what was impacting their performance on campus, and so I found myself a lot of times having to refer out to get them to resources on campus. And back then, which was a couple of years ago now, seven or so years ago now, I would have to create systems on campus by creating relationships with our counseling center folks, folks off campus, to ensure that if I had a student that I sense was in crisis, that I had like a key code word that they would know, you have to see the student immediately, I’ve done an assessment and they are not okay. And back then, I had to do that, because on average, the institution that I served, there was about a two-month wait list for services, so there was already a back-up in terms of the demand on campus and what students were able to do in terms of seeing a practitioner in the midst of a crisis.

0:14:11.8 ZO: Now, I think I read somewhere that on average, these wait-lists have grown to about an eight-month-long wait list, and institutions are doing their best to serve students, doing their best to create relationships with practitioners in-patient, out-patient clinics off campus, just to serve the demand of the population. And students are getting creative too. They’re talking to their peers, institutions are starting to train peer mental health advocates to just try to meet the needs. So I think practitioners right now are probably overwhelmed, most likely burned out and really, really exhausted about how to best keep up with the demand from students.

0:14:57.6 DP: That makes a lot of sense. I gotta imagine I would be burned out too, if I was in that role. And as you said, these are parts of institutions that have been so under-resourced for decades and decades, that only are exacerbated by what we already know are inequitable resource allocation decisions. I also wanna dig into, you are a part of a great article in diverse education, and we’re gonna put it in the show notes, and you offered some really great commentary. And as I was reading through your comments and through the piece Zainab, I started thinking to myself that you kind of say… You bring a point up that says, “For an organization that is so much… A higher education institution being an organization, that is so much about the mind, it’s important that we look at… Anything that troubles the mind should be our problem too.”

0:15:49.0 DP: And I think that was just such a good reframing of the issue about whose responsibility is it to really support the mental well-being of our people [chuckle] most broadly, of a community’s people. You’ve talked a little bit about partnerships and things like that, but is there something specific that you think institutions should be doing, start doing, keep doing? Or I know we hear from institutions, sometimes they say, Listen, that’s not our job, that’s the job of the mental health providers. Can you help us, where would you put the emphasis, knowing that every context is different and unique, of course, but from what you’re seeing, what’s your recommendation around that?

0:16:33.3 ZO: Yeah, so that’s a great question. So to zoom out a little bit, I do believe that higher ed has a very distinct and clear role to play in addressing the mental health crisis. And for some of our listening audience, that might just mean that I’m saying exactly what you’re asking, what are institutions specifically meant to do? But as we know, higher ed is much larger than just colleges and universities, there are other key stakeholders, including policy advocates, including students and parents as advocates, including our larger community. So higher ed is a much larger system than just the institutions. But zooming into institutions, they are really working hard right now in seeking out supports and resources to better serve their students, and they’re acknowledging that there is a need on their campuses.

0:17:32.1 ZO: I’m thinking about the American Council on Education Leaders’ Pulse Point survey that surveyed their institutions, and nearly 70% of college presidents identified student mental health as their most pressing issue as compared to 53% in just their previous Pulse Point survey, so leadership on campus is fully aware that there is a need, and some of the things that they’re doing to address this need is pretty layered. At first, it’s coming into contact with shifting institutional culture around how mental health is being framed and considered and discussed. So, you might have already seen in a couple of articles, folks are talking about mental health as health, and that is a play on the conversation that President Biden had during his State of the Union address, talking through mental health as pivotal and just as important as physical health.

0:18:37.4 ZO: And addressing some of the barriers that insurance has in making sure that resources are accessible to folks to get services on and off campus, other ways that institutions are addressing this issue is again, by empowering students that want to be in the front lines of helping serve their peers, and so this looks like student mental health advocates and peer support as being a first touch for students that might be struggling on campus and making sure that they are able to pass them off to professionally trained clinicians on or off campus, and with that institutions are doing their best to ensure that their counseling centers are properly outfitted with the right amount of counselors on campus, therapist on campus, psychiatrist on campus, and building out those relationships off-campus or when students need a little bit more than what institutions can provide.

