The Student Resource Building at UC Santa Barbara, at first glance, is a convenient study space and home to many departments within Student Affairs. Behind the doors that read “OSL” or “Women’s Center” are winding hallways with offices of university employees working to improve the university experience for students.
UC Santa Barbara was recently ranked No. 5 on U.S. News and World Report’s “Top 30 Public National Universities” list, a ranking based exclusively on “hard objective data,” according to the website’s methodology used to calculate the rankings.
But despite news of UCSB’s ranking sweeping waves across social media, there is more to a university than its numbers; the way that students are supported and included contributes to their academic and professional success.
The Nexus interviewed several directors of Student Affairs departments and found that the university’s main success comes from bolstering the student body; from the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) to Campus Advocacy Resources & Education (C.A.R.E.), the university’s programs help foster a healthy environment.
However, problems also stem from rising enrollment rates, which have left university resource programs struggling to provide for a student body that increases by several hundred students each year.
Aaron Jones, director of EOP, said the needs of students will always exceed the department’s abilities to meet those needs, which consistently leaves departments in a game of catch-up.
“Student Affairs … [has] for decades struggled to keep up with the resources needed to provide for the services the students have either needed, or quite frankly demanded,” Jones said.
Even when departments can predict an influx of students, it is still difficult to prepare for the one-on-one services they might require, said Gary White, director of the Disabled Students Program (DSP).
“I think we’re [servicing] about maybe six percent of our student population and we know the national average is almost 11, 10.9 percent,” White said.
“We know that they’re coming … and we want to have the resources, the firepower, the systems in place so that we can handle when that onslaught comes.
One of the DSP’s most common services is providing alternate testing locations for students during their midterms and finals, which can be difficult given the disproportionate amount of classrooms and labs on campus compared to the number of students, according to White.
“It’s just one of those things where we don’t have time to gripe about ‘oh, this is a roadblock,’ it’s just like ‘alright, we gotta make it a speed bump’ and still keep going forward,” White said.
UCSB is legally mandated to ensure that all students have equal access to educational opportunities on campus, so any failure of the DSP to do so would leave the university open to lawsuits.
As the campus continues to grow, several Student Affairs departments cite concerns about being able to service their students.
For instance, C.A.R.E. – an unusual department at UCSB, as most college campuses don’t dedicate entire offices to student advocacy – Director Brianna Conway said her staffers still find it difficult to always have someone available for a student because of how many students they serve.
Jones also noted a similar problem with the EOP office.
“We’re just going to have to be more mindful of managing time and resources to be as efficient as possible while not losing out on quality or our ability to be able to connect individually with students,” he said.
These problems are the result of minimal funding, a key problem within the University of California system.
“Funding is always an issue,” White said. “We’re getting as much as we can.”
White does his best to “keep folks abreast of the numbers” and continually updates the vice chancellor’s office as enrollment in DSP increases throughout the school year.
Despite these difficulties, White believes DSP offers students who wouldn’t traditionally attend university the opportunity to succeed.
“We know that if someone is qualified to come, there needs to be space for them to be here,” he said.
Several departments in the division of Student Affairs highlight the importance of providing students with a sense of belonging, which in turn can help students succeed academically.
“Research shows that a student is more academically successful and happier when they feel like they belong in a place,” said Katya Armistead, assistant vice chancellor and dean of Student Life.
Armistead overlooks the cluster of Student Affairs departments that revolve around student life, particularly the Office of Student Life (OSL). OSL focuses on fraternity and sorority life, registered organizations and leadership development.
While Armistead feels the OSL has strengthened its relationship with fraternities and sororities in recent years, she now wants to turn attention to registered organizations on campus.
With the recent hire of campus organizations coordinator Justin Littleton, a recent UCSB graduate and former OSL intern, Armistead hopes to see memberships in registered organizations grow with the dedicated attention Littleton will be providing.
Armistead also prides herself on the “one-stop shop” aspect of the OSL.
“People come to us for so many different things and what we try never to do is ‘Oh we don’t do that here.’ We try to at least connect students to where they need to be. We’ll pick up the phone, or we’ll even Google it for them so they don’t have to leave feeling like ‘Well now what do I do?’ ” she said.
As head of C.A.R.E., Conway also sees the same duty as an essential part of her job.
“I always like to think of it as we’re like a hub of the wheel, so the student doesn’t have to navigate all of these [campus entities] by themselves,” Conway said.
Conway and her staff work as direct service providers for students, staff and faculty who are dealing with sexual assault, domestic violence or stalking.
C.A.R.E.’s main office is located in the Women’s Center in the Student Resource Building (SRB); however, the office established a second location in Isla Vista two years ago in order to make itself more accessible to all students.
“Not everyone wants to walk into the women’s center –– what about our male survivors? Or LGBTQ students that … come here for other spaces or events … to come and receive services might not feel as comfortable,” she said.
Conway also notes the lack of graduate students who approach the C.A.R.E. office for assistance.
“I think sometimes grad students don’t feel like there’s a place for them, or that the services aren’t for them or aren’t tailored for them,” she said.
The C.A.R.E. office has grown since Conway first started in 2013, from three full-time staff members and one part-time staff member to an office of eight full-time staff members and several interns.
The inclusion of student interns on staff has helped to bring student insight to the office, Conway said.
The EOP office also relies on a similar peer-to-peer model in developing a sense of belonging for its students, who are primarily, but not exclusively, first-generation students and come from low socioeconomic backgrounds.
“EOP’s mission and history is our ability over the many years to be able to have both a collective and an individual connection to students, and that’s certainly made a difference in my undergraduate career and as a professional staff person. Sometimes for a student at a particular point in life, that [connection] makes all the difference,” Jones said.
While most students develop that sense of belonging through campus organizations, Associated Students (A.S.) President Brooke Kopel wants to help students who aren’t involved in organizations feel at home on campus.
“Our student government, our administrators, our faculty need to be the ones who are making sure students, regardless of whatever they’re involved in, feel welcomed on campus, feel like they can get help when they need it,” she said.
Kopel says that although there is always room for improvement, the university “has the best intentions in mind for its students, even when it falls short at times.”
She believes what makes UCSB great is the pressure from students on the university over the years to make it more inclusive and supportive of its population.
“One of the reasons why … the EOP exists is because students in the mid-60s were demanding that there be some sort of place or home for students who have otherwise been denied access historically to public higher education at colleges and universities,” Jones added.
Jones cites El Centro in particular as a pivotal space for Chicanx students, faculty and community members who find value and comfort in their shared history.
“These spaces have provided a home away from home for first-generation college students whose parents may not necessarily have been able to prepare them for what it’s like to go into a college environment,” he said.
As UCSB continues to support its students academically, Jones hopes the university also sees the value of the holistic support Student Affairs provides in its “direct and immediate” impact on students.
“The need is there, so I think the challenge is how best we can [support our students] with the resources we have, with the needs that are always gonna exceed the resources.”
A version of this article appeared on p.1 of the Sept. 19 print edition of the Daily Nexus.