July 15 marked Willie L. Banks Jr.’s first day as UCI’s new vice chancellor for student affairs. He comes to Southern California from the Midwest, serving most recently as vice president for student affairs at Indiana State University. But Banks is a native of the South. He earned a bachelor’s degree at Georgia’s Mercer University and a master’s in education and a Ph.D. in student affairs administration at the University of Georgia – where he began his career in student affairs.
At UCI, Banks’ mission is to enrich the student experience for the campus’s nearly 30,000 undergraduates. Specifically, he will head up financial operations, auxiliary services and business enterprises, as well as commencement; scholarship and special programs; academic integrity; student conduct; student diversity organizations; Greek life; and student health, wellness and counseling services. Here, Banks discusses his background, his path to UCI, his approach to student affairs and the advantages of being an Anteater.
Q: What interested you about UCI?
A: I spent a substantial part of my career at a large public research institution in the Southeast, at the University of Georgia. And throughout my career, I’ve always had an affinity for the big public institutions and the diversity they bring to the student body, faculty and staff. After spending the previous eight years in the Midwest, at Indiana State University and Cleveland State University, I was looking for a change, and this opportunity presented itself. Not only is UCI a world-class institution, but the Southern California location was a big selling point. The diversity of the student body and also the chance to work with a great staff to transform lives were important to me for the next step in my career. I wanted to go somewhere where I knew I could make a difference in someone’s life.
Q: What issues are important to you?
A: I think Student Affairs and the work we’re doing is continually evolving. Right now, we’re dealing with a lot of student wellness issues – everything from food insecurity to housing insecurity to financial health and also mental health. Those are issues we’re going to have to face and tackle head-on. It’s going to take the campus community to come up with real-world solutions that help our students.
What I have found in my career is that students come to college ready to do the work but that, unfortunately, life happens, and those life happenings can really affect them. These things can throw them off their career paths, throw them off their academic endeavors. It’s incumbent upon the university to figure out ways to help our students – once they start – to finish.
What they’re learning in the classroom should translate to out-of-classroom experiences.
Part of my responsibility is to be an advocate for our students. One way to do that is by helping our faculty understand their roles and how they can support students – not just within the classroom but also in what they’re doing outside the classroom, such as student orientations, student employment and internships. We have to make sure everyone understands that there is value in all those experiences so that when our students graduate, they understand not only who they are as individuals but also how they can change the world.
Q: What is your intent for Student Affairs at UCI?
A: My intent has always been to transform students lives. When I was an undergraduate student at Mercer University, my life was changed because of student affairs and the faculty and staff at that institution. There was a level of care, a concern for my well-being as a student, and they helped me develop. So it has always been my intent throughout my entire career to ask “How can I change someone’s life? How can I change the campus community to be more understanding? How can I make sure that we make the connection between academic affairs and student affairs and transform students’ lives?”
You’ll hear me talk a lot about the transformative nature of higher education. And it’s not just through the classroom; it’s through student affairs. It’s also through employment, and it’s through engagement in the community. We’re about educating and developing the whole student. I think that’s what’s important. People need to understand that the development of the whole student is really the entire purpose of higher education. We’re here to change lives, to educate students and to develop those students.
Q: What do you want students to know about you?
A: First of all, they’ll see me walking around campus. I’m 6 feet, 5 inches tall, so I’m going to stick out. But I’m friendly, and I want people to come up and introduce themselves to me. I’m biracial: My mother is from Thailand, and my father is African American. I’m proud of my heritage and that I have the intersection of multiple identities. I’m a first-generation college student, so I understand what it’s like for those students trying to navigate higher education. I want our students to have fun but also be safe, so there is going to be that part of me that will question and make sure that people are making wise decisions.
I’m also a big beach person, and I love this weather. People are asking me “Why Southern California?” My answer is “Why not Southern California?” For me, this is a dream opportunity to work at a great institution in a great location with some great people, and I think that’s just phenomenal.
I’m also excited that I’m going to have access to many different types of food. When I was here for my on-campus interview, I was delighted to see the Korean American Student Association’s kimchi stand. For folks here in Southern California, that might not seem like a big deal, but having grown up in the South and been in the Midwest for many years, I thought it was just awesome. I’m thrilled about approaching this experience and this opportunity, and I’m soaking it all in – and it’s just fantastic.