Student engagement takes center stage at Hastings College

Hastings College is known for creating a culture where faculty and staff excel at counseling and inspiring students to become their best. After nearly a year of examining best practices and gathering ideas from across campus, the College is taking these efforts to a new level of excellence by launching a student engagement initiative.

The initiative includes appointing a Dean of Student Engagement, a new position, and renovating the Daugherty Center on campus to house both the engagement and admissions teams.

“In surveys of alumni, current students and prospective students, it’s clear the positive, nurturing relationships formed between faculty, staff and students make a tremendous impact on student learning and success. This is true while students are on campus but also they enter the workforce or graduate school and seek advice and support from those on campus they trust,” said Hastings College President Travis Feezell. “By taking best practices, developing new initiatives and building a team to further develop this culture across campus, we’re excited where this is going and the benefits our students will enjoy.”

Leading the student engagement, student life and admissions teams is Susan Meeske, who has been named Executive Vice President of Enrollment and Student Experience. She started with Hastings College in 2011 as the brand manager for Admissions and the Hastings College Foundation in Denver, Colorado. In 2012, she began overseeing marketing and then in 2013 added financial aid and admissions to her responsibilities.

Meeske graduated from Hastings College in 1994 with a BA in Communications and Public Relations. In 2002, she received her MBA from Rollins College in Orlando, and in 2017 she completed a Master’s Certificate from the BayPath University/Ruffalo Noel Levitz Enrollment Management program.

The first-ever Dean of Student Engagement is Dr. Lisa Smith. Smith previously served in the College’s Teacher Education Department, where she joined the faculty in 2013. During her time on faculty, she began to study the development of dialogic learning systems through practices grounded in collaboration and respect. Her exploration of restructuring classroom culture is compiled in the book “Circle in the Classroom: Field Book I,” published by Hastings College Press in 2016.

Smith will oversee internship and career efforts, specific first-year experience efforts and related programing, and all student learning support, including Studio 200, an innovation and learning space for everyone from first-year students to faculty.

Also new to the team is Vernon J. James, who has been named Dean of Students.

James was previously director of residential education and housing and coordinator of student conduct at LaGrange College in Georgia. Prior to his work at LaGrange College, he worked at the University of Texas–Austin in the housing department, taught international economics and conversational English at Sias International University in China, and served in various capacities at his alma mater, Presbyterian College, in housing, multicultural student affairs, student activities and student conduct.

James earned his bachelor’s degree in business administration from Presbyterian College and a master’s in higher education administration from the University of South Carolina.

Supporting efforts to onboard new  and returning students and help them become ever more capable and confident as their independence grows and they begin to discover their strengths and abilities is Emily Dunbar, who is filling a new role on campus as a Transition Specialist. A 2010 graduate of the Hastings College Master of Arts in Teaching program, Dunbar brings her experience as a high school English teacher to her role, serving as a liaison between students and faculty in designing learning interactions that support student success.

In addition to meeting students where they are, a new place to sustain engagement can be found in Studio 200, which is directed by Dr. Maggie Callahan, an Assistant Professor of English who began at the College in fall 2017. Located in Kiewit 200, the Studio is the dynamic center of learning support on campus that’s open into evenings and Sundays and, among other support programs, includes a team of graduate students and student tutors.

Preparation work on Daugherty Center began over the summer, with full construction getting underway this fall. Once completed next year, admissions will be located on the first floor, while the lower level will house the Student Life, Student Engagement and Vocation and Career Development teams.

“With support from a generous grant, we’re creating a ‘new’ Daugherty Center that will be central to the student experience on campus,” Feezell said. “The moment a student first visits campus, we’ll begin sharing our vision of how we engage and support each individual student, and throughout their time on campus, the Center will be a consistent resource for everything from developing campus culture to internships to post-graduate life.”

Hastings College is a private, four-year institution located in Hastings, Nebraska, that focuses on student academic and extracurricular achievement. With more than 60 majors and pre-professional programs, Hastings College has been named among “Great Schools, Great Prices” by U.S. News & World Report and a “Best in the Midwest” by The Princeton Review. For more, go to

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