Q&A: VP for Student Life Shivers talks First Gen Summit, late-night programming

Vice President of Student Life Melissa Shivers and Tanya Villhauer, Student Life’s director of student well-being and harm reduction, sit down with the DI in a wide-ranging discussion about late-night programming, the First Generation Summit, and administrator searches.


Katie Goodale

UI Vice President for Student Life Melissa Shivers speaks in an interview with The Daily Iowan on Feb. 21, 2019. (Katie Goodale/The Daily Iowan)

Daily Iowan Staff

Tanya Villhauer: With our alcohol harm-reduction plan, we have five goals and a lot of strategies under each of those goals. And one consistent strategy that we’ve used is the late-night programming. And this past year, we’ve really had some traction and some willingness and desire to take another look at that, and make it more robust, and provide more opportunities for our students, and really back it with some funding, some very rich funding to be able to expand.

So, Melissa had asked us to really kind of take a look and develop a really comprehensive plan: what are our goals, what do we want our outcomes to be, and we measure if this is successful or not. So, there was a committee of us that really sat down and did that, and it’s been exciting and really, we had been doing a lot of really good work with it.

Because we had kept data to identify, you know, the students, why they would come, we also kind of looked to see, if they were there, if they were doing that activity, and then choosing not to drink. You know, it’s kind of like we tried to really come from the lens of is this providing truly an alternative opportunity for students to be engaged without alcohol.

So, some of the things we did with the new plan is we really identify so what does late-night programming mean. That’s the term that we the staff and the administration use, but that’s not really the term I think the students use. And the students really are ones that are planning, and getting excited, and saying, “Hey, what do we want to offer,” but we did decide that Thursday through Saturday, any activities that start at least at 10 o’clock, you know, it can start earlier, but it has to at least go until midnight.

Rec Services was a great partner. It decided to keep its doors open later on that Thursday night to midnight, so it kind of started what is our definition, how are we going to know if this is a late-night program.

Then other opportunities that were brought to the table, of course, were housing. Res-Ed and Housing are wonderful partners. They asked and encouraged if CAB could really take over and do more programming in the residence halls, instead of the RAs kind of trying to plan events or things for their residents, so that’s become a very regular. I think they alternate, they do one on each side of the campus, they can kind of provide the specifics for that.

So, we kind of looked at our internal partners that have always been partners and how we can kind of do more with that.

The other really important piece was to make sure that we are collecting data to understand and to reach our goals of making sure that these programs are reaching students, and that they are, if they are participating, maybe doing that instead of drinking alcohol.

And so, you’ve probably heard Swipe, I don’t know if that’s the major, you know term that is being used campus-wide, that is the term that we use —

RELATED: Recent data show high-risk drinking more common in UI community

DI: Is that primarily how you’re measuring who’s coming?

Villhauer: Yes, exactly, and so we looked at what are we able to get. And so we now are really able to identify if the users of these programs are unique users. So, do they come, you know, do the same people come over and over, or are we getting a variety of students, so we’re able to collect that data without knowing exactly, you know, students come.

But that’s been a really important piece, and then we also are really trying to identify our high-risk drinking groups, as well as our low-risk drinking, and we really want it so that we can collect from that data, too, to see if we’re reaching those two groups.

Shivers: I think just the use of providing alternatives. I think oftentimes students aren’t sure of what kind of things they can get involved in or engaged with after 10 o’clock at night, and I think a very concerted, a very planned effort to provide events that are not just events that we want you to come to, but they are also events that have an intentional outcome. Something that you’re going to learn, opportunities to engage with other students that you haven’t had an opportunity to do that with, but most importantly to recognize that there are a lot of other things to do in Iowa City, and that going downtown specifically to bars is not the only option.

