That’s Texas Woman’s University’s (TWU) vision—an aspiration it’s bringing to life every day as one of the country’s most treasured learning institutions. With an enrollment of about 15,000 students, TWU is the nation’s largest university primarily for women with one of the most ethnically diverse student bodies in the U.S. This is a place led by people who wholeheartedly believe in a quality education that is affordable and accessible, which is why it offers more than $15 million in scholarships annually.
I’m fortunate to have partnered with TWU over the last few years to reimagine and expand its historic Hubbard Hall in Denton, TX. The experience was an absolute career highlight, and I was honored to get to work closely with Dr. Monica Mendez-Grant, Vice President for Student Life at TWU. The two of us recently caught up and she shared how the institution has navigated the past 18 months, what equity and accessibility mean to TWU, how to bring a new student union online amidst the pandemic, and what she envisions for student life moving forward.
In what ways is Texas Woman’s University working to make higher education more accessible?
We’re always looking at new modes of learning and what we can do to remove barriers and access to education. We want to educate our students holistically, and no doubt, the pandemic has made that more challenging. Honestly, I’m proud of all TWU has done to pivot toward online learning and outreach to our students during this challenging time.
Beyond the pandemic though, I see three cornerstones we are focusing on to increase access to education at TWU:
- Develop clear, coherent, and obstacle-free pathways for learning. Universities tend to create lengthy processes and bureaucracies, but TWU is focused on creating clear paths on which all students can better understand what they need to do to achieve goals and ultimately, their degree.
- When it comes to infrastructure, TWU has many buildings that are hundreds of years old and they are not all very easy for students to move in, through and/or out. We’re working on addressing this across every building on campus to ensure every student can get where they need to go and keep up with coursework.
- We’re also infusing financial literacy into our learning dialogue. We need students to understand this to best prepare them for an equitable future.
I love TWU’s purpose: “Educate a woman. Empower the world.” It’s so incredibly powerful. How does this purpose come alive in the student life experience at TWU?
I LOVE our mission and purpose so deeply. We believe that in educating our students, we are educating and fulfilling not only that young woman’s life, but also her future generations.
I also LOVE that I truly feel all of us at the university are working to provide educational experiences that empower our students and give them a voice in their education—and they can in turn use that voice in society. We are working to ensure each student recognizes she has a purpose in life and can contribute to society as an engaged citizen to help make our world a better place.
TWU has been recognized as having one of the most ethnically diverse student bodies in the nation—number 5 nationally in U.S. News & World Report’s 2021 Best Colleges rankings. In what ways does TWU create inclusive on-campus experiences that celebrate this diversity?
Creating a diverse, accessible and inclusive student experience requires ever-present commitment and continuous work. Diversity is the intersection of a student’s life that makes her unique and one-of-a-kind. Our Student Affairs team and Student Union work cohesively around ensuring we provide spaces, programs and functions that foster dialogue to ensure a campus climate where each and every student feels welcome and deeply valued as her authentic self.
We are committed to and working toward creating spaces where students who have not been historically represented in large numbers in higher education are welcomed, and more importantly, feel a sense of belonging.
For example, in our new union, one of the things we did early on was involve students directly in programming designed to foster deeper understanding that helps challenge assumptions about real and perceived differences. It’s already echoing positive change in that building and across campus.
How has the mission of student unions changed since you began your career in student life? Are you seeing student expectations change related to on-campus experiences?
One big shift is now we’re fulfilling our mission both actively and passively. We are working to combat social issues in passive ways. For example, by adding more light and integrating seating into a space, we can passively combat social isolation on campus. In creating shared spaces, we can program opportunities for connection and idea-sharing between students. So, I wouldn’t say our mission is changing, I’d just say we’re always identifying new ways—both direct and indirect—to affect positive change.
It was a thrill for our team to help TWU reimagine Hubbard Hall. Having now experienced the pandemic and its impacts on campus life, would you change anything about the re-design?
If we were starting today, we’d definitely think differently about the meeting spaces in the building. The ratio of smaller group spaces to medium and large, that would evolve. We’d focus more on the larger spaces.
Looking back now, I also wish we’d have incorporated more outdoor WiFi access. Because of the pandemic, people want to meet outside. I wish we’d made a few more decisions that helped us better activate and program the outdoor areas around the building for our students.
Crystal ball time. What do you see 10 years out for student unions and student life?
One thing that won’t change is our reliance on the student union to create a welcoming environment and a sense of belonging for our students. That’s a focus for the next decade plus. But there’s a few things I do think we need to evolve:
- Flexibility. We learned through the pandemic how important it is to have flexible and adaptable spaces. Our union was used for academic classes the past year to help with social distancing across campus. The more we can do to be ready for anything, the better we’ll be.
- New Services: I think unions will play an increased role in facilitating wrap-around services, including serving as food pantries, creating safe study environments, health and wellness resources.
- Student Affairs Staffing: Our industry is in a touch of a crisis as the average professional life for student affairs professionals is around five years currently. The more we can shape unions that not only empower students but also facilitate a sense of belonging for faculty and staff, the more we can help on that front, too.