Educating students and serving their needs as they learn, thrive, and ultimately graduate are the primary reasons why universities like Michigan State exist. So, it is incumbent on administrators like me to understand as much as possible about the experiences students have at Michigan State to help us remove impediments to their success and empower them to shape their MSU experiences. We have many tools at our disposal for learning about the path each student takes through MSU, but in my experience there is no substitute for a face-to-face conversation. That being said, connecting with students directly can be challenging, especially for administrators who seldom have opportunity to work directly with students.
A couple of weeks ago Renata Opoczynski, MSU’s University Innovation Fellow, showed me a YouTube video of UC Riverside’s Chancellor (and former MSU Provost) Kim Wilcox talking to students in a golf cart while riding around campus. Other Provosts and University Presidents have done this kind of thing before, including University of Florida President W. Kent Fuchs and Kansas State University President Richard Myers. The purpose of these videos is to humanize the administrators by showing them in a relatively private setting having what seem like candid conversations. Given the popularity of Top Gear, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, Carpool Karaoke, and Cash Cab, there seems to be something about this format that interests people. And the availability of cheap, small high resolution cameras makes it easy to film.
I wanted to use this format for something different: I wanted students to candidly describe their experiences at MSU as they answered some of my questions. Given that the vast majority of students have no idea what a Provost does, much less an Associate Provost, I saw no need to make me the subject. Instead, I wanted to listen to students talk about their experiences and understand how we as administrators can provide them the space and tools to get as much as possible out of their time at MSU. Filming, editing, and distributing these conversations can also help students develop a vocabulary to express their experiences and to know that other students shared some of their same concerns and hopes.
MSU’s Infrastructure Planning and Facilities loaned us a Gem, a little four-seat electric car that I could drive around the campus’s roads and sidewalks. We outfitted it with recording equipment and gave students rides to class while I asked about them their experiences at MSU. I have been doing it occasionally over the last couple of weeks. I asked students a few common questions, like why did you choose to come to MSU, what have you found most surprising as a student, and what do you wish you knew when you started? Their answers have been both entertaining and illuminating.
We discovered one consistent theme in many of the student’s answers. In their own way, most students talk about how they have trouble choosing from among the myriad of social and academic choices they confront every day. They talk about how they often feel overwhelmed by all the options available to them and anxious that they are not making the most of their time in college. They explain that they feel like they do not have the tools they need to help them make important decisions about how to spend their time. None of them actually use this language, so when I say to them, “What I hear you saying is that you are having trouble weighing the opportunity costs of decisions about how to spend your time,” they generally look at me blankly. Clearly, I have a lot to learn from them about how they think and talk about these things.
In the months to come, we will post short, thematic clips of my rides with students and administrators. Here is a clip of some of the questions to whet your appetite.