The Academic Exchange: How do you envision the relationship between campus life and the academic mission of the university?
Ajay Nair: It’s a passion of mine, but it’s challenging work. What I’m happy about is that there already seem to be strong connections between the academic side and Campus Life. There’s wonderful integration, and it’s a great opportunity to build further.
One of the key areas for us in Residence Life and Housing is building strong living and learning communities, but I wouldn’t want the work to stop there. There are all sorts of opportunities for us when we think about how to connect the academic with the co-curricular. There are lots of spaces where we can create laboratories for students to extend what they learn in the classroom outside of the classroom, whether it’s through leadership opportunities, service and civic engagement, fraternity and sorority life, career exploration. You name it, we’re doing it right now. It’s just a matter of making it the very best in the country. That’s what I came here to do.
AE: What do you perceive as the most critical aspect of Campus Life, with respect to the university’s academic mission?
AN: It’s really about helping students reach their fullest potential. That can mean a lot of things—and it should—because every student is unique and has a particular set of goals and aspirations. It’s our job to guide them in their growth and development while they are here at Emory. It’s a partnership with our faculty and staff, with everyone on campus, to help our students flourish here.
AE: What are the greatest challenges and opportunities in reaching these goals?
AN: We’re an incredibly complex university, so we must work to make this institution easy for students to navigate. We have a wealth of resources and opportunities for students, but how do we make them easily accessible to every student? That’s one of the important things we are doing in Campus Life, along with every person at this institution. I’m referring not just to undergraduate students but graduate and professional students as well. All our students need to know about the many programs and services available at Emory, because if students are able to successfully navigate this institution, they will be able to navigate the world around them. The complexity of the place is a challenge, but it’s also an opportunity.
Communication also presents a challenge because students receive information in many different ways. Through social media alone, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, LinkedIn, Instagram—the list goes on, and they are using multiple forms, plus text and email. What does that mean for us? How are we communicating with our students? We need to meet them where they are. That’s tied to fundamental philosophy in student affairs. It’s important we provide the appropriate level of challenge and the appropriate level of support. How we communicate with our students is the very foundation of all of this. If we do it right, the opportunity to build community, connect other students to faculty and staff, and disseminate knowledge beyond the classroom is something Campus Life can be engaged in.
AE: Considering social media, technology, and the concept of the “flipped classroom,” how do you think students’ experience of Campus Life might change?
AN: I’m working on it right now, in terms of how I will engage with students. I’ll have traditional face-to-face office hours, but I’m going to have virtual office hours as well. Every other Wednesday night from 9 to 10pm, I’ll be available on Twitter, so students can bounce ideas and questions. This supplements face-to-face—it won’t replace it. I heard a quote that in student affairs, we’re not the “sage on the stage” but we “guide on the side.” That’s exactly where I’m headed, and where I hope we’re headed in Campus Life. We have platforms—we could stand on a stage and let everyone know what we’re thinking—but that’s not how students learn. They have access to so much information any time they want, so how
do we guide them through that maze? That’s what Campus Life is trying to do.
AE: What goals have you brought with you to Emory?
AN: My first goal is to listen carefully to faculty, staff, and students, to hear what works at Emory and build on that, making everything we do excellent. I’m interested in building living-learning communities and a learning community generally, bridging the academic and the co-curricular with a couple goals in mind. One is to help students make academic progress. That’s something Campus Life must support. The second goal is to help students feel a sense of belonging and connectedness in their community, which we can achieve through a learning community. These are our primary focus as we build an academic living and learning community.