0:19:41.2 ZO: And so we’re at an interesting crossroads in that we’re building as we go, none of us were here for the last pandemic, so we don’t have a real frame of reference for how this should look like or what the fall out was really going to be, and so as we’re deciding that students need counseling on campus or more counselors on campus, we’re also deciding what that looks like, we’re also deciding what those relationships all campus would look like, we’re also deciding how to update our insurance policies to ensure that folks have a clear road map as to how to get affordable mental health care and timely mental health care.

0:20:18.8 ZO: So a lot of these things are happening all at once. And higher education as a system must willing to support its institutions to make sure that it’s delivering the best services to the most important stakeholder, which is the student.

0:20:35.4 DP: Yeah, and I think, again, you’ve framed this conversation and saying This is really a complex trauma, and it’s certainly a complex challenge, I think the important thing to remind folks is that this is in the… This isn’t an issue where capacity exists in some place, but is not being delivered on the resource side of things, there is not capacity looking at… One study from the American Public Health Association, estimating that there are 6600 current mental health job vacancies just open right now based on just some of their networks and they’re looking at… I’m sure that number is potentially larger when we think about mental health from a grander perspective, and so I appreciate what you’re laying out here are the multiple strategies and the multiple stakeholders who have to get involved if they’re trying to really improve mental health for students today. Before I leave you Zainab, I do wanna just ask a little bit about what you think the role of philanthropy should be in this, we’ve talked about institutions, we’ve talked about the public sector a little bit, talk about the opportunity for public-private partnerships, but philanthropy can play a role sometimes in situations and crisis situations like this, and so as you’re talking to your philanthropic colleagues around the country, what are you hearing, what are they thinking about? What are they wrestling with? Yeah.

0:22:11.7 ZO: So there’s a lot to wrestle with right now, and I think the number one question is just, Where do we invest, what is the best way and what is the best, most timely way to invest around this issue and… So to start with your first question, I see philanthropic organizations having an opportunity to really elevate the conversation around mental health by bringing together, offering a table to some of the various stakeholders to help create solutions around the space to help identify best practices by funding use cases by funding new studies, by creating new partnerships and by coordinating how they’re implemented, and in talking with other philanthropic colleagues, some have not thought about it in this way, because honestly, we haven’t had to, but Lumina has because we look at mental health and we look at all the different aspects that impact student success as important, and mental health has proven itself and deemed itself as one of the key factors in deciding whether or not a student is successful on campus, and so being able to promote and elevate this issue is important, and also being able to partner across different landscapes, including policy, to help bring different practice modalities to scale.

0:23:50.6 ZO: I would argue that right now, what we have are a few promising practices, things that we can contend with, things that worked prior to the pandemic with college student populations with their unique challenges and developmental stages, but there’s still an opportunity for us to learn and philanthropies through their partnership, grant folks space to test out what works, what might not work, and to learn so that we can put some of those practices into scalable models so that institutions are not one-by-one deciding what works for their particular student population, and rather getting back to the business of ensuring that our students are well-educated and have an opportunity to access a quality degree, but within an environment that feels psychologically safe for them, where they feel that they can get the supports that they need, once they have indicated that they have a challenge.

0:24:57.4 DP: Well, Dr. Zainab Okolo. It is always a pleasure to catch up with your friend, you’re always great, and for those of you who haven’t been following your work, I really encourage folks to check you out, and you’ve just been such a clear thinker in this particular space, you have a lot written about it and the intersection of your expertise, I think is just so important at this moment, so thanks for spending a little bit of time with us this morning or whenever he rose into his dispose and walking it out through us. Thank you, thank you for your help with us.

0:25:34.3 ZO: Thanks so much, Dakota. Thanks for having me do that.

0:25:37.4 DP: We’ll see you soon.

