By DONOVAN HARRELL
Since Pitt’s new Dean of Students Carla Panzella started on Aug. 2, she’s focused on addressing Pitt students’ needs and helping aid their transition back to in-person classes.
Panzella most recently served as dean of students and associate vice president for student life at Salem State University in Salem, Mass. There, she developed a bias response and prevention team and a new case management system for students in response to COVID-19.
Panzella joined Pitt after the University restructured leadership in Student Affairs earlier this year to better serve Pitt’s regional campuses.
Kenyon Bonner, vice provost for student affairs, first announced her appointment in a message to the Pitt community on July 16, praising her for her leadership and student advocacy in her previous roles.
“Dr. Panzella’s strong strategic leadership and deep commitment to serving and advocating for students, staff, and the broader community make her a truly wonderful addition to our University and to the division of student affairs,” Bonner said. “Her collaborative style and enthusiasm, her dedication to diversity, equity and inclusion and her proven track record of innovation will provide fresh energy as we reignite the campus and the in-person Pitt experience for students in the fall.”
The University Times talked to Panzella about her goals and priorities, strategies to help students readjust to life on campus, and more. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
What have you been up to since you started on Aug. 2?
It’s been a busy couple of weeks. I think that learning about Pittsburgh, learning about Pitt, learning about the Division of Student Affairs, and of course, Pitt students has been my priority. I’ve been meeting with a lot of folks around campus, understanding what different roles are held by whom, and getting comfortable with the reporting structures and information sharing and just listening and learning and meeting people.
How’s the transition to life in Pittsburgh been so far?
I think no one element is too challenging, but all of them at the same time is a little bit difficult. I have a 5-month-old puppy that requires a lot of care and attention. Transitioning myself probably would have been a little bit easier if it were not for a small puppy who needs a lot of care.
This feels very much like an adventure. And Pittsburgh has a lot of nooks and crannies and little gems that I’ve been finding. And I haven’t had a lot of time but I’m hopeful about exploring all that Pittsburgh has to offer.
How has the role of dean of students changed now that Kenyon Bonner is vice provost for student affairs? How do you two work together?
I don’t know if the dean of students position has changed really, at all. What I think has happened is, Kenyon had quite a bit on his plate, and he did both well. But there’s always room for depth, right. I think having the dean of students role parceled out from the VP role, you have the opportunity to go deeper in both.
I think Kenyon will be focused on strategic leadership for the Pittsburgh campus and around student affairs for the regional campuses as well. He will be working with our campus partners and academic affairs and business operations across the institution at a high level.
I will take the day-to-day around student concerns and managing the departments related to student development and student affairs. That seems to be kind of traditional — having a dean of students and a vice provost at a large institution is common.
Parceling this out has not been very challenging. I think that Kenyon and I complement each other well and have a very similar vision for Student Affairs and our approach to student development. It’s been kind of easy to kind of say, “Hey, I’m going to work on this. You work on that.”
What are some of your priorities for your first semester as dean of students and your first school year?
The dean of students’ job is to listen to what students need, to understand where there are strengths and gaps, and to think about how to work on those.
I think the other priority for the semester, and the year, is … to help students transition back to in-person learning. This is a huge transition for students across the nation. And one of my key roles is to help create kind of a pathway for students who may be facing a bump in the road, so they get to the resources we have on campus.
Lastly, I’m paying attention to what student affairs/higher-ed needs post-pandemic, or as we try to move out of the pandemic. I think Student Affairs might look different, and the student needs might be different. I’m paying attention to that element of change and evolution.
I noticed that during the most recent student town hall there were several questions and concerns about the pandemic and the logistics of students returning to campus. What are some strategies that you are using to help students with this transition?
I think some discomfort is normal and to be expected. You may have heard that at the end of the town hall, I indicated that if somebody is experiencing ongoing or acute anxiety that needs some support, we would get them to some resources. I think some strategies are to let them experience it and see if it is as challenging as some of them anticipate.
I plan on talking about the transition, normalizing conversations about it, and the anxiety that comes from change. When we ask students to do certain things, we need to make it clear how to do that when there’s an emotional element to it. They can become overwhelmed.
I always say clarity is kindness. If we can be clear about what they need to do — if we can be clear about the rules, and the guidance that we provide them, then it will be easy for them to decide, “Do I want to participate in this event or not? Do I want to do this or not? Do I need resources and support or not?"
Other than COVID 19, what are some other concerns students have brought up with you?
I think our students are very much focused on diversity, equity, inclusion and justice work, and remain committed to that. We plan to do some work around that.
I also think we’re looking at how to increase awareness around sexual assault and Title IX and how to make sure that students are safe on campus. We’re talking about engagement and how to get students involved in leadership opportunities. There’s a lot of positive activity and thinking going on.
How do you plan to make sure students continue to comply with COVID safety measures? Will you be doing more neighborhood walks like Kenyon Bonner has done in the past?
When I was interviewing for this position, I did some of my research, and I saw Kenyon’s video in Oakland speaking to the students. And I think his approach is a very positive, student-ready approach. We could only ask students to follow our policies and our procedures, and they can choose to or choose not to.
It’s our goal to persuade them to choose to follow our policies and procedures that go beyond policy and procedures. Many times, there are complaints about student behavior that is not against the law, a policy, or a procedure. We want students to be good neighbors. We want students to be thoughtful citizens and thoughtful people in our communities. And we want them to create a sense of community with the folks around them, with their fellow students, staff, faculty and neighbors.
During our open walks, our job is not to wag our finger at students, it’s to build that relationship with them so that they see us as supportive folks for them here at the campus that have their best interests and their health and safety at heart. I think taking Kenyon’s lead is exactly a smart thing to do. And that’s my plan right now.
What are your plans for advancing Pitt’s goals towards making the Pitt community more diverse and inclusive?
I think the students have done a nice job of identifying their interests and concerns around this topic. I want to make sure that we illuminate the students’ concerns and illuminate students’ suggestions on how to do that.
With that being said, I think there are some universal concepts, such as making sure that our staff at different levels look and have cultural experiences like our students so that there can be some relating. That starts conversations.
I would say that creating a campus that is welcoming is probably my number one priority for our students of color, and the BIPOC population of students. Part of it is by training and by hiring staff but I also think there are procedures, there are microaggressions, there are all kinds of pieces that go into what happens day-to-day that can feel very unwelcoming to students of color.
I have been meeting with students of color and different leadership and identity groups to hear their experiences. Then, depending on what I hear, depending on what we learn, I want to get into addressing these issues, making changes that help students feel welcome.
Donovan Harrell is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-383-9905.
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