‘A light and passion for education’: celebrating an outstanding student affairs graduate

Robena Nicholls sits in a chair, looking straight at the camera. She is wearing a polo shirt advertising The University of the West Indies Cave Hill Campus. Her legs are crossed and her hands are folded on her knee.Colorado State University Student Affairs in Higher Education graduate Robena Nicholls was recognized as an outstanding graduate by SAHE faculty.

“I am a very humble person by nature and generally do not look for recognition in the work that I do,” said Nicholls. “Being recognised by Colorado State University as an outstanding student is both humbling and satisfying. The satisfaction felt and the vindication experienced are achievements worth celebrating, and I find it rewarding to see that my efforts and commitment to finish this task will be highlighted.”

Currently, Nicholls works for The University of the West Indies Cave Hill Campus as a Health Plan Administrator, and a coordinator of the University’s First Year Experience Program and the Co-Curricular Credit Courses Portfolios.

Serving her community

Nicholls was recognized as an outstanding graduate for her passion for students who are otherwise disadvantaged by the education system. Planning to conduct research and assessment projects as a way to continue to explore the diverse experiences of Caribbean students at institutions of higher education, she stands out with her values of honesty, integrity, fairness, and doing good.

“I am quick to point out how a policy or procedure can have a negative impact for students,” said Nicholls. “It is always about that missing voice who is not represented in the room.”

Nicholls hopes to network with other student professionals in the future. She intends to carry out a study she proposed in an Introduction to Research course, to look at the attitudes of faculty toward accommodating students with disabilities on her campus.

“Robena has a light and passion for education and others. It is clear when you speak with her,” said Kyle Oldham, director of workplace inclusion and talent management for CSU’s Housing and Dining Services and SAHE faculty. “She is dedicated to community and serving others in any way she can.”

Finding CSU from the Caribbean

An international student and the first of her siblings to earn a degree, Nicholls is from the Caribbean island of Barbados. Raised in a single parent household, she started working after high school in order to help her family. After several years working in insurance, Nicholls was employed by The University of the West Indies, completing courses toward her undergraduate degree at the same time. Working in higher education sparked her desire to continue pursue a master’s degree.

CSU became Nicholls first choice after seeing the passion of David McKelfresh and Jody Donovan in videos about the Student Affairs in Higher Education program.

“They provided me several reasons why I chose CSU,” said Nicholls. “I observed their passion for the work they do and the vast wealth of experience and knowledge they possessed. In addition, the value that CSU placed on diversity meant international students like me were given the opportunity to engage and connect with fellow students from various backgrounds. Also, the portfolio requirement aspect of the SAHE program supported my interest, as it allowed for application of theory to practice with the intentionality for reflection throughout the course work.”

The importance of resilience

While thinking back on her time at CSU, Nicholls is impressed by her experience of completing her portfolio during the COVID-19 pandemic. While it was difficult, the resilience of pushing past personal and professional impacts allowed her to connect with students on a deeper level.

“As an international student engaging in a U.S. pedagogy, and having to situate experiences from a Caribbean perspective, the COVID-19 global pandemic and its impact on institutions of higher education, I came to the realization that this pandemic was not unique to the U.S. It also impacted the Caribbean regional institutions, though to a lesser extent,” said Nicholls. “I felt a level of satisfaction in having to do a pandemic crisis presentation on how a U.S. higher education institution responded to the current pandemic crisis for my EDRM 698 Research Methods III course. I felt confident in the work that I produced such that I shared it with my director and the principal of my university.”

While in the SAHE program, Nicholls learned the importance of active listening. Her current role at The University of the West Indies Cave Hill Campus is dependent on her ability to create meaningful relationships with students.

“The ability for me to paraphrase and to show empathy is critical for me in developing meaningful relationships with them,” she said. “Additionally, helping them to unpack their stories through open-ended questions for further probing is extremely important to the execution of my tasks. In my role as Health Plan Administrator, I am often in conversations with students about their health issues and I usually understand their pain and concerns especially when it impacts their teaching and learning experiences. It is necessary for me to listen with an empathetic ear and guide them through the process of the situation.”

Onward, with appreciation

Nicholls hopes that other students in the SAHE program will learn to grow comfortable with being uncomfortable, to step outside of the comfort zone, to focus less on grades and more on learning from experience, and to be resilient in these hard times.

She would like to thank Karen Gardenier for being her adviser on her initial journey and Kyle Oldham for taking over as her adviser during the difficulties of the pandemic.

“His support was unwavering, and he motivated me to push myself to succeed,” said Nicholls. “It was also special to have him interview me for a space in the SAHE program and to see me successfully defend my portfolio. To my other committee members, Lee Rosen and Barbara Richardson, I will be eternally grateful for your kind sentiments. Special thanks to Barbara for providing me with my first practicum experience. Finally, I wish my entire committee all the best in their future endeavors.”

The Student Affairs in Higher Education master’s degree is housed in the School of Education, part of CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences.