With 25 years of experience working in higher education, first as a resident assistant and now as Grand Valley’s inaugural vice president for Student Affairs, it’s safe to say that Jenny Hall-Jones has a passion for all things collegiate.
Hall-Jones started working at Grand Valley in February. After joking about having a typical “first-year student experience,” temporarily moving into the Grand Valley Apartments and then experiencing the rite of passage of getting lost in Mackinac Hall, she discussed the motivations and inspirations behind her new job.
Could you explain your role as vice president for Student Affairs?
At its fundamental level, the vice president for Student Affairs is going to be the student voice and the students’ advocate at the highest levels of the institution. I will always make sure that students are included in conversations and that we are centering students in our work. Day to day, I help run the Division of Student Affairs, where our goal is creating a sense of belonging and showing what it means to be a Laker.
It’s only been a few months, but what has struck you about Grand Valley?
The fact that Grand Valley is an undergraduate-focused institution, knows exactly who it is and knows how it wants to grow has really impressed me. The president’s clear vision with Reach Higher 2025, and the fact that it’s embedded with social justice is very near and dear to my heart.
What should Grand Valley students know about you?
The students should know that I’m really very informal, they should call me Jenny. I want them to know that I am approachable, that I’m in their corner. I want them to know that if they feel like there’s something going on in student life or student culture that needs to be brought forward, I’m the person to do that for them.
COVID-19 has made it difficult for students to connect and feel a sense of belonging on campus. What advice do you offer new students, to help them strike a balance as they adjust to college?
First and foremost, students have to “get their extrovert on.” Whenever you’re in a new situation, whether that’s coming out of a pandemic or coming to college, people get naturally more shy. I think this is the time when you need to break out a little bit. It’s going to be uncomfortable but you’ve got to get past your comfort zone to make those connections. Practice a little at a time. Give yourself goals like meeting someone new or joining a new club. This is the time to make the most of your Laker experience. We’ll do this our entire lives, and as a new person coming into a new job, I had to do it again.
You have a background in sociology and criminology. How did that point you toward higher education?
Everything shifted for me when I became an RA on campus to help pay for college. I fell in love with working in higher education. I loved the people, the leadership and talking about social justice issues, so I changed my major to sociology, where class content was often centered around those things. Having a sociology/criminology background was perfect because it discussed the topics we face in higher education such as group think, group behavior and why a sense of belonging is important. All these questions that higher education professionals ask themselves, sociologists have been studying for years.
Who inspires you the most and why?
I have this fierce, blue-collar mom and this really fabulous, fiercely college-educated grandmother. I don’t think I would’ve survived in higher education if I didn’t have my grandmother saying higher education is something that’s important. I’m not afraid to be the only woman in a space and I have a passion for social justice because of my mom, and watching how she survived and raised our family as a single mom in a man’s world. So, I learn from both of those fabulous women in my life.
Who has shaped you into being the leader you are today?
In my first job, I served as special assistant to Kent Smith, the vice president of student affairs at Ohio University at the time. He is an amazing man and if it weren’t for him, I don’t think I would have finished my doctorate. He was so inspirational and supportive. He was the one who helped me see that I could lead at a higher level.
Ryan Lombardi was my dean when I worked as assistant dean of students at Ohio University. He was the one that challenged me on my internalized sexism because I had told him that I was content working behind the scenes. He said, “Are you sure that’s not some sexist voice in your head holding you back because you’ve only seen male leaders in your work life?” That was a turning point for me.