SEGMENT 2 with Dr. Jo Blondin, President of Clark State College

Welcome back, everyone. I’d like to bring you now to Clark State College located in Springfield, Ohio, Clark State has adopted several strategies in a culture of care to holistically support their more than 5700 students and 237 staff members. With me today to talk about this approach and the impact is having is president of Clark State… Dr. Jo Blondin, Dr. Blondin has served as president of Clark State since 2013, serves as the vice chair to the Higher Learning Commission Board of Trustees, and is a national leader in community college leadership. Dr. Blondin, and thank you so much for being with us today.

0:26:14.8 Jo Blondin: Thank you for having me.

0:26:16.7 DP: Yeah, I’m so excited to dig in with you today about all the great things at Clark State as I was learning a little bit more, you and I’ve met before, and as I was learning a little bit more about Clark State, you all are really unique. Did I read this right that… I think it was last year that there was a 14-year-old that graduated with an associate degree from your institution?

0:26:40.1 JB: Yes, from Senior High School. And she is completing her bachelor’s degree at Wright State, and she’s gonna go to medical school. She’s like a 2022 version of Duke Hauser.

0:26:50.9 DP: Wow, that’s incredible.

0:26:55.3 JB: I know.

0:26:55.4 DP: Yeah, well, we definitely… We’re gonna link to that story, it’s a great story in the show notes, you know what, we invite you here today to talk about some other ways that you’re unique and that… Clark State is unique. And in particularly around the culture of care, can you just start by telling us a little bit more about Clark State and why you started to prioritize a culture of care on your campus?

0:27:16.4 JB: I can… And it goes back to way before the pandemic, so when I first came to Clark stayed in 2013, a new President is always an opportunity to remake a culture, and it was already a very strong positive student success culture. So we had a lot of opportunity to build from there, in addition to that, Ohio had changed its funding formula starting at about 2011, from one based on headcount and square footage to 100% performance based, based on student success metrics like graduation, completion and completion of gateway courses, etcetera. And so we really needed to rethink our organization, but also find a way to be distinctive among our 23 community colleges in the state of Ohio. They’re more than 100 institutions, fir education. We have a very well-developed higher education infrastructure in Ohio, so there were a lot of reasons why strategically, we wanted to take a look at our culture, additionally, we knew that in survey data that our students were leaving us for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was because of concerns over course completion, transfer, etcetera, so in addition to that, we had some around building to do with our faculty and staff, graft on top of that, the urgent need around diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging, and Clark State really hit a point where something needed to be done.

0:28:54.9 JB: We also… During about 2018-19, that was really the high point, 17 through 19, when this region in Ohio was suffering from a crisis epidemic in addiction, and we hear about the opioid crisis, what the addiction crisis really encompasses so many other substance use disorders that it was upon us to do something about all of these issues. And in serving our students, we knew they were coming to us with a host of adverse childhood experiences, whether it was a divorce, abuse, trauma of any kind, and so we took the opportunity to start thinking about what a culture of care would look like, where everybody was embraced and we took a holistic approach to student success rather than a piecemeal approach. Starting back about 2017 and 18, we began applying for grants around trauma inform practice, this was not a widely known concept, it was really talked about more in the addiction community. And the reason that we looked at this was we have a very strong social work program, and I got involved in a lot of our employer discourse around this issue, and I realized that this could be a transferable opportunity to create a culture of care, so that’s where a lot of this started, but it became accelerated during the pandemic…

0:30:23.0 DP: Yeah, I can imagine so, and I appreciate you bring us into the Ohio context. Dr. Okolo who just joined us, she was really talking about the national context and big national movements, but I think it’s so important for us to also remember the localization of some of these challenges and issues, and also the ways that can bring up some opportunities, Culture of Care is one of those phrases where I think it’s easy for us to come just insert our thought into, what does that mean? But there’s actually a lot that goes into it. Can you describe what a culture of care is at Clark State and how you decided to land on that approach?

0:31:00.6 JB: Yeah, well, first of all, you need an engine to drive it, and of course that starts with a commitment from the Board of Trustees and the President, but beyond that, you have to, just like a strategic plan, it needs to be a grassroots effort from everybody on campus, getting involved.