I’m really excited to see what happens, because we have utilized the Swipe data. We have a better understanding of the demographics of the students that are coming to our events, but most importantly, it helps us to know who’s not coming. Because if they’re those students, and this is one of those things that keeps me up at night, I always worry about that students who haven’t really found their home yet on campus, and they’re sitting in their residence-hall rooms alone. And at the end of the fall term, or the end of the spring term, they say to themselves, “I’m not sure that I fit at Iowa.” Not because there is anything wrong with them, but because they didn’t have opportunities or know of the opportunities to get engaged. And so as many ways as we can try to connect with those students who may not be sort of the students who are the most involved, students who are just looking for ways to get involved in ways that are easier and more accessible for them, those are very important student populations that we need to get connect with.

And if late-night programming is one of the ways that we’re able to do that, then I believe that our role in helping to assist with retention and persistence to graduation through this kind of programming is great for us. I think it certainly supports the university’s strategic plan around student success. We’re just getting to that success differently. We’re removing barriers, providing opportunities, and that’s really important, so this late-night programming, as we’ve called it — something that students don’t recognize is called late-night programming, they just know that it’s happening late, and night, and it’s a program. We’re just getting started at 10 p.m., so how wonderful is it to have something that’s planned and coordinated just for us that also has some pretty incredible outcomes as it relates to their success and their ability to get engaged.

DI: Before the Swipe technology, how were you measuring who was coming?

Villhauer: They have a written survey that they would kind of pass out and then collect, so you know, it won’t help you get everybody, but they have definitely have done that for the last 10 or nine years. This is just a little bit more efficient, technology-wise.

Shivers: I’m not sure, though, about the demographic data. Were we also collecting that through the surveys?

Villhauer: No, it’s just like, you know, would you have been drinking if you hadn’t come to this event. Yeah, I can’t remember exactly, but yeah, definitely not the demographic data. It just was pretty much more about did you like the program, what would you be doing, I don’t know there’s a couple, and again, I don’t know exactly what was in those.

Shivers: It helps us to also know, if there’s — if we recognize that there are not students coming from Catlett, it provides us an opportunity to do more targeted recruitment at Catlett. Does that make sense? So when we say demographic data, it means where do people live. Where are students coming from? Do we have more students coming from Burge, more students coming from Catlett? If they’re not coming from Catlett, why are they not coming from Catlett? Do they just not know about it? So, we can be much more intentional and thoughtful about engaging as many students as possible.

The unique user piece is really important for me, because I really want to know, do we have the same people coming, or are we reaching a broader audience? The resources, the financial, and the human resources that we are putting into these initiatives need to also demonstrate a broader reach, and if they’re not, there’s some things we need to do to try to enhance that, but we won’t know it until we have the data. That really helps us to understand where our students are coming from and perhaps where where they’re not. And I think that’s a really important component for me.

Villhauer: And I think that all links with as far as where they live, too, our off-campus students. You know, think of our transfer students who come here and don’t live in the residence halls and have a kind of automatic or a group that’s just naturally there for them. And even our first-year students, we have 600 or so who choose to live off campus. And then communication. This is the thing we hear over and over, is, “Well, there’s nothing else to do but drink.” But again, how do we as a university provide all these options and let the students know what they want to know when they’re ready to know about it, you know, just in time.

Shivers: Just in time, there you go, yes. We’re looking forward to the opportunities this semester, and certainly going into the next fall when we have a whole new group for students who are returning who maybe haven’t had a chance to engage in the programming. We hope to get more of those students engaged and involved.

• • •

DI: Student governments started working with the university to fund late-night programming in 2010, so was that something that wasn’t in the first harm-reduction plan? How does that factor into the plan now?

Villhauer: No, late-night activities has always been in the plan.

• • •

DI: With the announcement of the gift from the Graduate last week, are there any additional partnerships outside of the university that you are looking into?

RELATED: Graduate Iowa City donates to UI to fund alcohol-alternative activities

Shivers: Yeah. Well, I would say that we are always looking for donors who have an interest in supporting our students’ experience. This partnership with the Graduate was kind of a surprise and a unique opportunity, but also demonstrated to us that there’s an interest in supporting these kinds of activities, and now we have more of, I think, a stronger partnership with the Center for Advancement to help us think about how do we retool that messaging and perhaps start to share with other prospective donors about the opportunity to be able to support these initiatives. So, the hope … is certainly that we’ll be able to identify a lot more people who can help support this initiative.

