A New Energy
Vice President for Student Affairs—and marathon runner—Shawna Cooper Whitehead brings fresh eyes to the Boston College experience, helping students achieve their full potential and make the most of their experience at the Heights.
Shawna Cooper Whitehead is always on the go. As a working mother. As a marathon runner. And most definitely as vice president for student affairs at Boston College.
When Cooper Whitehead started this role in fall 2021, just as pandemic restrictions began to ease, she saw an opportunity to create a new normal at the Heights, reinvigorate the social life that students lost out on for the better part of two years, and, in the process, establish new traditions for these Eagles.
On Marathon Monday in April, just as Cooper Whitehead was checking off Boston as the last world marathon major on her list, an enhanced BC tradition—Mile 21—was kicking off. Just after 10 a.m., pop star Jason Derulo took to a temporary stage in the Mods parking lot, which sits a few hundred yards from the marathon course and the eponymous mile marker. The singer, who was joined on stage by the Screaming Eagles Marching Band, received a raucous ovation from the gathered crowd of more than 5,000 Eagles.
“One student described it as ‘electric,’ and another said it was the best day he’d ever had at BC—and he’s a senior,” Cooper Whitehead said afterwards. “That melted my heart because that’s exactly what we hoped to provide.”
Engaging students and helping create lifelong memories is only part of Cooper Whitehead’s job. Here, she tells us about her first year at BC and what’s next.
What brought you to Boston College?
SCW: It was an opportunity to be at the institution that very literally has set the tone for what Jesuit education should look like. I wanted the chance to work with leadership and students who are excited about their vision for the future and what we can put out into the world. That has been my primary motivation, and coming to BC has lived up to my expectations and even more so.
How can BC help students get and stay engaged?
SCW: It’s really important that we provide pathways for students to navigate BC and make use of all it offers, because it can be overwhelming for some. We have such talented and smart students, they want to do everything, and we know that is not possible. That’s why we’ve convened a team from across campus to develop an online engagement program to help guide students through key moments. It’s an opportunity for students to create their own journey, to really make the BC experience unique to their interests and abilities.
What challenges are students facing and how is Student Affairs addressing them?
SCW: College is a pivotal time in a person’s life—a new place, with new people, and in some cases making their own decisions for the very first time. For some, they may have been a big fish in a small pond and now they’re trying to find their way in a new place, with new possibilities. That’s where we try to provide a lot of guidance to help them identify healthy interests and find support for whatever obstacles they may encounter.
Like any university, we have some students who are struggling with issues around substance use, mental health, sexual assault, social and racial justice, and the like. We work closely with our colleagues in Mission and Ministry, the Provost’s Office, and the individual deans’ offices to address these issues, and we’re grateful to the BC alumni and parents who have provided programming support through the Student Affairs Discretionary Fund.
You’ve said that diversity and inclusion are integral to BC’s Jesuit, Catholic heritage—how has that informed your work with students?
SCW: One of our central Jesuit principles is cura personalis, or care for the whole person. That starts with acknowledging that just because we may not agree or have the exact same background [as another], it doesn’t mean that we can’t respect each other and engage in conversations, even difficult ones. We know that if people stay in silos, in their own homogenous groups, we can’t talk with each other and we can’t learn.
Starting this fall, we’re shaking up Welcome Week and other orientation programs to both integrate and expand our understanding of diversity and inclusion. And we are going to look at the full range of diversity, whether you come from an urban or rural environment, the East Coast or the Midwest; there’s much more to it than just race, gender, and the like. It’s about what you bring to the table.
What else do you have planned for the coming year?
SCW: One of my personal goals next year is to really celebrate our traditions, like Homecoming and First Flight. And for everyone in our division, we will keep coming together to learn about diversity and how we can best help our students become nimble and adaptable as they move forward in an ever-changing, global society.
Has anything surprised you at BC?
SCW: I have been overwhelmed by the generosity of people willing to give toward important initiatives. I will also say that the involvement of senior leadership has also been really exciting because at some institutions, the leaders are untouchable, you can’t even engage in conversation. But here, whether it’s my regular meetings with Father [William P.] Leahy or my fellow VPs, or reaching out to the schools and other divisions, it has been unbelievably collegial and welcoming. I wouldn’t say that was a surprise so much as it has given me solace. I feel like I belong here, that I’m really supposed to be here. And as much as there can be challenging days, I know that the greater good will come out.
Do you have a favorite spot on campus yet?
SCW: Absolutely–my office overlooks Lower Campus lawn, and depending on the day there could be tailgates out there, or a marching band rehearsal, or students playing frisbee. It can be whatever our students need or want at the moment, which is wonderful.
How do you start your day?
SCW: I usually get in early because my days are packed with meetings, and I like a little bit of quiet time with a cup of coffee while I respond to anything that came up overnight. I often also take time to pray and reflect or meditate, just to get myself a little more set.
Do you have any parting wisdom for BC students?
SCW: One thing I want students (and their parents) to know is that occasionally, even our highly talented and driven students won’t succeed—and that’s okay. Maybe they get a bad grade, or they’re cut from a team, or they’re passed over for an internship. That doesn’t determine the rest of their life, in fact, they can learn as much from failures as from victories. College is the time to learn, to try new things, to make mistakes, and then to get right back up—and that’s what we are here to help them do.
Shawna Cooper Whitehead and the Division of Student Affairs
Raised in the college town of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, Cooper Whitehead says she felt called to higher education as a way to contribute at the highest level while still making a difference in individual students’ day-to-day lives. She has built a reputation for leading successful student and community engagement initiatives at both secular and Catholic institutions such as Loyola University Chicago, University of Chicago, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Seton Hall University.
At BC, Cooper Whitehead oversees 170-plus staff members in 14 offices, including Residential Life, Health Services, the Career Center, and even Robsham Theater. Together, they help shape the BC experience for every Eagle.
Learn more at bc.edu/studentaffairs.