0:31:15.1 JB: And we have a program… And just to kind of also give the context for this, I started a program in 2015 called SAR. Serving our own through Advancement and Retention, and it’s a mentoring program where I work with the faculty and three staff members to get to know the culture at Clark State and drive change That’s the whole purpose of the program is to create a Student Success culture, so that foundation had been laid, and one of the SAR groups came up with an idea for re-looking at our Center for Teaching and Learning. Well, our Center for Teaching and Learning had frankly become a Blackboard help desk… Okay, it was there in the service of faculty teaching virtually… And this is before the pandemic, so this… They do a project every year, the mentoring group does a project and everyone We’ve implemented and one of the classes, I believe in 20, it was 2018, they were graduating in 2018, and their project that they presented to the Board of Trustees and myself was to re-format and revise our Center for Teaching and Learning to drive change on campus.

0:32:21.8 JB: And of course, when you get a good idea, you wanna implement it, and with a new provost in place, Dr. Tiffany Hunter, we worked to re-look at what we were offering through our Center for Teaching and Learning, so in other words, how can we drive professional development? And we went from one FTE in the Center for Teaching and Learning to 4.5 FTE this year, and we implemented a new staff training model or… And staff evaluation bottles, it wasn’t based on numbers anymore, we had a group help us with this on-campus or employee relations committee to really re-look at the way that faculty are evaluated and staff are evaluated, so it’s in an asset-based model rather than a deficit. You’re a one, two, three, four, five model, which is essentially an AHF model in higher education. So we looked at how our Center for Teaching and Learning could drive literally teaching and learning among our own staff and faculty and students on campus. So that was one thing. The other is, I kind of set the stage earlier for the trauma-informed practice ideas and how Clark State went forward with that. And we applied for a Title 3 grant in 2019, and we heard in January of 20 that we received this Title 3 grant to lift up trauma-informed practice across campus.

0:33:43.1 JB: Now, trauma-informed approaches or practices, they are not a program that you buy off the shelf and you bring in, it’s not a software package, trauma-informed practice is a cultural change, and I can talk about that a little bit later, but we did receive that as well as a peregrine for our addiction studies program, to do peer-to-peer recovery specialist training for industry, so because the workforce was getting tighter even before the pandemic, and a lot of folks were suffering from addiction, either in the workplace or had a family member, so we thought if we could put par to peer-to-peer recovery specialists out in the workplace and in our own workplace, we could retain employees and provide support for them, and that’s also been a great program, so we received about a million dollar grant for that, or 1.3 million for the title 3 trauma-informed practice, and then we brought an expert on campus from UC San Diego, her name is Dr. Amin Lansing and she’s been fantastic in terms of educating our faculty staff and students about ways to be trauma-informed in our work. We also added several degree programs in addiction study and in diction studies and integrated treatment, including a Bachelor of Applied Science degree.

0:35:02.6 JB: A lot of colleges already have a BIT team, a Behavioral Intervention Team, we change that to a care team so that we can identify students who may need some extra holistic support, and that was another thing that we did. Words matter, and also we went through a policy and correspondence review, so that the language that we’re using when we’re communicating with students and employees is very positive, rather than… We’ve all received those financial aid letters that if you don’t turn in your verification paperwork by X you are gonna be dropped, that’s very startling and not helpful to our students who we wanna keep it in college and then focus on self-care through a program we have here called Clark State in touch. We also created virtual self-care rooms as well as a physical self-care space for faculty, staff and students, and then we looked for champions around specialized training on campus to continue to infuse this throughout campus. And then I talked a little bit about the workforce development activities around peer-to-peer recovery specialists, and then of course, during this time, we joined Achieving The Dream, we were finally ready to do in 2020 and during the pandemic, and actually it was the best decision the college ever made.

0:36:24.9 JB: We wouldn’t have been ready five, six years ago, but given a lot of the ground work and something that I have in very short supply, patients, to get to this point, we joined and it is also made all the difference in tying the culture of care with diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging, and holistic support for students and employees.

