The Dean Who Tweets

How UT’s dean of students stays connected.

The Dean Who Tweets

UT’s Dean of Students, Soncia Reagins-Lilly, likes to take selfies. Scroll down her Twitter feed (@MotherDean), and one photo after another pops up: Lilly at an awards banquet, flanked by smiling students. Lilly and a student in the middle of a busy sidewalk, wearing matching T-shirts. Two students making goofy faces, accompanied by the caption: “Never leave your phone unattended!” A snapshot of a man with a top hat and a handlebar mustache pedaling an old-fashioned bicycle: “We all have our unique gifts. Celebrate being you.”

For Lilly, who is responsible for the success of 52,000 UT students, tweeting is serious business. Her office oversees large campus entities like New Student Services and University Unions, as well as extracurricular resources like the Student Veteran Center. It would be easy for an administrator at her level to never truly interact with a student, but Lilly has developed a reputation as approachable and down-to-earth. Tweeting is part of that, but is so holding office hours, teaching a class, and attending a seemingly impossible number of events—as she told the Alcalde in a recent interview.

In addition to Twitter, I heard that you’re on Snapchat. What has that experience been like?

The majority [of Snapchats I get] are from students studying, working in the lab, or traveling. Technology and social media have provided a wonderful medium for me to connect.

Are there any new projects you’re excited about?

We have a responsibility to create environments where students can succeed. One of those that we’re excited about is the Commuter-Transfer Student Center. This is going to be a place at 2609 University Ave. for commuter and transfer students to build community. That started with an idea from a transfer student named Josh Alvarez.

What’s an area for improvement?

It would be wonderful to see more students participate in the campus-wide elections. Currently we have about 7,000-10,000 students who will engage in that way. I’m hoping we’re establishing patterns of voting and showing up at the polls now. It would please me to see students consider our campus-wide election as an indicator of how they’re going to engage at the state level as well as at the national level and federal levels.

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced?

When I learn of students who are no longer here or at the brink of leaving because they don’t know how to get past obstacles, that’s really difficult. So I’m constantly evaluating ways to reach them. Social media is so important for that.

We’re also working very closely with [“Graduation Czar”] Dr. [David] Laude and his team, particularly with orientation and new student services, to create a sense of belonging from before they even arrive on campus. We’ve fine-tuned the course we use to train our orientation advisors. We’re also customizing information based on what we know about a particular population. Each class has its own website and its own Facebook page tailored specifically to them.

What has surprised you most in your eight years at UT?

The rate of change. Every year has been a first. Another thing that didn’t necessarily surprise me, but that I really appreciate, is the strong loyalty of this community. If you say, ‘I’m a Longhorn,’ that carries value.

What’s your advice to a student who is struggling to find their place at UT?

The first thing I do is encourage them to hang out in the Dean of Students office, to feel like they have a place to eat lunch and to study. I encourage them to just spend time on the campus instead of going home and feeling isolated.

What’s a good book you’ve read lately?

Mindset by Carol Dweck, which I’m using for the peer leadership course I’m teaching. It talks about the growth mindset and how students, parents, businesses, and schools can learn to fulfill their full potential. One takeaway for me is that so much growth and development comes through failure, and obstacles really are growth opportunities.

Ali Breland and Rose Cahalan

Photo by Anna Donlan

 

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