Redefining Student Success with Shonda Goward
When Shonda Goward, associate vice provost of undergraduate advising and student success at San José State, first met with a faculty advisor as a first-generation student at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, her experience was resoundingly negative.
“This person told me, ‘We’re not going to let you take any of the chemistry or physics classes because people from your background don’t do well in the sciences,’” Goward recalls. “I was 17 years old, from the West Coast, in this strange place. There was no first-generation program. No out of state student association. The attitude was just: Figure it out. It was really hard.”
Goward was left to navigate the complicated world of higher education on her own. When, years later, she accepted her first position as an academic advisor, she resolved not to perpetuate this tendency to treat students as statistics rather than individuals ready to explore their potential.
A native of Hayward, California, she started her career as a journalist at ESPN, but when the September 11th attacks occurred, she realized she had to prioritize her true calling: to create more accessible pathways to and through higher education for people of all backgrounds. She earned two graduate degrees, worked in academic advising and directed student success programs at George Washington University and UNC Chapel Hill before moving west in early 2020 to apply her skills closer to home. She served as the director of academic achievement at CSU East Bay before accepting her role at SJSU in 2021.
“I chose to work in the CSU when I came home to California because this is where the need is,” she says. “I’m from a working class family and a working class town, and this is where those students are. I came to San José State because I saw that they were moving in a direction that says, ‘We want to be the crown jewel of the north. We want to graduate our students and have them get into these great careers. We want to close equity gaps.’ And I want to be a part of that.”
Seeking answers in community practice
Goward isn’t afraid to point to the challenges that loom ahead for higher education institutions across the country, especially following the COVID-19 pandemic — notably, fluctuations in enrollment and ongoing efforts to improve retention, as well as to reduce the timeline to graduation. She channeled her energy into building out undergraduate advising at SJSU by shepherding the university’s 10 student success centers under one umbrella, Undergraduate Advising and Student Success, and tapping into the CSU Student Success Network, an association of faculty members, administrators and higher ed leaders throughout the 23-campus system that convenes regularly to address shared problems of practice. This summer, Goward was elected the network’s advisory board chair.
“We’re trying to help people use research to guide our practice,” she says. “Everyone’s got more work than they have time; often we don’t slow down to look at the research. We want to spread high-impact practices across all 23 campuses by having conversations with folks who are going through the same things.”
So how can faculty members, academic advisors and support staff best meet student needs?
One way to support students is to ensure that staff serving them have support themselves. In addition to hiring additional academic advisors to address the 30,000+ enrolled Spartans each year, Goward received a $10,000 Advisor Wellness grant from the National Academic Advising Association’s Region 9 and the Stupski Foundation to develop tools to mitigate staff burnout.
“I remind my [academic advising] team that we are not counselors on this campus, because counselors are licensed clinicians who handle mental health,” Goward says. “So although we have a holistic framework — we want to support the whole student — there’s a boundary we have to meet. Our project is called ‘Know the Ledge,’ based on the song by Eric B. and Rakim, and it’s about knowing the edge of where advising is supposed to stop and where other support services are supposed to begin.”
She hopes that by hiring 19 additional academic advisors and reducing the ratio of advisors to students to a more manageable number, as well as providing additional resources and professional development for advisors in all colleges, she can help her staff differentiate the “ledge” between academic support and other necessary student support services, such as help with housing, mental and physical wellness, and financial aid.
“Dr. Goward is a national leader in student success with deep experience with the application of the best practices in student success to academic advising,” says Vincent Del Casino, Jr., provost and senior vice president of academic affairs at SJSU. “She has brought that expertise here and is helping us become a ‘student-ready’ campus. In this work, she is joined by a deeply committed group of professional academic advisors who, under her leadership, are not only working with students everyday but analyzing how we can get even better in our service for those students.”
Spartans today can access services and community resources such as SJSU Cares, Counseling and Psychological Services, The Chicanx/Latinx Student Success Center (El Centro), the Black Leadership and Opportunity Center (BLOC), the Center for Asian Pacific Islander Student Empowerment (CAPISE), the UndocuSpartan Center, and the newly-created Native American and Indigenous Student Success Center. She hopes that as a unit Undergraduate Advising and Student Success can reinforce these community building efforts, while also ushering students of all backgrounds through a seamless experience in higher education.
“In the U.S., when it comes to educating limited-income, low-wealth, racially minoritized folks, we do a terrible job,” she says. “Sometimes it’s system after system that fails people. In this seat, I get to work on helping the system not fail by helping people find the places where we can actually make a change so that the system works and people can graduate in a timely fashion, get into the careers they want and thrive.”