0:36:42.9 DP: So you just cover a massive range.

0:36:47.1 JB: I’m sorry.

0:36:47.6 DP: No, no, it’s a good thing. A massive range. And I think that’s so important because I go through life, 90% optimistic, 10% disappointed, that’s just my natural preset, and so, so often you bump into things or you read about something that’s like, Oh, we have a culture of this, or This is our culture or, Here are principles, and a lot of times they’re just words on a page, and my 90% optimist is like, hopefully this place is different, and then the 10% sometimes wins out, but you know what I really hear you saying is that achieving a culture of care that is really informed by trauma-informed practices that can support faculty, staff, and students, you just ticked off, massive system changes.

0:37:39.5 DP: The way that the Center for Teaching and Learning operates and how it’s staffed and resourced, how faculty are assessed and trained and supported, our staff or faculty, staff, excuse me, are trained and supported as well, and then in addition to that, looping in employers and working with employers who have something to say to this, as well as the way that you’ve even modified direct to Student Services, and I just think that’s an important context. Usually in these conversations, when we ask a campus leader, how are you supporting the mental health of your students, staff, and faculty, they usually say, “Here’s our behavioral health center,” right. “Here’s our mentoring program and counseling services.” And when I just ask you that question, the first place you started was the Center for Teaching and Learning. As a leader, and obviously you talked about the need for buy-in from, of course, Executive Leadership and the trustees, but that’s a lot of progress. You said you kicked it off in 2017, how did you make all this progress in such a short amount of time.

0:38:43.2 JB: You know… ‘Cause I do think we laid the ground work with our strategic plan, so in 2013-14, we did our first grassroots bottom-up strategic plan where we got feedback from everybody on campus, students, community members, of course our employees, and it was led by a faculty and staff member and adopted by the board in 2014, and then we revised the plan again in 2017, and, 2018, and we just revised at this past spring, and what’s really need to see is that, of course, our goals are around Student Success, excellent academic programs, and then of course, community prosperity, I think that is reflective of many strategic plans, but one thing that we added over the years to show the development of our college culture was in the second iteration, we added communication and diversity focus because the campus was ready. And then in this last one, we added a culture of care, and because the campus had seen the impact of that and trying to form the initiatives around that and move toward this, and it’s not a linear move, it’s been kind of an iterative move throughout the past nine years, but a lot of this was also precipitated by some things that are external to the college.

0:40:08.7 JB: And many community colleges can definitely understand. One, is a decline in student enrollment, we wanted to make sure that we were providing a distinctive environment for our students, we hear time and time again, that students are just a number or that a student’s concern was discounted, it’s easy to be different, it’s easy to care, it’s easy to teach those skills, and many of our faculty and staff already have their skills, they’re predisposed to use their skills, because they came into a community college where we know that we’re known for that type of caring, but I call it a lot, and I’m not in any way trying to be disparaging to external needs of students, but it’s more than a food pantry.

0:40:51.6 JB: There was a real movement about 10 years ago, eight years ago, where people in higher ed started talking about external student needs, and those are really important conversations to have, but those needs are not just physical, those needs are mental. And we started seeing this holistic student conversation happen in K-12. I started becoming part of those conversations in the late 90s when I first came to Arkansas and as an English professor, starting to work in those areas, and those conversations have followed me, the whole child conversation, and I thought, “Well, what about the whole student in higher education,” and you hear a lot the distinction between traditional and non-traditional, and I was tired of those definitions, again, words matter, a non-traditional student doesn’t think of herself or himself or themselves as non-traditional, they think they just want to help their family and make a good wage, so that they can provide. And so how do we take care of our students? And also, how do we know our students, how do we get the data to know who they are instead of making assumptions about who our students are and the services they need.

