A New Era

By Judith Kelliher | Fall 2015

Optimal student experience is the goal of new vice president for student affairs

“Everything I have done has prepared me for this role. With every conversation I had with students, and faculty and staff members, there was more clarity.”

As testament to the Springfield College renewed commitment to providing an optimal student experience, Shannon M. Finning, PhD, is poised to help create programs and strategies to meet that goal in her role as the new vice president for student affairs.

Finning’s arrival on campus in July began a new era in the College’s leadership team. For the first time in years, the position of dean of students and vice president for student affairs are two separate jobs.

The change came as part of President Mary-Beth Cooper’s adoption of new strategic directions aimed at improving oversight of all aspects of the student experience.

With her own strong background in higher education student affairs, Cooper recognized the importance of focusing greater effort on fostering the best possible learning and living environment for students, a key priority in her presidency. And for Finning, nearly 20 years as a student affairs educator fit her nicely with that goal.

“As I learned more about Dr. Cooper’s vision and what she wanted in a leader for student affairs, I got incredibly excited and felt this was a ‘can’t miss’ opportunity,” Finning says. “Everything I have done has prepared me for this role. With every conversation I had with students, and faculty and staff members, there was more clarity.”

When Finning assumed the position of vice president for student affairs, Theresa A. Vecchio, EdD, who most recently served as interim vice president for student affairs and dean of students, became the dean of students.

“Shannon is going to be great because she has a lot of positive energy. She’s very bright and capable, and I think we can all learn a great deal from her,” Vecchio says. “I’m excited to work with her in the division.”

“It was with great pleasure that we announced the hiring of Dr. Finning,” Cooper says. “Her extensive background in student affairs and her engaging personality satisfied us that the best interests of our students will be considered always.”

“Everything I have done has prepared me for this role. With every conversation I had with students, and faculty and staff members, there was more clarity.”

After many years in student affairs, Finning has seen changes in how schools manage “students of concern” when their actions impact their ability to be successful. Changes in the law regarding compliance with such mandates as Title IX and the Americans with Disabilities Act add to the mounting responsibilities of student affairs leaders, she explains.

“We need to assess how we intervene when students present behavioral concerns that impact either their ability to be successful or the ability of other people to be successful,” Finning says. “And, we’ve become far more focused in lots of ways about compliance.”

Finning feels strongly that a vice president for student affairs should excel in a collaborative environment and act as a “visionary thought-leader and partner for the other officers at the institution who have students at the forefront of any and all decisions that are being made.”

“One of the things I appreciate about Springfield College, and Dr. Cooper’s cabinet speaking the same language, is knowing I am not the lone advocate and champion for students,” she says.

Other factors to consider in overseeing student affairs today include changing societal and parental expectations regarding the student experience.

“When I went to college, parents dropped off students and often didn’t see their student again until Thanksgiving. Calls were usually once a week,” Finning says.

“Today there is much more opportunity for connectedness with parents. I see that as a real chance for us to engage them as partners. I don’t see that as a scary piece, but a way to have a healthy balance.”

In defining an ideal student experience, Finning believes that one has to question why students chose Springfield College, how they view their ultimate future career path, and what the value added is in attending a college with a philosophy of educating the whole student in spirit, mind, and body.

On average, students could spend 14 hours per week in the classroom or practicum in a 168-hour week, she says. “I want to know what we are doing the other 154 hours for them that really defines what the optimal student experience is at Springfield College,” Finning says.

In order to operate an effective student affairs division it is essential that students fully understand all the different programs and services it offers, she says. Without that knowledge, students may have misconceptions that student affairs only means something bad has happened, she explains.

To that end, Finning is encouraging students to take to social media to connect with her and learn more about student affairs. She wants them to understand what her division does, including that offices such as student volunteer programs come under her purview.

“I use social media and hope to engage with them there. I also plan to have regular walk-in hours and they also can call my office,” she says. “It shouldn’t just be about a problem or an issue. If they have a big idea, I want to know about it.”

Part of Finning’s job is to listen to student concerns and direct them to the most appropriate services.

A positive, overall college experience will help prepare students to respond to an ever-changing job market, she believes. Finning sites national studies that forecast college and university graduates having up to 13 jobs in three or four career fields during their lifetime.

Finning’s higher education experience includes serving as associate vice president for student affairs and dean of students at Clemson University, dean of students at Babson College, and associate dean of students at Drexel University. All of those were excellent segues to her role now in student affairs, in which she will report directly to Cooper and help implement change and develop strategies that support the best student experiences possible. Finning possesses many years of experience working in complex and diverse institutional environments, and developing collaborative efforts between academic and student affairs to promote student learning and engagement.

“One of the things that prepares me for my work is that it’s less about the places I’ve been and more about the people who I have worked with and the opportunities that I have been presented with,” Finning explains.

The areas for which Finning will provide strategic and overarching leadership include housing and residence life, campus recreation, the health center, the counseling center, student volunteer programs, the career center, community standards, dean of students, spiritual life, student activities, and the campus union.

Throughout her career, Finning says it’s been a privilege to work with students and their families, especially during a period of crisis or challenges or sadness.

“It’s an honor, as hard as it is, to be able to walk with them through those difficulties. Whether it’s a personal loss or medical issue or any of those things,” she says. “To see the resiliency they learn and how they can come back and graduate is so impressive.”

But there also are the students she works with who arrive at college and are destined to be superstars. She takes great pleasure in bearing witness to their successes, and hopes at some point there will be a little failure.

“I think we are all better for learning some failure,” she adds.

Finning views the college experience as a “developmental journey,” noting that 18- to 22-year-olds are recognized as adults and can take on heavy responsibilities, such as serving in the armed forces. But, these years also are a time when they are tempted to make bad choices as they come of age and discover alcohol or get into situations that can end up negatively affecting them, she says.

“Their brain synapses are still forming and they are really exploring for the first time, a little bit untethered. They are trying to discover who they are and what they want to do in this world,” Finning says. “If they make mistakes—regardless of the reason—I want to help them learn from them, so that those moments don’t define them forever.”

To do her job effectively, Finning finds her natural inclination to listen to and acknowledge many different perspectives critical. She says she rarely jumps to quick conclusions, even though throughout her student affairs career she has seen and dealt with many common themes.

“Every student is different and every time I think I won’t be surprised, I will be. My desire to learn about the community and students is genuine, so I bring a willingness and an openness to this post,” Finning explains, adding, “I have a lot of energy and stamina.”

Among her goals, Finning plans to be a “good thought partner and a good idea generator.” In dealing with students facing problems, Finning would prefer to view those situations as “opportunities.”

“I try to say ‘how can we get to yes,’ if there’s a way to do it that makes sense. I assume good intent with my questions; it’s how I learn,” Finning says. “It’s also about openness and follow through.”

Finning earned a bachelor’s degree in communication from Bryant University, a master’s degree in education from Bridgewater State University, and a doctorate in educational leadership from Clemson University.

Finning lives in Suffield, Conn., with her husband, Michael Kwoka, two-year-old son, James, and miniature English bulldog, Sully.

Finning wants people to engage with her, share their ideas, suggestions, questions, and concerns. She plans to attend many events and activities on the campus and wants to be viewed “as part of the fabric of the college community.”

“I look forward to the students telling me their good news. I want to be their champion, not the ‘bad news bear,’” Finning says. “I want to be less the position and more the person. With students, I’m Shannon.”