Campus Engagement/Event Response Teams

During our August Webinar Returning to the (Virtual) Campus, we committed to responding to the additional questions that came in that we were not able to answer during the webinar. Here is the first response to the question: 

What do you think about Student Affairs Professionals supporting student activism and structures of utilizing Campus Engagement/Event Response Teams as a framework?

Authors: Ariella Robbins and Celina Alexander, Villanova University:

The short answer: We think using Campus Engagement/Event Response Teams as a framework is a really effective way to support student activism. Some of the benefits include being proactive in developing plans not only for how to respond as things arise, but also to build and support activism and work to create more inclusive and welcoming spaces. 

Campus Engagement/Event Response Teams (CERTs)

Campus Engagement/Event Response Teams are groups of faculty, staff and students working to proactively build frameworks and structures and to put plans in place to respond to different situations as they arise on campuses. The exact structure and purpose varies across different institutions.

Different Roles of CERTs (Note: This intentionally does not include sexual assault response.) 

  • Responding to bias
  • Campus climate efforts
  • Supporting dialogue
  • Supporting student activism
  • Building connections across campus

Villanova’s Campus Engagement Council

Villanova uses CERTs frameworks in our Campus Engagement Council (CEC), which is based out of the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. CEC arose in the aftermath of the 2016 election to create space for people to come together and talk about how they were feeling. The event was considered a “dialogic town hall” where space was provided for community members to engage in a community conversation about an event (this national event) that impacted the college. There was an initial event where 780 people gathered in a room for facilitated conversations about their reactions and experiences and how to navigate the times without pitting each other against one another. From there, the CEC began offering programming and support around student activism and to address needs across campus.
(Note: Villanova has a separate group focused on bias response.)

Structure of the Council

The CEC has gone through several iterations of structures. We have landed on our current model, which has been working well. There is a core operations team, which are the people actively engaged in the day-to-day work who figure out where the support is needed. There is also an advisory group where the operations team connects with a broader array of folks, keeping them updated on the work and asking for feedback and support. The two groups’ membership is not based on hierarchy but rather arose because the group was getting really large and we needed to slim down in order to be more productive and efficient. One of the strengths of our Council is its far reach with representation from across different parts of campus as well as different levels of responsibility. Our membership includes Vice Presidents, Directors, student affairs professionals, faculty, staff and students. There is power in bringing together the individual spheres of influence of each of the committee members and working together. Having a diverse, inclusive and representative membership helps the group understand what is happening in different areas of campus and therefore understand what supports are needed. 

The Council’s Work

Members of CEC help with student events, talking with students about logistics, supporting students in planning for dialogue and engagement during their events, and offering trained facilitators for, during, or after events. The CEC operates in a consulting and supportive capacity, not doing the work for students, but rather, helping students do what they want to in a way that is meaningful and not harmful for the people in attendance. The CEC does not dictate if students should or should not engage in activism or protest, but rather, helps students consider: what support do you need in order to have the impact and outcomes you desire? 

The CEC strives to assist student activists in a number of ways. The CEC assists by:

  • Helping to point students in the right direction
  • Coaching students and work with them to outline what they need to do
    • Identify the issues and what solutions they would like to see
  • Brainstorming & helping students think through questions like: 
    • What questions are going to come up during the planning process?
    • What does success look like for this campaign, event, initiative?
    • What are potential obstacles and barriers to success?
    • How can you overcome these potential challenges?
  • Editing messages by tailoring the language to their intended audience
  • Attending contentious events and protests to provide support to students and other community members who are in attendance. This is coordinated through a text messaging system as a way to deploy staff who are available.

Student Activism at Villanova

Villanova has a unique culture around activism on campus. Informally called “Villanova Nice,” the culture emphasizes niceness, civility and politeness. But that does not mean that activism is not happening on campus. With each cohort of students, the priorities and means of engaging in activism looks a little different. In this work, one of our roles is to help students be in the driver’s seat.

Get Woke Nova is a student organization that uses Instagram to bring awareness to different perspectives and experiences of people across campuses. Recently, they have been facilitating classroom allyship trainings where professors have requested members of Get Woke Nova to come into the classroom to lead workshops on allyship. 

Another group, Association for Change and Transformation (ACT), leads dialogues and workshops, and in the past they have organized protests. They organize an annual Orientation event, A Touch of Diversity Skit, in which ACT members develop and perform scenes, based on Villanova student experiences, followed by facilitated discussions and tools for how to act in allyship. This year, they adapted to the virtual times by filming the skits, uploading them for new students to watch, and collaborated with Villanova’s Program on Intergroup Relations (IGR) to facilitate virtual discussions for 1,700 incoming students.

With these virtual times, we are already seeing students, both at Villanova and across the country, adapting their advocacy and activism work. Students are holding Zoom events to talk about current issues and provide space for people to share and explore how things have impacted their life at Villanova. Students are organizing together to create their demands and are pushing for what they want to see; they are not willing to accept mediocrity and are becoming more vocal in asking for what they want.

Based on our experiences with the CEC we offer the following tips for supporting student activism: 

  • Build strong relationships with students. The key to success is to invest in getting to know student leaders and building trust and rapport.
  • Define your role transparently. Clearly define and explain what your role is to students. Explain that you are here to help advise and support students, not tell them what to do. Clarify the boundaries of how you can and cannot help.
  • Talk explicitly about power. Help students understand the power dynamics involved in relationships and within their activism work. 
  • Educate students about higher education structures and systems. In order for students to effectively make change, they have to understand how your institution is structured and who has the power to make particular changes. One way to support students is to help them understand how to be loud enough and engage in a way that draws the attention of the right people in order to make change. We can help students understand their own power and how their voice and perspective will resonate differently in different spaces, particularly as the ones who we are charged with educating and the primary reason for our work.
  • Know what resources exist. As a student affairs professional working with students, build out your own resource bank so you know how to support students around processes, procedures, etc. and where to direct them as they are planning their activism.
  • Make warm introductions. Rather than just telling students the name of who to talk to or where to go, offer to introduce them and help arrange for them to get connected. Students thrive when they are connected to a direct person rather than being given a name and sent off; they will be more comfortable and more likely to follow through.
  • Support around post-reflection. Helping students reflect after events. What went well? What would you do differently? What other/additional events might need to happen? How to carry the work forward? What does activism look like on a continual basis?
  • Normalize finding balance. Students often want to be involved in everything and struggle with feeling like they need to be doing more. As advisors and supporters, it is important to help young activists realize that there will be times when things will fall through, when ideas won’t be turned into reality, when people will need to take a break or push pause on their activism work and that is okay. Encourage students to think about building a sustainable practice and finding balance.
  • Encourage transition planning. Students are constantly rotating on and off campus as cohorts graduate and new incoming students begin. It is important to normalize student leadership transitions and help students think about how to make their activism sustainable. Here are some tips:
    • Put the onus on students to pass on their knowledge. Frame it as them supporting the legacy of their work to make sure their work continues after they are no longer on campus.
    • Have student leaders plan for and onboard the next generation of leadership. This often happens via word of mouth and students recruiting their successor but can also be done through an application or election process. 
    • Once the next generation of student leaders have been identified, ask current student leaders to introduce the new people to you. 
      • Ask students about where they do their best work, helping them prioritize and decide where they want to do their activism work, helping them explore how they can be most effective in advancing change.


Ariella Robins (she/her/hers, Associate Director of Education & Training, Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, Co-Chair of Campus Engagement Council, Villanova University

Celina Alexander (she/her/hers), Associate Director, Office of Intercultural Affairs, Co-Chair of Campus Engagement Council, Villanova University

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