0:42:09.4 JB: A lot of times what you’ll hear from people, “Oh, our average student is 28, she’s a single parent,” have you done the research, do you know that? Then how do you support that student, and the diversity of students that you have on campus, and I think that achieving the dream is obviously accelerated, that worked for Clark State, exponentially. But we started doing a lot of surveying beyond the typical products that a lot of colleges use, Cessy, you know levies are very good, but also doing some focus groups and work with students to find out what is it you need, and I hope everybody took the opportunity with the COVID relief monies, the three rounds we received from the federal government to really do some research in what students need, because this whole team up of trauma-informed practice and Culture of Care helped us deploy those COVID monies, first of all quickly, second of all, by eliciting data that we could share with our campus about what students needs work and they were not technology.

0:43:12.4 JB: The needs the students had were primarily around transportation and child care, and so how do we then deploy the monies to help those students in those areas, and more than the money, how do we make the social capital connection to help that student? So I think that we’re arbiters of social capital in ways that a lot of us still have not harnessed, and that was also an important imperative as part of this whole culture of care, and every faculty and staff member on campus can talk about how we deployed those monies and other scholarship monies we raise through our foundation to help students in their most critical need.

0:43:50.7 DP: Dr. Blondin, you are speaking my language. You are hitting… Dakota is like, soapbox outline, one, the need for collecting and using primary data is just so important because you’re exactly right, we are so fortunate to have so many studies and survey instruments that allow us to look at national trends, and we talk about those here. And even regional trends and things like that, but you really have to get to know your particular students, and the second thing is exactly, right. There is a knee-jerk reaction that conversations around mental health on campus can generate, which is, we understand there’s a need for greater mental health services, let’s hire more counselor, psychologists, and experts, right? And I’m not saying that’s a bad strategy, but to your point, and even to some of the survey data that we talked about at the top of the show, students are experiencing emotional stress, the source of that stress show… The moment your feeling stress shows up, not where the problem started, and that problem might have started at transportation, at childcare, at struggling to put, keep food on the table, or struggling to just balance time between running a family, having a job, working full-time, maybe more than full-time.

0:45:13.7 DP: And as well as attending school, and I really appreciate that you and your colleagues at Clark State have really thought about this in a truly holistic way and have addressed those other parts as this kind of culture of care. And I also know that you’ve made some real impact, you’re talking about the enrollment decline that we’re, of course, seeing, a lot of campuses are seeing, as well as how this is all connected to student success, but you’ve had some real success with your students and graduates as a result of this culture of care, isn’t that right?

0:45:47.9 JB: We have, and of course, we measure what we do and we put money toward what we measure and try to make it better, and so I think to your point, just very quickly, about where you put your resources, that’s the other area that you need to… As a college president, I wanna put resources toward what’s working, and certainly this was… The statistics speak for themselves. So students who did receive counseling services at Clark State were retained at 80%, which are general Fall to Spring where retention is about 76%. So we moved to the needle there, but I think more importantly, we looked at our course completion statistics and some of the work that we were doing, and we moved the needle there from 79 to 81%, but our students of color, we moved it from 60 point to 68%. Still not acceptable. We’re continuing to focus on additional resources to help in that area, but we also stabilized enrollment, and in fact, we’re up this Summer, summer enrollment is the best predictor of Fall enrollment at a community college. So we’re really excited about what the Fall brings, and then we also increased our gateway course completion, there is developmental math and developmental English courses from 54% to 65% in academic year ’21, and we redesign student orientation to provide the information the students need.

0:47:17.3 JB: Not the information we think they need, they’re gonna find the library, I can assure you, you do not need to spend a lot of time in the campus tour and those things. What students need is, “Where can I connect to the people who are gonna help me?” And that’s my faculty member, the frontline faculty member, as well as knowing that the people on campus are there to help you as well, and do what we call warm handoffs, we always wanna have a warm handoff with, whether it’s a student who’s upset, and the student shares that with the custodian, the custodian needs to find the warm handoff for that student, so I think developing that culture where you’re also… How do I say it? I guess I’ll say it this way, politely intervening, so that we are being, is… I don’t like to use the word intrusive, a lot of people for a bunch of years ago used the term intrusive advising and some of these things, I think maybe politely in our meeting is not gonna catch fire, but making sure that we’re anticipating student needs and being as proactive as we possibly can in helping those.

