Empathy Is Where the Future of FDU Begins: Avaltroni

Interim President Michael Avaltroni weighs the challenges that higher education and the university face in today’s economy. With the support of a donor, Avaltroni is championing an initiative that seeks to quickly and dramatically increase support for students’ mental health, in addition to an empathy training program to help faculty and staff better understand students’ challenges to help lift those struggling to succeed.

This is the second of three parts of an interview (read Part One here) conducted by special correspondent Giselle Mendez, a sophomore majoring in accounting. The interview has been edited for conciseness.

Q: What are some of the major challenges now facing FDU?

A: I think the biggest, major challenge is one that probably is not specific to FDU but rather to just higher education. It’s no secret that everything is changing so rapidly, whether it’s ChatGPT writing term papers for students or whether it’s just the way in which higher education and college is perceived right now in the marketplace.

It’s a struggle right now because for many, many years, we were able to just sort of stay the course as an industry, not just us as an institution, but just the industry at large, and build on programming that was always tried and true and reliable, and were things that people came to and sought out with great demand.

We’ve seen a lot of that has changed now, the way in which students require higher education to be delivered, the things that they’re looking for in a school, the things they’re looking for in a major, the things that they are or aren’t looking for in post-high school life. In some cases where college used to be the default, and now suddenly many people are saying, well, is a college degree worth it?

Q: How would you explain the value of college?

A: We know that there’s plenty of evidence that tells us that a college degree is more than worth it, and that the return on the investment you make will be many times the increase of that money that you would lay out, but it’s a hard narrative to fight because colleges are perceived as very expensive and oftentimes doesn’t lead directly or immediately to that high-paying job that students are hoping for as their first job out.

So it’s become a difficult thing, and we realize that we need to adapt our products, if you will, to a new environment — thinking more about how do we incorporate technology into learning, how do we incorporate some of the other support systems, and, frankly, one of the biggest challenges of all is that many of our students are dealing with things for years post-pandemic and in a very, very tumultuous time in society that they’ve never dealt with before, whether that’s challenges with mental health, challenges with just trying to navigate college and life, and in some cases, tremendous responsibilities and burdens that they bring to the college campus.

And so, we must be ready to help them succeed — not just academically like we’ve always done — but with other all of these other pieces as well. Sometimes that’s difficult to do. And sometimes the industry of higher education hasn’t always been very well equipped to do it, so it’s something we really need to quickly adapt our plans for.

Q: That brings me to a follow-up question: What’s being done to address mental health issues? I did see that there’s a Transforming College Campuses initiative. Please explain the project.

A: Sure, so it’s an exciting time for us because this is our first concerted and focused effort on student mental health, and, frankly, just (the direct link that) student support has on student success. One of the things that we really are seeking to do is to build a supportive environment here that understands that students come with burdens and challenges that oftentimes make it difficult to just navigate the academic life that college requires.

So, we built out a number of programs that we’re really focused on, and we were fortunate to have aligned ourselves with a wonderful and generous donor who very much saw the vision of what we were trying to do — an encompassing plan for student success that includes a significant focus on mental health. And, that became the Transforming College Campuses project. It’s just starting out. We literally are just breaking ground on this endeavor now. It’ll be led by a team that includes Dr. Ben Freer, the director of the School of Psychology & Counseling; Tiffany Walker, who is the director of our Student Health Services; Dr. Stephanie Ulrich, who is a faculty member in the Department of Psychology and Counseling; and then supported by Dr. Uchenna Baker, who’s our Vice President for Student Affairs and our Dean of Students; and then other folks who will be coming on board to rally support for this effort.

But the focus largely stems around our ability to really think about all the needs that students have when they arrive on campus. Some of them are, again, the practical needs around like delivering education, like potentially students coming more or less prepared to start certain courses, to potentially needing to offer more foundational courses.

Those are things we’ve always done, and we’ve been comfortable with, but what we realized what this project allows us to do is to think about all the other aspects of support: the social and emotional pieces, the mental health pieces, the navigating-life-pieces with regards to students coming in with burdens financially or burdens with family life or others, and so this project will really take on a look at how we can provide support through mentoring through interventions, where appropriate, through counseling and support, and through other pieces that we’re building out as well, and these include a couple of other big-ticket items.

Q: What kind of training will faculty receive?

A: We are embarking on empathy training for all of our faculty and staff so that they’re better equipped to understand how to be more empathic to our students, to our colleagues, and, frankly, to ourselves, so that we have a greater appreciation for understanding that people come with a story, people come often with burdens, people come often with these challenges, and sometimes that affects whether or not a student can make a deadline or a student can make a meeting or a student is struggling with something that doesn’t just mean they didn’t study for a test or they didn’t write a paper. So, we’re really trying to drive that home to get a better understanding.

We’re also rolling out and deploying a pilot for mental health first-aid training for 150 of our frontline faculty and staff in hopes that they will be better equipped to identify warning signs in students so that they can make the appropriate intervention, to go and suggest to a student that they may want to seek out support services and have a full understanding of what those support services might be and help the student to navigate the systems to make sure that they get what they need in time.

So, these are some of the things that will be a part of this program, and it’ll be coming in and launching very soon. We’re in the build-out phase right now, but I anticipate you’ll start to see the impact of that by the end of this academic year, with a lot more to follow. We have no time to waste. You gotta get it rolling. We’re fortunate, with this gift, it’ll help us to gain momentum much more quickly because we’ll have some funding support to be able to do some hiring and to do some building, and the donor will be underwriting that for us.

Q: COVID affected some more than others, and many are still struggling post-pandemic. How important will mental health support be going forward?

A: To me, it’s front and center to our path going forward. Just because a student is not doing the things that maybe you set out in a syllabus or something else, it doesn’t mean the student is not working hard, and it doesn’t mean that the student is not engaged.

There are burdens and barriers people carry with them to the classroom or to the dorm room or anywhere else. It’s important that we try and understand a greater story beyond just what might be seen at face value. I’ve always said that the student that ends up with an F in Week 16 probably had something happen along the way that wasn’t just, ‘I stopped doing the reading,’ or ‘I stopped writing the papers.’ It’s probably some sort of a cascade of events. Us, understanding those things earlier on, means we can intervene before it becomes too late, and I think that’s a huge piece of being much more proactive and much more engaged, and in some cases, much more of a supporting and nurturing environment that we know will make it a better environment to thrive in.

Check back tomorrow for Part 3 of our exclusive interview with Interim President Michael Avaltroni, when he will discuss university finances and tuition costs.

President Alvatroni stands with students and officials supporting an initiative on student mental health.

Interim President Michael Avaltroni (center) and graduate student Andrea Melchiorre (center, right) join FDU students and officials to promote a February 2023 pledge by Melchiorre and her husband, Anthony, underwriting an FDU initiative to support students’ psychological well-being. Their gift will help the university support a unique program that Avaltroni says will go into effect by the end of the academic year. (FDU photo)