With a focus on improving the college experience for students on our campuses across Virginia, this year’s VCCS New Horizons conference (“Beyond Ideas”) attracted 650 faculty and staff to Roanoke March 29-31.
Participants learned techniques from national experts and from one another, all aimed at improving access, learning outcomes, and success for students from every race, ethnicity, gender, and socioeconomic group. A growing body of research concludes that students who feel they belong on campus are likely to earn better grades, have less stress, and take advantage of campus services.
The point was driven home by the opening speaker at the conference. With a background in neurobiology and a Ph.D. in Educational Leadership, Pascal Losambe told the crowd that students notice if they are accepted and belong on our campuses.
“The way you give feedback to students is so essential because those events create new pathways in students’ brains,” said Dr. Losambe. “Validation and positive feedback are critically important to creating a productive relationship and environment, and that goes a long way in determining student success.”
“I loved it, it’s exactly what we need to be thinking about,” said PVCC English instructor Tamara Whyte. “Creating a culture of belonging is really important. We need to be more intentional and thoughtful about the ways we interact with our students, with an eye toward offering positive feedback whenever possible. There’s so much attrition among students, and if we can make them
feel that they belong it can help them stay and connect. This is an important part of building student success. We get so many students who are new to higher ed, they need to know they’re welcome and can do the work.”
Whyte also observed that faculty and staff at our colleges also need to know that they belong.
Conference speaker Chris Reina urged college faculty and administrators to be mindful leaders. Dr. Reina’s research focuses on the intersection of leadership and emotions in the workplace and how they impact performance and well-being.
“Mindful leaders show up with compassion and care,” said Dr. Reina. “A mindful individual understands that everything they say and do, and everything they don’t say or don’t do, sends a message. When you become more aware of your thoughts and emotions, that helps you regulate stress response, meaning you can respond meaningfully rather than just react.”
“It’s important to honor diversity of opinion and for all students to feel that they have a voice,” said Robert Harrison,
librarian at Virginia Peninsula Community College. “Sometimes in an effort to meet the needs of
some students, others may feel they’re being pushed to the side. The trick is to get everybody together and recognize that every student brings unique life experiences with them.”
Harrison’s VPCC colleague Jason Vance agreed, “I’ve seen for myself that positive feedback makes a tremendous difference with students, especially with so many of our students who are new to the world of academics. What I heard here is worthwhile.”
Tim Klein, LCSW, an award-winning urban educator and author, brought the event to a conclusion with evidence-based best practices and practical strategies for discovering purpose and creating a sense of belonging for everyone. He shared exercises in understanding core values and how honoring those values leads to better student outcomes and even better physical health.
“Through the science of purpose, we can create intentional spaces for connection and growth, and inspire our students to find their way in college and in life,” Klein said. “With the right intentionality, even small acts can have a big impact on the lives of our students and staff. As educators, we can amplify the great work that is already being done and inspire others to join us in this important journey.”
In addition to large gatherings, more than 100 break-out sessions offered information on topics ranging from ensuring colleges are ready for students in the post-pandemic era, jump-starting conversations about the value of workforce credentials, and using artificial intelligence to enhance asynchronous instruction.
Conference organizers already have set the dates for next year’s New Horizons gathering: April 10-12, in Roanoke.
You can view and download photos from this year’s conference.