0:48:24.9 JB: There’s also a lot of information out there for, that we are not… Is not available to faculty and staff. So let me tell you about one other really cool thing we’ve done as a result of this culture of care and trauma-informed practice, so we have a colleague system, which is our enterprise system, it runs our payroll, it runs our student registration system, it runs everything essentially at Clark State, like it does at any other college, and it’s very difficult though to put communication information within that system, and then it’s also difficult for students if they’re running into some kind of road block or they’ve had an academic problem, or they’ve had a behavioral issue, it’s really hard to get all that information, and when you do try to elicit, you are constantly re-traumatizing the employee, the student, whomever it is, so we have employed something called Slate in order to create what I’ve called to the campus, One Pane of Glass. So one pane of glass, so when we open up a student record, we can see and be familiar with the issues, of course, within federal privacy guidance, but that we can have the information at our fingertips so that we know how to best serve that student rather than the student being bounced from the dean to the assistant dean to the faculty member.

0:49:49.0 JB: And then back to the president or however, the crazy chain of command seems to work in these situations, we wanted to create one of pane of glass and for our student communication module, so that we could even better serve our students and have them tell their stories in a way that was… That we could help them. And so I think that’s a neat story that has come out of the pandemic, we’ve done several presentations about that, I know we just didn’t want at AACC, and we had done one several months before at ACCT and… Association of Community College Trustees, and we’re really proud of taking this step to help our students, because the higher ed is convoluted and the process for communicating can be very challenging to a student and also very… It’s something that may even cause them to question why they’re in higher ed or, “They’re not serving me, they’re not helping me, I’ve said this issue 100 times and it hasn’t been resolved, how can we resolve issues faster,” and that is also hooked up with our software where students can issue complaints, etcetera, so we’re working through all those things to make a better customer service experience for our students as well.

0:51:08.8 DP: So any campus leader or member right now has probably has furiously been taking notes because you continue to check off areas of a campus’s operation. Again, faculty and staff training and assessment, Direct to Student Support Services, Integration and working with external partners, also your data, technology infrastructure, all of these things combined to, under the banner of being a culture of care, and clearly you have seen the impact. I know we’re running a little low on time, so I have to ask you, because I think there’s a lot of colleges, or institutions, or organizations that are similar positioned. I’m not sure if you offer on-campus housing or maybe a small bit of on-campus housing, right? So many of your students are living off of campus, I think it’s only a third, are full-time, about two-thirds are part-time students. I think there’s a lot of places that wash their hands of this, that absolve themselves and say, “Listen, mental health isn’t our problem to contend with, we have so many other things to do, and what we’re happy to do is make referrals. We’ll try to work with our partners. Hey, maybe in the public sector.” What would you say to those folks?

0:52:35.0 JB: I would say that there are so many collaborations in your community that will, you can leverage to help students, so for example, with Mercy Bon Secours, one of the largest healthcare providers in the country, they’re located in our backyard here in Springfield, they brought a clinic to our campus, to help with physical as well as the mental health, and of course vaccinations, etcetera, for our nursing students and healthcare students, but we have a full-service health clinic on campus. We do charge a fee, a very small fee, about $25 a year for our students to access and they get, I think it’s five visits included in that a year and other services, so we negotiated with them to really also provide physical healthcare for our students, because we all know too, if you do a survey of your students, you’re gonna find that the last time that they had a physical, or that they paid attention to their physical health was maybe a decade ago in some situations, and so that’s an important part of learning, is to be physically helpful, to be nourished, to be cared for and to have housing. We don’t have housing on campus, but we do have connections where we can help students get housing, and we have some partnerships actually with Wright State and Wittenberg for our students to live on those campuses and access a Clark State campus.

0:54:07.0 DP: So I always like to ask leaders like you who are making a significant change on their campus, obviously, you’re supported by a big team and a lot of great folks. 237 strong faculty and staff.