My dream is that every student who comes to the University of Iowa would have an awareness, and we would love it if they had the opportunity and engaged in the opportunity to participate in these types of activities. And the more financial support that we can receive to broaden the scope and increase the number of programs is only going to benefit our students.

I can’t find anything that tells me that this could be bad for students. Right, I just can’t manufacture up anything that says this could go in a different direction, because the intent and the outcomes and what we know in terms of the students who have engaged and who have talked about the fact that this did provide them with the alternative to going to downtown. There are lots of plusses there. And I think we can start to tell that story more to prospective donors. Because I don’t know that we have, quite frankly, but now, I think we are certainly being much more intentional about that.

Villhauer: In addition, so we have the partnership for alcohol safety, which is a campus/community partnership and the executive director for the Iowa City Downtown District. She is definitely a great partner, I mean, and a lot of businesses and the mayor and our Iowa City police … but she also has expressed an interest, and she actually just sent out a survey to some of the business owners of helping them to understand that hey, we do want to have spaces for students.

And so there could potentially be some, you know, merge. These places down there that would be able to have activities or events and things. And I think that UISG has partnered with some, last year, for some events, and the nighttime mayor, which they are in the process of hiring a new one. So, we definitely will be looking for more opportunities to partner with our downtown partners.

• • •

DI: And back to the demographic data, who is coming and not coming right now?

Villhauer: Yeah, Nellie, I guess could provide that data.

Shivers: Yeah, I don’t have that data. Because we just really started with the Swipe [technology] at the end of fall, so the hope is that we’ll be able to collect much more and be able to understand more about that at the end of the spring, because we’d have had an entire semester to be able to collect data.

Villhauer: But it’s definitely in process. It’s baking. Being baked.

Shivers: And it’s happening across many different units. The Student Resource Centers are using the Swipe cards in order to sort of understand who is using the cultural resource centers, which I think is also pretty cool, too.

Villhauer: There are a lot of departments in the Division of Student Life, Student Wellness has programs.

Shivers: People are just curious to know who are we missing, and more importantly, who are we not. But an important point is who are we also getting to attend and learning more about how do we choose to attend. So, for that those students who are not, we can sort of market and communicate about the why, based on other students’ experiences. Does that make sense?

So, we can say what we’ve heard from a lot of our students is that they attend late-night programming because it gave them an opportunity to connect with their peers in ways that they would not have had this program not been provided.

So for the student who I talked about earlier who’s sitting in the residence halls alone trying to figure out how to get connected, this will be an amazing data point. We’ll be able to reach them and say, “Oh my goodness, there are other ways that I can get engaged, and it doesn’t have to just be in the residence halls.” So, I think it’s exciting.

I’m a data nerd, so I really enjoy combing through it and trying to make meaning of it. I’m a qualitative researcher, so I really enjoy sort of the why people experience things and what are the ways that we can better support them. So I think this is … This’ll be something for you all to follow, I hope, certainly going into the next year to see how we’re able to fine-tune things based on what we’re learning from our students.

• • •

Shivers: The one thing that I do, and I didn’t talk about it here, is that we’re continuing to try to solicit for gifts from lots of other folks, but the Graduate is one that just approached us and said we’d love to be able to, to support.

I think as Tanya said, we certainly have lots of interest in others, it’s not just an opportunity for the Graduate, but what I hope, based on what Tanya said, is that we’ll have even more downtown businesses who will want to jump on board to create spaces in their current locations that can be more accessible to students for the purpose of late night programming.

DI: Given your office has supported the UISG First Gen Summit funding, what is your response to the legislation not passing?

Shivers: Sure. So I am a tremendous supporter of course, and I know Hira is as well, of the First Gen Summit. And I do my best to not try to sort of figure out what’s right and what’s wrong, but I try to do a really good job of supporting the students and having good conversations about their why and so that they can be responsive to the campus community. And I think as members of UISG, they have a very important role in managing and providing services and needs for students, addressing needs for students.

