The rebranding of the Student Engagement Center, commonly referred to as the SEC, was announced on Thursday, Oct. 21, in a Whitman Today message titled “Introducing the Career and Community Engagement Center.” The announcement explained that the name change was triggered by recognition of ongoing program development and new resources that have been dedicated to the center.
The Student Engagement Center was created around 10 years ago under the Dean of Students in the Student Affairs department. A few years ago, the center was moved over to Academic Affairs, meaning that every 10 years the center would need to undergo an external review process. An external review is when national experts are invited to investigate the perception of a department.
In early March of 2020, right before the COVID-19 pandemic forced Whitman campus to temporarily close, the first external review of the Student Engagement Center was conducted. One of the major points to come out of the review was confusion on the part of faculty members, students, and alumni over the title of the Student Engagement Center. Center director Noah Leavitt explained how this confusion led to thinking about a new name for the center.
“If it’s generating confusion about what we offer and students aren’t taking advantage of the amazing expertise, the initiatives, the programming and the funding, all the things that the center does,” Leavitt said. “If people aren’t getting to that because the name isn’t clear, that it invites the opportunity to pursue all these kinds of experiences, maybe that name’s just not working anymore.”
This name switch may have students questioning whether the programming or the function of the center is changing. Leavitt emphasized that this is just a “new way of describing what we’re going to keep doing.”
“Because we think what we’ve been doing is pretty appropriate, we think it’s working, and we think it creates amazing chances for students to use a lot of talents and abilities in off-campus, real-world settings. But, we’re going to make it easier to understand all of that.”
The name change continued to be considered during the pandemic, and was ultimately decided upon by President Kathy Murray. In an email to the Wire, President Murray commented that the new name reflects what prospective students and families express is most important to them.
“Not only do they want the highest quality liberal arts education, they also want the resources that will help translate what students are doing in the classroom into meaningful careers and futures,” Murray said. “Putting ‘career’ first in the name reflects the work the center does to support students as they explore those possibilities. The word ‘engagement’ is still present, as a nod to the valuable work being done under the community engaged learning grants from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, as well as the many other programs and opportunities that create connections between Whitman students and the broader Walla Walla community.”
Leavitt followed up on the initial name change announcement in a message on Friday, Oct. 22, that celebrated a $5 million gift to the center from Nancy and Greg Serrurier.
Nancy Serrurier has a son who graduated from Whitman in 2011 and has a personal background serving on many school and education-related boards. She has been a Board of Trustees member at Whitman for 13 years, including a term as Board Chair from 2018-2021. This is Serrurier’s final year serving as a member on the Board.
Serrurier recalled that in 2017, there was a year-long campus-wide strategic planning process conducted by the Board that resulted in the recognition of five major investment areas for the College. Serrurier was one of the three co-chairs of the strategic planning process, and her donation contributed to the Life After Whitman focus area that was established.
After the donation was designated to this focus area, Serrurier was no longer involved in the decision process around where the gift would go.
“I believe strongly that donors shouldn’t drive those kinds of decisions,” Serrurier said. “I wanted [the Life After Whitman] function in the College to be transformed, to be more effective for students.”
Serrurier expressed excitement for the center’s additional resources that will allow commitment to helping students articulate the experiences they have on campus, in extracurricular activities, through off-campus engagement and during summer experiences.
“I learned over time that not all students were able to put together the fabric, complexity, nuance and excitement of their undergraduate experience at Whitman,” Serrurier said. “I just thought Whitman should make a commitment to every single student to be able to do that by the time they graduate, so that they can move on to life after Whitman that means something and is successful for them.”
The Serrurier Life After Whitman Endowment will be used to help fund student internships and the new career coaching program put in place with the class of 2025. This coaching plan is voluntary and open to all first-year students to join.
At the start of the program, students are introduced to a Career and Community Engagement Center coach whose role is to guide the student to resources and opportunities in areas of interest. The program includes three meetings with a coach throughout the year: a group introduction mid-fall, an individual check-in post-winter break and a group reflection post-spring break. Coaches also had a check-in with their students over the summer.
Highlights of these check-ins include using the PathwayU resource and going over the center’s Four-Phase Plan. Leavitt reported that between summer individual check-ins and October’s small group sessions, the center had interacted with 60 percent of the first-year class.
Invigoration and resources to continue building upon the center are sure to make a lasting impact on the institution and on many student lives.