UGA welcomed 400 Student Affairs staffers from across Southeast for Engage! Conference
By Marilyn Primovic
UGA Student Affairs presented the Engage! Conference, dedicated to student affairs practitioners in the Southeast, on Friday, Sept. 14.
The conference brought together knowledge from a variety of schools by hosting 30 presenters from outside of UGA with attendees from 15 other colleges and universities, said James Crawford, assistant director for staff development for UGA Student Affairs.
“The conference was designed to have diverse sessions for attendees to choose from while also providing them with a shared experience through networking and learning,” said Crawford. “This has the potential to enhance employees’ feelings of connection, which are key elements to employee satisfaction and engagement.”
He said attendance increased to more than 400 this year, and plans are in the works to continue to extend this professional development opportunity to more colleagues at UGA and throughout the Southeast.
Student Mental Health
Victor Wilson, vice president for UGA Student Affairs, opened the conference by relating the importance of knowing generational trends to his personal college experience.
“While I arrived at UGA as a student with a manual typewriter, I remember sharing some of the needs our students have today,” said Wilson.
He said he needed a sense of belonging that many students continue to desire, but students today face different challenges.
To address these challenges, the keynote speaker, Dr. Jean Twenge, San Diego State University professor of psychology, presented research about the dramatic change in teen mental health between 2011 and 2012.
“More teens, who are now college students, said they felt left out, lonely, and that they can’t do anything right,” said Twenge. “These are classic symptoms of depression.”
She argued this generational change is likely due to smartphones. She said college students spend less time engaging in off-screen activities, which could directly impact their campus experience.
“Find a way for smartphones to light the way instead of making the way darker,” said Twenge. “Technology can be useful if it is used collectively and not individually.”
The 34 conference session options aimed at providing a well-rounded conference experience to attendees, said Crawford.
He said the biggest success of the conference was watching people leaving sessions discussing the content with one another.
“We offered a broad range of topics including mentorship, new professionals and graduate students, assessment and data literacy, considering access and inclusion with campus programming, personal resiliency, health and wellness in the workplace, and student support and advocacy,” explained Crawford.
The session titled “Adjusting to Thrive: Acculturation Stress of International Students and Their Stories” combined research from UGA’s School of Social Work with a panel presentation of international students from the UGA International Student Advisory Board.
“It is important to hear research about stressors for all international students, while reminding practitioners who attended the session that we must continue to challenge ourselves to meet students’ individual needs rather than making generalized assumptions,” said Justin Jeffery, director of UGA International Student Life.
Julianne O’Connell, UGA University Housing graduate resident and session attendee, shared how she learned about the stress of finances and immigration papers.
“Imagine your home country experiences economic setbacks and the value of your currency drops,” said O’Connell. “Suddenly, you do not have as much money in your host-country currency as you think you do.”
O’Connell also explained how, even with the best intentions from their peers, not all international students desire to be labeled as such all the time.
“It is such a huge umbrella term that does not adequately encompass all of the stories and experiences of these individuals,” she said.
“A major takeaway was that international students desire opportunities to both be the ‘international student’ and share their culture and experience, while also needing opportunities to leave that label behind,” said Jeffery.
O’Connell said she was happy to come away with several ideas on how to better serve the international student population in her role as a graduate resident.
“I am glad that my work allows me to be a part of these students' experiences, and I consider it an honor to work to make those experiences better,” she said.
Another conference session, “Deskercise: Staying Active throughout Your Work Day,” addressed the importance of movement throughout the day and how to exercise at your desk, said Heather Arnold, public relations coordinator for UGA Recreational Sports and session attendee.
“We took the participants through a mini workout in our session,” said Lisa Williamson, UGA Recreational Sports assistant director of fitness and wellness. “It was wonderful to see everyone smiling and enjoying themselves.”
Arnold said she learned the dangers of prolonged sitting to her overall health and intends to use Deskercise to move more throughout her workday.
“Increased physical activity assists in a number of positive changes in the body including a surge of endorphins that make you feel happy and energized after a workout,” said Williamson.
She stressed how regular physical activity reduces the risk of orthopedic surgery, heart disease, high blood pressure, abnormal blood lipid profiles, stroke, type two diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and cancer. However, the benefits do not end there.
“Deskercise can help staff sharpen their time management skills and mental performance at work,” said Williamson.
She said her favorite Deskercise move is the book or purse row, which is performed in a squatting position with a book in hand to strengthen the upper back muscles.
“The arms pull the book or purse to the chest while engaging the latissimus dorsi and rhomboids, then you slowly lower the book back down,” Williamson said.
While reflecting on the conference sessions, James Crawford, UGA Student Affairs assistant director for staff development, said applying the insights from the sessions is a recipe for continued professional growth and success.
“The high caliber of program proposals combined with the outstanding behind the scenes efforts by our campus partners made for an incredible conference attendee experience,” said Crawford.