And I think the First Gen Summit does a tremendous job in reaching out to a community that sometimes people don’t even know that they’re a part of. Like, I didn’t know that I was part of a First Gen community when I was in undergrad, and once I found out, I wasn’t sure that I was proud of that, because it felt like lots of people had a background that I didn’t have. So the fact that we’ve been able that UISG quite frankly has been able to move this conversation forward has been, I think, has been incredible.

I also think that Hira and UISG have a very challenging job in making sure that they are thoughtful and intentional about the ways that resources are used. And I feel very confident that they will be able to find a middle ground, so that the program the First Gen Summit can continue and will be successful I believe for many years to come.

RELATED: UISG president vetoes First Generation Summit legislation

• • •

DI: How is the 2020 returning sorority-life strategic plan?

Shivers: My goal is to get the plan back to review it and then to be able to start to socialize it within the [Fraternity/Sorority Life] community. Because then what I think is going to be important is that we have a plan that people will buy into and will help us to be able to move it forward.

… I currently have meeting scheduled once a month with [Interfraternity Council] and Panhellenic, so we’re meeting monthly already before the plan ever is sort of unveiled for us to talk and support those plans, and ideas, and beliefs. And we have some culture change to do, but I also believe that they can do it. I truly do believe that they can do it. I’m super-positive so far, and I can only see it getting better.

• • •

DI: The UI announced it had canceled the white privilege workshop in January. Are there any plans for that event to continue in the works or is it still canceled?

RELATED: UI cancels white privilege workshop following ‘stakeholder concerns’

Shivers: … This is one of those, again, that I will certainly share [at a later time] to talk about what the next steps might look like.

• • •

DI: Do you have any updates on the administrative searches related to your roles as VP for Student Life and interim chief diversity officer?

Shivers: This is really exciting news. Last week, I think they held Skype interviews for, I don’t know the exact number of candidates, but I know that there were quite a few folks that the committee spoke with, and that they were looking forward to bringing folks on campus early in March, so that process is moving quickly, much quicker than I anticipated it would, which is exciting I think for the campus community for sure, but especially for the departments that will have an opportunity to work with the person who’ll come into the role.

I don’t know that you know this, but I shared at the update we were also going to have a program review for the Division of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion prior to a new person coming on board. Usually what a program or administrative review really is about is our opportunity to have sort of external review by team members, our external folks who are very aware and work in the field of diversity equity and inclusion to come in and sort of look at what programs are we doing, what services are we providing, what are we doing got strengthen those, what are we doing incredibly well, and then what are some things that we can start doing that we’re not doing or things that we can enhance in order to better support the diversity equity and inclusion experience at Iowa.

I think that is especially connected to what we’re working on as it relates to a diversity, equity, and inclusion strategic plan. All of those pieces are somehow magically coming together very well in terms of a person being identified, a plan, to sort of support [Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion] and also a program review that helps us to understand are there other things and successes and opportunities that exist.

So my intention has always been when I accepted the opportunity to serve in the interim role is I wanted to make sure that the new person who would come here and the goal is for them to stay forever, but for them to be very successful, for them to have all the data that they need in order to understand sort of the current state of diversity, equity, and inclusion at Iowa, but also what the opportunities are that exist to continue to grow and expand what we’re currently doing to where we want to be in the future of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

So that is super-exciting, but it’s also very overwhelming. Because those are two very big tasks: identifying someone new, conducting a program review, and also working hard to have a [Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion] strategic plan that our university can buy into and provide the support systems for it to actually come into fruition. So, lots happening there.

Angie Reams agreed to serve in the interim AVP and Dean of Students role. And she has done a tremendous job. And so my hope is for us to sort of get through, sort of at least this part of the spring term and then sort of evaluate what we want to do in terms of next steps, in terms of a search, in terms for that position. So that’s my VP role.