Q&A with Jennifer Baszile
Interim Vice Chancellor for the Division of Student Affairs and Success at UC Santa Cruz
Interviewed by: Darío León, Research and Community Coordinator
Jennifer Baszile is the Interim Vice Chancellor for the Division of Student Affairs and Success at UC Santa Cruz. In this role, Jennifer leads a diverse and talented group of professional and student staff who provide campus-wide coordination and leadership for student affairs and success programs and activities across departments, divisions, colleges, and administrative units. Jennifer joined UC Santa Cruz July 1, 2019 as the assistant vice chancellor for Career Success. In this role she refocused the Career Center to better meet the needs of our students as she worked to expand student work opportunities, internships and post-graduation employment. Prior to joining UC Santa Cruz, Jennifer was dean of Student Success and Career Development at Trinity College where she led retention and student success efforts, and created a pre-orientation program for first-generation and low-income college students. Jennifer is an award-winning researcher and former professor at Yale University where she taught American history and African American studies.
Can you please tell us a bit about your current role and how that fits in the new vision for the Division of Student Affairs and Success?
Jennifer: I’m the person who leads the team of wonderful professionals who support students in many aspects of their lives outside the classroom – such as their careers – and who help to provide resource centers and student-focused organizations such as: SOMeCA, Student Health Center, Basic Needs, and Student Success Equity Research Center to reference a few areas in our portfolio.
Based on a review of the Division of Student Success, recommendations were made to the chancellor to bring together student affairs expertise focused especially on student success. In July 2020, the name was changed to the Division of Student Affairs and Success. More than just a name change, it was also a look at the way that synergies could be expanded and created to promote student success. We have quite a few goals for the newly formed division. In addition to promoting student success, organizational health is a top priority, as well as improving engagement, student wellness, and a sense of belonging. Much of the work we do in support of students requires the development of thriving, healthy, sustainable and positive units and staff.
What have you learned about students at UC Santa Cruz?
Jennifer: Since I arrived in July of 2019, I’ve seen that students at UCSC are deeply curious. They are amazing, and are some of the most inquisitive students I’ve ever encountered in the best possible way. They bring a lot of strengths from their communities and from their experiences that help create a dynamic environment. There are challenges in supporting students, but I appreciate and respect the passion and energy that the students bring. I have a particular appreciation for students who are the first in their families to attend a university, and for our Pell-eligible students because they bring so much energy, vitality, expectation and hope to their experience. It enriches the entire campus.
Can you share some strategies for furthering diversity, equity and inclusion at UCSC?
Jennifer: I think the main challenge is creating more alignment between aspiration and experience. How do they play out and how do they remain prioritized day-to-day in the classroom, the co-curricular, the residential, and the off-campus experience? A way that I like to think about those questions is through the lens of student success itself. When we talk about the work of being a Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI), what does it mean to be a research university as well as a Hispanic-serving institution? At some level, a part of that question is: how do you have research excellence, student success, and servingness at the center of the university mission? When I think about furthering diversity, equity and inclusion and talk about it in terms of how we create institutional transformation at the national level ― which is what the HSI grants are about ― we have to ask how we focus on servingness and create it throughout the university? It may feel like a jumble, but it’s really not. It’s always focusing on eliminating the space between the aspiration and the experience. It won’t be perfect but I think that servingness, institutional transformation, barrier identification and removal, are some of the key ways we can catalyze priorities and align them in the most impactful manner. Our students have a lot of important information and insight to share with us about their experiences on this campus. Involving, engaging, and working with them in constructive ways is positive in institutional transformation and on servingness.
Another big concept is to be committed to a culture of constant assessment and evaluation. We can’t track and change what we don’t measure. We have to find ways to understand both qualitatively and quantitatively what student experiences are telling us and what are the points of intervention and improvement. That’s important because I believe there are a lot of good, hard-working people who are students, staff, and faculty, who are really committed, but it’s hard to remain committed when you don’t know how much impact your work is having. This is where assessment and evaluation comes in.
How can units across campus best support student success during COVID-19?
Jennifer: One way that we’re working on these questions in the Division of Student Affairs and Success is to keep track of the disparate impacts of COVID-19 and other pandemics on the communities our students come. People are talking about this as not one pandemic, but multiple pandemics happening in the country. One strategic priority within the division this year is a priority on urgency and curiosity. The strategic priority of understanding the nature of the crisis and pandemics catalyzes the work and the way we go about it.
