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Reimagined Series: Understanding the Whole Student 

  • 7 Min Read

In D2L’s webinar Meeting Today’s Learners: Reimagined, our host and panelists unpack the needs of college students. This includes how they can be supported through addressing mental health, discussing diversity, equity and inclusion and what it means to be a student-ready college.


In higher education today, students can’t be defined simply by their academic studies. Learners are people from all walks of life with different needs, perspectives and inputs.  

In D2L’s webinar Meeting Today’s Learner: Reimagined, host Dr. Cristi Ford and our panelists unpacked the needs of today’s learners and how they can best be supported, including: 

  • addressing mental health 
  • discussing diversity, equity and inclusion 
  • what it means to be a student-ready institution 

Meeting Today’s Learners: Reimagined

Saying no to the status quo: How institutions can break the mold of the “traditional” learner to meet diversifying needs of student populations

Watch the Webinar

Redefining Mental Health 

Something important that panelist Carissa Fralin, licensed social worker and adjunct faculty at the Metropolitan State University of Denver, was quick to highlight was that language around mental health is changing and is now more commonly known as behavioral health.  

“Behavioral health includes not only mental health issues, but also substance-use disorders and any other kinds of behavioral things that may be getting in the way of whatever the goal is,” she said. “Trying to broaden that definition is key and the beginning of our understanding of how to talk about it in a different way.” 

Fralin also brought up the youth mental health crisis and highlighted the fact that the U.S. federal government defines youth as any person under 25, which includes most traditional college students. 

“We’re still seeing brain development happen in that 18 to 26 age range,” said Fralin, which means that many instructors aren’t really teaching adults. “We think of them as adults because they’re at a legal age, but cognitively and behaviorally, they are still developing, growing and learning how to … move into adulthood.” 

Another important element when addressing mental health with traditional-aged college students is their comfort in talking about it. Because there can be a generation gap between instructors and their students, it’s important for them to recognize how much more open younger generations can be to discussing mental health. This understanding can be used as fuel to push faculty out of their own comfort zones.  

“We need to kind of get over ourselves a little bit … and allow ourselves to feel comfortable hearing students talk about things that may be going on,” she said, adding that while it’s good for instructors to lend a listening ear, they don’t always have to have all the answers. 

“It’s not our job to fix that student or to be the one to help counsel them through whatever’s going on. I think it’s more important to be thinking about the resources [that can help them]. We need to not be afraid of talking about it, dealing with it, noticing it, asking [about it] or checking in,” she noted. 

Actioning Diversity, Equity and Inclusivity 

While inclusivity in college encompasses being welcome to all types of students and perspectives, panelist Jessica Zeitler, Ph.D., M.S. in education, bilingual instructional designer II at the University of Arizona, also notes that their opinions matter too. 

“In the past you see this movement of students almost passively going from class to class, sitting in a chair and consuming content,” she said. “I think that’s changed. From a zoomed-out perspective, let’s not only enroll students, but let’s change the way they’re engaging with the university and the [way the] university’s engaging with them. Let’s create space where we’re including students in making some of those decisions and shaping their own education.” 

One way she outlined to include students in helping form their own education is through surveys and committees, by creating spaces where students can shape their learning paths, regardless of modality. 

“It’s our responsibility to … engage with them and let them know that their education and success is important to us,” she said. “How can we create that space for [the] student voice, where it can be shared and valued, not just welcome, but their whole selves invited at our institutions?” 

Let’s create space where we’re including students in making some of those decisions and shaping their own education.

Jessica Zeitler, bilingual instructional designer II, the University of Arizona

Panelist Dr. Tia McNair, vice president for diversity, equity and student success at the Associations of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), highlighted the role that faculty and staff play in perpetuating equity and inclusion at their institutions. 

“When I’m working with campuses, one of the things I always say is that we are united by a shared mission and vision at the institution,” she said. “I believe strongly that being part of an organization … I am a representative of that mission and vision for student learning, student success, for equity and inclusive excellence.” 

On top of drawing ties between personal and institutional vision, there should be ways to check in and make sure this alignment is still intact. 

“I also think it’s important for [institutional goals] to be part of [faculty’s] professional development, performance appraisal, the goals that they set for themselves every year, and the goals that they set for their programs and their departments,” she continued. 

If institutions aren’t aligning their priorities for diversity, equity and inclusion with those of their faculty and staff, McNair said it can become performative. While she understands that equity is a journey and unique to the individual, “I definitely think we can be more intentional and gently encourage … that growth with our colleagues who are maybe struggling with it.” 

What It Means to Be a Student-Ready College 

There has been a recent shift in higher education semantics where instead of learners being college-ready, institutions are being tasked with being student-ready.  

Student demographics are changing—more nontraditional students are applying to colleges, while high-school-aged students are more driven for career success and questioning the value of higher education in accomplishing this.  

Clarity in your goals and values will drive a lot of the transformational work that you need to do to become more student-ready.

Dr. Tia NcNAir, vice president for diversity, equity and student success, ACC&U

McNair noted that while it’s important to consider your learner demographic, being a student-ready college will mean something different at every institution.  

When writing her book, “Becoming a Student-Ready College,” with her co-authors, they were mindful of the power the phrase student-ready college could hold. 

“We wanted to make sure that it didn’t become this catchphrase, that institutions need to be student-ready,” McNair explained. “We were talking about substantive institutional transformation and deeper reflection, and it’s not the same for every institution.” 

Since every institution has a unique context, culture and student body, what it means to be student-ready will change. McNair said it’s about understanding the student profile your institution seeks to educate and admit, comparing it to what you’re offering and ensuring that what you offer aligns to your institutional values. 

“Clarity in your goals and values will drive a lot of the transformational work that you need to do to become more student-ready,” she said. “I think most of our institutions are student-ready, but we need to keep advancing that work so we can support the diversity of the students that we have. 

“For me personally, I need to focus on those people who are going to do the necessary work to support our racially minoritized students from various socioeconomic backgrounds, [regardless of their] sexuality or ability [or if they’re] veterans or nonveterans … It’s so important for us to realize that our institutions were never designed right. They were never designed for the diversity of the students we have now.” 

It’s so important for us to realize that our institutions were never designed right. They were never designed for the diversity of the students we have now.

Dr. Tia NcNAir, vice president for diversity, equity and student success, ACC&U

Considering the Whole Student 

As we continue to move toward the future of education, we need to remember that our students’ needs and goals are changing, and institutions need to evolve to meet their expectations

“When I was in school … you graduated from college and you got a good job,” said Fralin. “Now, people want education for all different kinds of reasons. It’s not necessarily about finding a job and staying in that job; it’s about finding their purpose in life. It’s kind of a bigger picture now.  

“I think in academia sometimes we still have a tendency to see students as students, as learners, and that’s all. And that’s not all that they are. They have all kinds of influences, life events and emotions … I think we just need to continue to be aware of that, that we’re looking at a whole person, not just a student in our class that has to learn this stuff.” 

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Table of Contents
  1. Redefining Mental Health 
  2. Actioning Diversity, Equity and Inclusivity 
  3. What It Means to Be a Student-Ready College 
  4. Considering the Whole Student