Highlighting diversity: Shene Owens talks about going beyond her title as administrator, being a guiding presence and mentor on campus

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When Assistant Director for the Center for Student Diversity Shene Owens first arrived at the College of William and Mary in 2016, she spent her first semester observing the students and getting a feel for the campus.

“My door is always open,” Owens said. “Usually students are stopping by either with something really pressing they want to talk about. Sometimes it’s informal, we just sit and eat lunch together … and talk about what they have going on.”

One of Owens’ many responsibilities is serving as the coordinator for the Preparing for Life as a University Student Program. PLUS is a pre-orientation program with the goal of facilitating the transition between high school and college — students get to work with faculty members of the College, become familiar with campus resources, and participate in mock class sessions.

“So, it’s a one week program, but since I’ve had it for the last three years I’ve started expanding it throughout the year,” Owens said. “So, working with the Office of First Year Experience in trying to implement some workshops and different things with campus partners throughout the year so students feel supported not just prior to coming. … PLUS has been the biggest impact that I would say that I’ve had on campus.”

Owens is also in charge of planning events around President’s Council, as well as other signature and cultural events.

“I plan a retreat at the beginning of the semester to help with leadership skills, recruitment and retention, membership engagement, some of the skills you need as a leader when running an organization,” Owens said. “And then, throughout the year we meet between two to four times, and then in the spring, we have a spring retreat with the outgoing president and the incoming president to go over some transition skills.”

Once she got a vibe for the campus, she was able to implement her own ideas, one of which is her well-known Chat n’ Chew conversations. These conversations come in three different forms, and the topics come from different elements of student life.

“So, one way there’s a set topic and we’ll talk about, whether it’s diversity at William and Mary, whether the topic is self-care. … Another way is Chat n’ Chew discussion pot, and that’s when I walk in the room with my little pot and we put anonymous questions in the bowl and we just pull them out and talk about whatever we decide that day,” Owens said. “Another option is Chat n’ Chew community conversations, and that’s when I go out into the residence halls or in different departments and just either they will ask me to talk about a specific topic that there’s something going on in that group, or we just have general conversations just to build some team building and community.”

Through the CDS, Owens maintains and builds partnerships with other campus organizations. These include the Haven, Health Promotions, Sharpe Community Scholars, Admissions and more.

“We partner with anyone who’s willing, or we ask them to be willing,” Owens said. “We partner trying to make sure that the students that we serve know more about the resources that are available on campus.”

When reminiscing on the changes that she has seen on campus during her time here, Owens chooses not to think of them as changes, per se. She prefers to consider them advances towards the CSD’s goal of fostering and providing a safe and inclusive environment for the College.

“Just emphasizing belonging on campus, and making sure that everyone feels welcome,” Owens said. “Making sure that the student population knows that the CSD is not for just one set or group of students, that everyone is welcome at the CSD and that it’s a place where you can come and have programming, you can come and just eat lunch, you can come and sleep if you need to. But I think that has been our main focus, is just the sense of belonging so that you know it’s not that like you have to retreat there, away from anywhere else, but that it’s a place where you can go and just be.”

Owens highlighted the student-centered element to the CSD, especially how events and programs are much more successful when students are involved and get to see their suggestions brought to life. 

“I’m fun, and we are fun; we have fun here,” Owens said. “Sometimes you see that word ‘administrator’ and then you just think like, ‘Oh I’m gonna be in trouble,’ or ‘I have to act a certain way.’ Be respectful, of course, but we have a good time and we want to build programming and have a space that reflects students.”

While discussing her role within the CSD and the students she works with, a smile never left Owens’ face.

“I love what I do,” Owens said. “I love working with students, and I love the students here at William and Mary, because just as much as I take care of them, they will remind me drink my water, did you have lunch. … I will preach self-care all day long, but the students are listening and will repeat it back, so I appreciate that.”