Another way to provide support is to understand the tremendous impact this is having on students, families, and their communities due to the intersecting crises of joblessness, homelessness, death, disease and trauma. There are ways in which the communities our students come from are being deeply impacted and transformed, and that’s why curiosity matters so much in this context. It is understanding who our students are and the communities from which they come from, not from a deficit perspective, but from a lived experience perspective. That’s important as we create the structures for success. It’s necessary to understand what our students are experiencing to understand how to adapt strategies for student success to be responsive to the challenges that our students are confronting and bringing with them to this experience.
One of our priorities in the division is to focus on the wellness of our students during this time, and I don’t mean their health. We’re not talking about a disease model, we’re talking about a wellness model. What do our students require of us to be able to experience a holistic kind of student success, because you cannot tease apart all their lived experiences. Students bring their whole selves into the classroom, so the way that we engage them and prioritize their success, has to similarly be holistic and multidimensional. That’s where that curiosity and urgency can make a difference in programming and additional resources that will help students navigate the challenges they are experiencing moving through wellness, mental health, and basic needs. All of these factors are important in the way that we’re supporting students, and I know that many units across campus are working hard on that. Prioritizing the use of synergy and interdepartmental, interdivisional collaboration, will make a major difference. Great things are happening across the campus, and working in partnership can amplify that work and connect students to the work in ways that can make a difference.
What led you to this type of work?
Jennifer: I started out in higher education because I had a teacher in college who was a brilliant researcher and writer who, literally, in one class lecture ― History of the South with Barbara Fields at Columbia University ― changed my life. That deep curiosity was what led me to graduate school. I loved the research and the writing, and I knew from personal experience the transformational power of teaching. I thought I was going to be a faculty member and became one at both the University of Connecticut and Yale University. I started to understand that my students were having experiences that I couldn’t help impact or change as a faculty member, so I knew there was a different path I wanted to pursue.
I stepped away from higher education for a bit and came back on the administrative side. I was first focused on inclusive excellence in a consortium setting. I started to work in areas of student success, career development and career success. What led me to this type of work was a passion to help students and institutions make good on the promise of higher education – to have those transformational experiences. Catalyzing social and economic mobility seems like the best job in the world. It is what gets me up every morning excited and grateful to do the work. When I first got to UC Santa Cruz, people would ask me, “Why did you come here?” I would say I came here for the students, and I still believe that. There is something unique about UC Santa Cruz and I don’t just mean the landscape. It is a unique institution in the landscape of American higher education: an R1, HSI and MSI (Minority Serving Institution), grappling and struggling with challenges in real time, with a student demographic population that looks like the present and the future of California and in this country. There’s not a better job in higher education for me and I’m grateful to be here doing this type of work.
You worked in higher ed on the East Coast for so long, what is it like coming back to California?
Jennifer: It’s exciting and a bit startling. I previously lived in Connecticut and that is a state where there is tremendous economic and socioeconomic disparity. I was struck by the scale of socioeconomic variety in California. I knew it when I left, but to see it in this area is unique. The challenge around housing has been a re-education for me as well; not a surprise, but a re-education. I will say, California is an even more amazing place than when I left. That doesn’t mean it’s perfect, but it’s even more amazing; the scale of possibilities here is so different. I grew up in suburban Los Angeles. It was very cloistered, sheltered, and stratified; even more so now than before. So it’s not that it’s anything new, although there is a lot of new innovation in industry, it’s the scale of the challenge that is different. When I left to go to college, the cost of tuition and the representation of family income was much different. Now, the role of public research universities is that much more important for creating opportunities for students to have this experience.
I think Santa Cruz is terrific. It took me a while to adjust but I love it; it’s beautiful. As I mentioned, I grew up in a sheltered community and left California intent on having a different experience, when I was 18 years old. I wanted to grow and see the world, so I went to the place that I thought was the least like the place where I grew up, which was New York City. I had a fantastic undergraduate experience which led me to graduate school, and then to the professional opportunities that I had in neighboring states. The rest of my professional and adult life was on the East Coast so it was time to come back. It feels like that was the right choice in my life.