Uchenna Baker Approaches the Big Questions with Expertise and Enthusiasm
FDU Welcomes New Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students
By Kenna Caprio
“How do we align student affairs on both New Jersey campuses? What does it mean to create a student experience where students have a sense of belonging and community again, now that we’re back on campus? How do we build up clubs and organizations?”
Uchenna Baker, the new vice president for student affairs and dean of students, has a lot of big questions on her mind. Alongside her team, and in collaboration with the student body she represents, she’s endeavoring to find and provide some answers.
“My team and I, we’re collectively responsible for setting the tone of this division. I believe in leading authentically — by example — and in creating space for people to process and talk about what they’re feeling, experiencing and thinking,” says Baker. “In my role, I am the counselor, the hope-builder, the strategic planner.”
Aligning Student Affairs
“I’m someone who loves a good challenge and I’m very good at strategic thinking, planning and alignment,” says Baker.
Her approach prioritizes listening and communication.
“It’s important to honor the history here. I’ve come to listen and learn. I want folks to feel secure in the work that they’re doing and feel supported, but also to remember that we’ve been called to this field for a reason — students are depending on us.”
Her first move to create continuity between the Metropolitan and Florham campuses, the formation of a deans and directors group that meets twice a week, has opened the lines of communication.
“We’re having collective conversations. It’s been a great think tank for the leadership team. We’re bouncing ideas off of one another. We’re learning best practices from both campuses,” Baker says.
Baker and her team are also leaning into data collection. “We need data to make informed decisions to better serve our students,” she says. “We need to know: What services are we missing? What services are working, and helping students to persist and to graduate? How do we impact retention? What do students need from disability services or academic support?” This student-life data will also ultimately influence decisions about campus activities and programming, and professional development and support for staff.
Coming into the job, Baker was aware of the distinct identities of the two New Jersey campuses, and is taking those differences into consideration in her decision-making.
“The programs, clubs and organizations might look different on each campus. There are traditions unique to each campus. But our processes, the creation of safe spaces, and the communal sense of belonging — those need to align.”
She’s also joined FDU’s Strategic Plan Steering Committee and leads the committee’s Student Experience Working Group, which will make recommendations regarding all aspects of the student experience on campus — engagement, residential life, diversity and inclusion, activities, athletics and community, belonging and pride.
“The pandemic really shifted things,” says Baker. “We’re not out of the woods yet. We’re still obviously thinking about student safety as the top priority, and talking about testing, vaccines and boosters.”
After more than a year of remote learning and operations, the University welcomed students back to in-person courses and on-campus events in the fall 2021 semester.
“We have to acknowledge that this is a very difficult time. Students want administrators and faculty to know that, oftentimes, they feel like they’re going through it by themselves. We are not back to normal,” says Baker. “In fact, we will never go back to the normal we once knew. Rather, we are in the process of creating a new normal.”
Student leaders have made space for students to speak to their pandemic experiences. Faculty underwent specific training to better support students and refer them to counseling, if necessary. In the same vein, some on-campus programming has and will continue to focus on mindfulness, meditation and group conversation so students can process things and express themselves.
Baker meets with student government representatives on a regular basis and has convened joint meetings among the Metropolitan and Florham campus leaders. “I can’t do my work effectively if I’m not talking with students.”
Another focal point for student-life staff has been joy.
“Students want to feel a sense of community, of fun, of playfulness again,” says Baker. “People were missing that sense of human connection, and on-campus activities are reenergizing our community.”
Prioritizing True DEI
“Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) is work that the institution has to buy into. You can’t talk about DEI without talking about the whole picture,” says Baker. “This work is not just for marginalized students or for students of color. It’s for everybody.”
In her previous position, Baker formed a deliberative dialogue program within her division to foster an exchange of experiences and ideas. Conversations about DEI, she says, need to be honest and encourage individual and collective growth.
“To address disparities and to create more equity, we’ve got to be able to talk and listen to our students. They need to know that they aren’t experiencing things in silence or isolation. There need to be reporting and response mechanisms.”
Broadly, she says, colleges and universities need to examine their curricula and develop more inclusive and representative sources of information.
Finally, “students want to come to an institution where they feel like faculty and staff and decision-makers reflect the student population. Folks come to FDU from all walks of life, and they need to have a space and place where they belong,” Baker says.
“Who’s around the table? Who gets to make decisions? Whose voice is being heard? Whose narrative is being validated?”
As a very visible female leader of color, she wants to empower the student body.
“I understand my own power as a woman of color. I know my words carry weight. I also know that I am here for a purpose.”
FDU: Did you always want to work in student affairs?
U.B.: Growing up, my dad told me I should be a pediatrician, because I was great with kids, or a lawyer, because I had an answer for anything.
I always wanted a profession with a combination of teaching, counseling and leadership.
FDU: What do you want students to know?
U.B.: A meaningful college experience comes from having a sense of belonging. Belonging and traditions build memories. Seek out a club or organization. Bond with your resident assistant. Find mentorship with a faculty member. Make use of campus resources and get connected! This is the time to expand your leadership skills, challenge your thinking and connect with people who are different from you.
As an educator, I want to create moments where people can build their own capacity and their own agency so when they graduate, they feel empowered to face the world. We can never underestimate the potential we have to change lives.
FDU: How have past experiences or challenges shaped you?
U.B.: I learned very early on just how fragile life is, and the importance of living a life of purpose. You only get one shot.
My father grew up in Nigeria and then studied at Columbia University and the University of Pennsylvania. He became a doctor and put his children through college. He’s written books and built a hospital. He taught me the value of education, and that to whom much is given, much is expected.
I grew up in New Jersey and attended Rutgers University, where I met my husband. We have four children. Our eldest son was born early and was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at age 1. Having a child with a disability, raising that child to live in his purpose, still daring to be brave and to exude love, has really affirmed a sense of purpose in me. Being a mom has given me so much life and has taught me so much about myself.