0:54:21.3 JB: And there’s another 300 part-time.

0:54:24.6 DP: And another 300 part-time. What is your advice to other higher education leaders who are listening to you, inspired by the example that you’ve set said and motivated to make the same kind of gains that you’ve been able to make?

0:54:43.8 JB: Yeah, I would give two big pieces of advice, one is, you can achieve… You can achieve your success, so in other words, to us, success looks like students going out and making family-sustaining wages, how do we… What are all the pieces of the pipeline that we can to support that? And so I think that this is part of higher education, what we’re doing right now is a part of higher education, health is part of higher education, and then the second thing I would say is, don’t ever doubt the power of an executed strategic plan. You have to have a strategic plan. If you say it’s on the shelf, that’s on you, as a leader, you have to live it, you have to remind people of it. I did a town hall meeting yesterday at 4 o’clock, where I went through the strategic plan and said, again, this is… Next year, we’re looking at this and this and this, and this is why, and if you live it, and you actually respond to the initiatives that are suggested and resource those in your budget, you’re gonna see change, because what changes is what gets funded to.

0:55:47.3 DP: Well, I think I need to attend your strategic planning masterclass. I would be the first one to sign up for that, because I think you’re right, I think there are a lot of sleepy strategic plans, and I’m a process person, a stakeholder engagement person, and so, there are plans that are created in an inclusive way that I think lead to success, and then there are plans that are plans on a page, but setting that aside, Dr. Blondin, I just wanna say thank you for everything you’re doing, of course, at Clark State and for Central Ohio, but also for coming on and sharing with us what you’re doing today, we’ll be sure to put a lot of links in the show notes, but, just really admire the work that you and your colleagues at Clark State are doing on behalf of students.

0:56:36.8 JB: Thank you so much and I really appreciate the opportunity, I’ve enjoyed this and look forward to engaging with people in… Nationally around this issue. So thank you very much.

0:56:47.8 DP: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Well, have a great day. Thanks for being with us.

0:56:50.0 JB: You too, you too.

0:56:55.9 DP: Welcome back, everybody. I think Zainab summed this up very well today, when we… She referred to this crisis as a sleeping giant, between the transitions of in-person to online learning and then back to in-person, a lingering pandemic that has killed over one million Americans, and steadily increasing incidents of racially-motivated attacks, it’s no wonder that all of us are struggling to some degree, combine that with what we already know, that people with few financial resources, people of color, and people in isolated communities have considerably less access to quality support services, and we have a crisis on our hands. What I am grateful for, is leaders like Dr. Jo Blondin and her entire team at Clark State, here is a place, in relatively small corner of America, that saw this sleeping giant and decided to act, they didn’t pass blame or absolve themselves, telling folks it’s someone else’s job to provide mental health. What they said is that, “What can we do? How can we help? How can we serve those who are part of our community?” Yes, long-term policy change and more resources are required for us as a nation to address this crisis, but there is an awful lot we can do today right now with the resources and people we have.

0:58:04.5 DP: I hope you draw inspiration and motivation from today’s conversation, get involved and have the conversation at your organization, employer, or community about how you might help those in need, and if you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide or is in emotional distress, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, by calling 1-800-273-TALK, trained crisis workers are available to talk 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

0:58:32.8 DP: Well, that’s all the time we have for today. Thank you again for listening, subscribing, and sharing our conversation. Our show is produced by Jacob Mann, John Strauss, and me, Dakota Pawlicki, with support from Mark Allen, Matthew Jenkins, Amy Bartner and the team at Site Strategics. Well Done Marketing supports the promotion of our show. Debra Humphreys and Kevin Corcoran provide leadership for Lumina Strategic Engagement Activities. If you haven’t yet, please do subscribe and rate our show wherever you’re getting your podcasts, if you have a comment, or an idea for a future show, reach us at, or reach me on Twitter, @dakotapawlicki. Thank you again for being with us, be well, and we’ll see you next time.