Meet Jen McMillen, Ryerson’s newest vice-provost, students

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By Emma Sandri

It’s been a little over a month since Jen McMillen has been serving as Ryerson University’s vice-provost, students.

A McMaster graduate, McMillen began her career as an elected student leader in university, before going on to work in student affairs at several post-secondary institutions.

The Eyeopener sat down with McMillen for an interview about her new role at Ryerson and what she hopes to accomplish at the university.

What does your role as vice-provost, students entail?

I have the opportunity to sort of provide leadership to many of the student support and service areas of the institution.

The main three components of the portfolio are things that include the registrar’s office, so all of the work that happens in that area to recruit and admit students. I provide financial aid bursaries and scholarships, and to provide transcripts and convocation and all of those aspects of the organization.

Second is student affairs, which comprises of a number of different student engagement and student support areas, so everything from career and co-op to student health and wellness, to Student Learning Support all of those various areas that exist within the portfolio of student affairs.

Then lastly, the department of athletics is a part of this portfolio that I work with as well as student care and accountability and advocacy.

Generally, it is the opportunity to work with all of the leaders at the institution who are really focused on student support, student service, student engagement outside of the classroom and learning what we know can happen. As well as the leadership and development opportunities that come along with being a student at a university.

What were your past experiences that you brought to this role?

I’ve spent my entire career in student affairs and working in higher education. I started my career as a student leader. I was an elected student leader in my undergraduate degree at McMaster University. I spent my entire undergrad involved in student leadership, or elected student government, and that’s kind of where I really found my feet in terms of understanding the impact of all the other stuff that happens at university, in addition to what’s happening in the classroom.

I did my undergraduate degree in kinesiology, but where I really found my passion was working with student leaders, working with other students, supporting students and encouraging and engaging with outside of the classroom. So that’s kind of what started my career and then I came to learn and understand that there were full-time jobs that you could get in this in this world.

So I started mainly in housing, working in residence as a full-time professional live in residence person. I did that at a number of different universities, Ryerson’s actually the seventh campus that I’ve worked at. I spent some time working at McMaster, University of Guelph, Western University, Brock University, the University of Toronto and then most recently at Humber College.

I was at Humber College for the last eight and a half years. My most recent role was as the dean of students and in that area, I worked with the Department of Student Success and engagement which was comprised of athletics and all the student affairs components.

I did spend a short period of time as well on a university campus working in the human rights and equity area. Equity has always been a component of my work and an area that really matters to me which is part of why I feel like Ryerson is such a good fit for what I bring as well as what the community believes in and stands for. It’s very aligned with my own values.

What makes Ryerson different from the other schools you have worked at in the past? Would you say Ryerson’s equity was the main draw of the institution?

I think it’s certainly a significant component. I think the way that obviously many institutions in higher education in Canada, ideally have equity as a part of their sort of core values.

However, what I feel here is how that is lived and how that’s prioritized is more significant than I’ve seen in some other institutions and that unapologetic focus on issues around equity, diversity and inclusion is certainly something that made the opportunity very attractive.

I also like Ryerson’s history, I like where it’s come from and the institution that it’s becoming with breaking the mold. I feel like it’s the best of all worlds, where it’s a high class, world-class university that still has, at its core, an understanding that we need to focus on access for students. There’s a whole variety of students within our communities that we should be supporting and serving.

And there have been a few vice-provost, students, in the past years. Why do you think that is?

You know, I think that’s just circumstance. If you look at the history of the division, I mean the inaugural first vice-provost was here for nine years. In order to facilitate the search process, which I think the institution did very thoughtfully and intentionally and took their time to make sure they found the right fit, another interim was appointed and that’s really all that it was. Simply ensuring that there continued to be leadership and support for all the work that was being done while the search process was underway.

What are some things that you hope to implement or see happen during your time here?

I am really excited about the opportunity to re-imagine, maybe, some of the ways that we do things to really build on the successes that already exist.

I think the opportunity of anybody who’s new, is a fresh lens and the opportunity to look at things maybe a little bit differently. So I am looking forward to hearing from Ryerson students what matters most to them. I think any campus has its own unique culture that needs to be elevated and amplified and one of my core beliefs is that we need to design our supports and services around the lived experiences of our students. So what I most look forward to is getting to know what those experiences are and what those needs are and then how we can identify, create, enhance programs and services that really support what students need. I’m a strong believer i the concept of student well-being in a very holistic and wrap around way.

I think that we have opportunities to provide really outstanding support for students in a variety of ways and at a variety of times. What is important is often ensuring that students know about supports and services that we have. So I think we need to think about how are we promoting that to students and how we are communicating with students. Communication with students is an area that I’ve focused on in the last few years, [asking] ‘Are we getting our messages out in a way that students hear them, that they want to receive them? And how we can partner with students around doing that.

I really am excited about learning more about what it is about the Ryerson student experience that all of these committed and talented folks within the division can come together to support. As I said, the work is impressive already, so I’m just excited to look at how can we focus on continuous improvement and really see whether there are some areas where maybe we can take things to the next level.

Is there anything you wanted to add?

The welcome that I have received from this community has been tremendous. It has been warm, it has been open and very collegial, with people offering help and support. It’s not always easy to switch institutions and I don’t know my way around at all, but what I can say is that it feels right. That’s really exciting for me.

Responses have been edited for length and clarity

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