The student experience
After stepping down as Elon’s vice president for student life and dean of students, Smith Jackson reflects on some of the major changes he saw during his almost 24-year tenure.
By Tommy Hamzik ’17
When Smith Jackson arrived at Elon, the student center was in Long Building. There was no Global Neighborhood, Rhodes Stadium or Belk Library. Simply put, times were different, and much has changed.
Jackson saw it all during his 23-and-a-half years leading Elon’s division of student life. During his tenure, he was responsible for 15 departments that provide student services and support student development. He was instrumental in shaping the modern Elon, building a student life program that is a national model, fully integrated with the intellectual life of the campus. He was also a highly visible leader on campus, communicating regularly about issues of safety and security and providing a calm and comforting voice in difficult times. Since Jackson arrived, 70 percent of Elon’s alumni base has graduated. We sat down with Jackson, who now serves as assistant to the president, to reflect on some of the changes in student life he has witnessed during his years at Elon.
Q: What was the student experience and student life like when you arrived at Elon?
A: When I arrived at Elon in 1994, there were just over 3,200 students. While students enjoyed the strong relationships with peers, faculty and staff and getting a good education, Elon was still a “suitcase” campus, with few students remaining on campus for the weekends and few things to do. Elon has evolved from being a small, aspiring and ambitious college to what it is today—a nationally-recognized university of 6,700 students. Student and faculty-staff relationships and mentoring have always been central at Elon, as has Elon’s strong sense of community and can-do attitude.
Q: How are students today different from students 20 years ago?
A: Students today are more academically prepared, more geographically and ethnically diverse and have a broader awareness of the world. They’re more willing to engage with faculty and staff as individual people versus via defined roles. Their parents are much more involved in their lives. However, Elon students of today have many of the same characteristics they always seemed to have had. They are, and have always been, bright, articulate, fun-loving, of good character and engaged in the life of the campus. They have always been very well-rounded, ambitious, kind and interpersonally skilled.
Q: What trends can you pinpoint in students over your time at Elon?
A: Students are much more technologically savvy. They’re much more service- and civic engagement-oriented. They’re also more open to differences and more likely to voice their positions. At the same time, greater numbers of students are coming to campuses with more severe mental health issues. A very positive aspect is that students and parents are more open about these issues and therefore more open to addressing them. Openness about learning disabilities has also improved educational access and success for many students.
Q: What issues do students deal with now that weren’t prevalent when you arrived?
A: Many of the issues with which we deal now are the result of increased pressures on students of today. They are constantly bombarded with information and so many choices; making decisions can be challenging. The internet, which was just coming into vogue in 1994, has been ever present in the lives of today’s student body. This has affected the students’ awareness of world events as well as their relationships with peers and the use of social media, positively and negatively. In addition, Elon students of today are very entrepreneurial and innovative, so keeping up with their creative endeavors is a change, as the speed of campus life seems be more rapid.
Q: What are some of the demands for services and amenities students often request, and how has the university balanced those with the rest of the student experience?
A: Students of today expect a good fitness center, good living environments with community spaces, first-rate technology across the campus, an array of dining options, a more vibrant downtown and more student activities on campus, excellence in athletic events and campus speakers, etc. Students are also more particular in the niches they seek, versus the one-size-fits-all approach of the past. They expect 24-hour access to services. The university addresses these increased demands for services and amenities by staying focused on making decisions that emphasize that the campus and programs are designed with student learning in mind.
Q: Elon has become a model for integrated student life. How has that affected the overall student experience?
A: At Elon the focus is on student learning and mentoring. Elon’s philosophy is that learning takes place best when students are involved and invested in the process and that learning occurs not only in the classroom but outside the classroom as well. We see learning as “seamless,” where intellectual and social are not seen as opposites; rather, learning is seen as a function of the whole person and experience—it should be continuous, overlapping and mutually reinforcing. Because we know students learn from each other outside of class, Elon faculty and staff work to intentionally extend learning beyond the walls of the traditional classroom.
Q: What are the biggest accomplishments in the realm of student life during your time at Elon?
A: Some of the biggest accomplishments would have to include deepening the belief that the entire campus and student experiences should be about student learning. I have always been interested in how we can best shape the campus climate and student experiences for students’ growth and learning. I hope I have contributed to creating a campus climate of mutual respect and the valuing of each person, and this includes being fair in handling student situations, always with an eye to what is fair, just and developmental.
Q: How do you see the Elon student experience continuing to evolve in the next 25 years?
A: It would have been hard to predict in 1994 what the Elon student experience of 2017 would have been, so it is impossible to predict the Elon experience of 2042. I do believe Elon has found its niche of being the premier campus in the nation, and even beyond, for engaged learning. The investment of the university in providing a residentially based education is something I would expect will only continue to develop and deepen. To maximize the campus’ learning climate will involve the university continuing to become a more diverse population. Nonetheless, the rate of technology and information will only continue to accelerate, so virtual learning is bound to lower the classroom walls and open up new learning opportunities for engagement across the globe.
Also, I expect opportunities and the need for community engaged partnerships and experiences with different cultures will invest students, faculty and staff more deeply in local and regional, long-term projects. I would expect an even greater emphasis of immersive experiences to further community and cultural engagement. And I believe there will be even more emphasis on and off the campus for students to innovate and create new programs and structures.