As Southern Miss searches for a new associate vice president and dean of students, the Division of Student Affairs and the Student Government Association hosted open forums to introduce three candidates to students.
The first candidate to be introduced was Scott Oliver, Ph.D., who currently serves as assistant vice president for student services and dean of students at Lincoln Memorial University.
Oliver attended the University of Mississippi, earning a bachelor’s degree in public administration and a master’s degree in education. He went on to attend the University of Georgia where he became a doctor of philosophy.
Initially, Oliver hoped to become a lawyer, but he realized his passion for student life when he served as a resident assistant in college. He went on to work in various student life positions at universities in Maryland, Georgia, Mississippi and Tennessee before he became a candidate to serve Southern Miss.
“I grew up in Columbia, Mississippi, so it feels like coming home a little bit, being here at Southern Miss. It’s an awesome opportunity to hopefully make an impact,” Oliver said.
Being a Columbia native attracted Oliver to the position as dean of students, and he hopes to serve students from the cities around Southern Miss.
“A lot of the students [at Southern Miss] are from this general area, so this is an opportunity for me to be able to connect coming back home with my passion for serving college students,” Oliver said.
In addition to answering questions about his background, Oliver spoke to students about his goals for creating a positive and inclusive campus.
“The dean of students has the opportunity to help students engage in civility. As a culture, we often don’t spend enough time listening, so helping students to understand other people gives us an opportunity to be more inclusive,” Oliver said.
With Southern Miss having four campuses across Mississippi, Oliver said that he aims to view students as individuals and to tailor his work from there.
“A lot of people would like the concept of a blanket approach in how we serve students, but students are all different. The demographics of each campus are different, so having an acknowledgment of those differences is important,” Oliver said.
Oliver went on to describe his experience in directing resident halls, and he said that experience led him to create an open-door policy in his role as dean.
“I think a person in this role should be very visible and accessible to students; I want to be able to pop into the dining hall and sit down with a group of students,” Oliver said. “I think students should feel very comfortable stopping by the dean of students’ office and seeking out the person who is serving as their advocate on campus.”
The second candidate to be introduced for the associate vice president and dean of students position was Sirena Cantrell.
A Mississippi native, Cantrell attended East Mississippi Community College, Millsaps College and Mississippi State University for her degrees in behavioral science, psychology and counselor education.
The former college basketball player currently serves as dean of students at Mississippi University for Women. Cantrell said that as Dean of Students, she is the sole student conduct officer, and her favorite aspect of the job is watching students develop.
“My ultimate goal is that even if a student is in trouble, I want them to be successful. Seeing someone that has struggled to actually graduate and then seeing them come back and say thank you, is the most rewarding. Even though I had to be disciplinary, I still made a change in their lives,” Cantrell said.
As a candidate for dean of students at Southern Miss, Cantrell said she does not only want to be seen as the office where students get in trouble. She spoke of goals to improve resources for mental health on campus.
“I am an educator first. I want a student to look at their own behavior, and I want to educate them for the next time to put them in a better position. But when a student leaves that meeting, I want them to know that they can come by if they need someone to talk to,” she said.
Cantrell went on to discuss her plans for safety practices throughout Southern Miss’ campuses.
“Safety is one of my top priorities. We live in a dangerous world. It doesn’t matter what city you live in,” Cantrell said. “Every city has its issues, so working closely with the police department and building those relationships to make sure that we’re all working together towards safety.”
In addition to working with campus police, Cantrell also wishes to supply self-defense classes for women.
“I actually just got trained in self-defense, and now I’m certified to teach it specifically for women,” she said. “That process was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but it’s something I would want to add to my campus.”
Although the position of dean of students includes many important roles, Cantrell said she feels most influential when she sees students succeed after struggling.
“The biggest success stories are those students who are mental-health challenged or student conduct repeat offenders. But you work with them over time, and you see them progress,” Cantrell said. “Seeing that transformation with students on a daily basis, keeping up with them and how they’re doing is something I would really want to do [at Southern Miss].”
The third and final candidate for the position of associate vice president and dean of students was Scott Blackwell, Ph.D.
Blackwell is a two-time graduate of Texas A&M University, where he earned a master’s degree in student affairs administration in higher education and a doctorate in educational administration and human resources development.
Blackwell has 25 years of student affairs experience and has served as Southern Miss’ director of the Department of Residence Life since early 2011.
“[Hattiesburg is] not just a college town, it’s a town with a college in it, and it has a lot going for it. We have a wonderful church home here,” Blackwell said. “It has a lot of places to eat out, a nice climate and our sons know Hattiesburg.”
Earlier this year, Blackwell reviewed some graduate school materials, and he came upon a career point he wrote for himself in 1996.
“Interestingly enough, I had written that dean of students was one of my career aspirations. Over the years, I haven’t given that a lot of thought, but Southern Miss is where I want to be long term,” Blackwell said.
With previous Dean of Students Eddie Holloway’s retirement, Blackwell realized that this kind of opportunity does not come along often.
“I have been working here for a little over eight years, and my education and training to date have prepared me for this opportunity,” he said.
Blackwell went on to discuss his goals as dean of students and mentioned his views on creating an inclusive atmosphere.
“Inclusivity is one of the hallmarks of Southern Miss. Regardless of demographic background, this campus is never too welcoming or too inclusive,” Blackwell said. “Schools that I worked at previously would kill for just a quarter of our racial diversity, and that’s special.”
In regard to safety practices on campus, Blackwell mentioned his experiences through directing campus housing.
“Just like a campus can’t be too welcoming, it can’t be too safe. For the past eight years of my influence in campus housing, students have told us consistently that they feel safe being inside the residence halls and walking around on campus. There’s a lot of good there, but there’s also room for improvement,” he said.
Blackwell went on to say that although Southern Miss has a good police department, he believes that there is a need for more officers. With student conduct being one of the roles of the dean of students, Blackwell said he thinks the process should be educational.
“Students are people, and people behave impulsively. When it happens, we have a system in place to respond and help the student learn. Conduct should be quick and efficient and shouldn’t be something hanging over a student so they can move on,” Blackwell said.
Near the end of his forum, Blackwell emphasized the value he places on student wellness and hopes that students utilize campus recreation as much as possible.
The Division of Student Affairs has not provided information on when the new dean of students will be selected.