Shoulders to Stand On
The year 2020 was both a rewarding and challenging one for Dr. Michele Caruso. On one hand, she was named vice president for student affairs after taking on the interim role earlier in the year. On the other, a global pandemic and wave of social unrest upended everyday life soon after she took on the position.
“I joke that I’m going to write a book called ‘Two Minutes In’ because two minutes into being interim we shut down for COVID-19,” she says. “This has been both challenging and exhilarating at the same time. I consider it an honor to have served at this level when the need was so unique and so great for our students.”
Seeing the world change around them makes this an important time for students, Dr. Caruso says. They are finding their voice and stepping forward as leaders on campus. It is the role of her office to support those leaders as they grow in their new roles.
“In student affairs, it’s critical to never forget that each student writes their own story while they’re here,” she says. “If we don’t respect that, we’re missing a big part of their experience.”
One piece of Dr. Caruso’s vision for her office is to help develop those leadership skills in students across campus. That includes, she notes, not only the students who seek out leadership roles, but those who keep a lower campus profile.
“We want to connect with those students who are not as involved on campus for whatever reason,” she says.
“We don’t necessarily want to push them to get involved, but to make sure we’re developing their skills to help them achieve their personal and professional goals.”
It is important to be accessible and to listen to what the students are saying if Nicholls is to continue to grow, Dr. Caruso says.
“We are going to progress and to work side-by-side with the students to make sure that as we move forward, we understand what their experience is and their needs are so we can help them get to their next phase of their life,” she says.
“I stand on the shoulders of those who helped me, and I hope to be those shoulders for the people who came after me.” – Dr. Michelle Caruso
The ability to connect with students and those around her stems from a lifelong curiosity about people. From a young age she had an interest in clinical psychology which developed into a career in student affairs. She combined those passions together when she first arrived at Nicholls as the director of the counseling center.
“I quickly fell in love with the student affairs and administrative aspect of the role,” she says. “I immediately set my sights on continuing down this path of my journey.”
Dr. Caruso says she uses her psychology background daily when working with students. That foundation helps her to understand where the students are coming from.
“I can develop a sense of the holistic needs of the students, anticipate their responses and assist with any crises – mental health or otherwise – that may come up,” she says.
Throughout her career, Dr. Caruso has been a champion of diversity, inclusion and belonging on the Nicholls campus. Whether that meant standing up in the middle of a public interview to ask a prospective administrator tough questions about Title IX or serving on a system-wide initiative about diversity in the workplace, she has never been afraid to push for equality.
“Equity, social justice are very near and dear to my heart,” she says. “I credit my family with instilling the values and importance of equity and justice for everyone. As a child, my dad never let anyone tell me I couldn’t do or be something just because I was a girl. Those things resonate with you over the course of your life. As I grew as a person and as a professional, my understanding of those things formalized and my understanding of how I need to support those initiatives grew.”
Nicholls is making progress toward being a more inclusive campus, she says, and she hopes her administrative role can contribute to the progress being made.
“Dr. Clune has been the first president who has had an interest in creating a climate of diversity, inclusion and equity on campus,” she says. “It’s not because previous presidents were anti-diversity. It’s not an easy task to shift the climate and culture on campus. But we are making progress.”
Dr. Caruso is conscious of the impact her decisions have on others. Role models, such as her grandmother and father, have played an important role in her life, and she hopes the example she sets can have a similar impact on others.
“I feel strongly about mentorship and role modeling and I take my responsibility very seriously,” she says. “I make it a point to pay it forward and be a mentor and role model to professionals coming up behind me. I stand on the shoulders of those who helped me, and I hope to be those shoulders for the people who came after me.” – Jacob Batte