Kerstin Soderlund, Associate Dean for Student and External Affairs, oversees and coordinates a number of vital functions within the Jepson School of Leadership Studies, with an emphasis on the student experience and student development. She oversees the admissions process and is the main liaison to the Career Development Center. Her responsibilities also include assessment, advising of student government and co-curricular programs, and administration of the School’s experiential education programs. She mentors students throughout their required Jepson internships and serves as the faculty for the academic work that corresponds with the internship experience. She also teaches the Justice and Civil Society course, which is required of all students who enter the Jepson School. She holds a doctorate in higher education administration from the University of Virginia and a master’s degree in counseling psychology from Rutgers University. Link to her biography

Her office is located on the first floor of Jepson Hall and, almost always, she has a student in it with her.

You have a reputation of having an open door policy and being always available to students. How do you see your role and responsibilities?

I see myself as an educator, which encompasses both mentor and teacher. When I talk with students, whether it is about classes and scheduling or the activities in which they are involved, I want that conversation to be engaging and developmental. Whether inside the classroom, in my office, or in a short hallway or sidewalk encounter I want to bring what I can to the conversation and dialogue, but I see the student as an equal partner: They need to bring what they can to the exchange as well.

Broadly defined, what is student development and how is your job focused?

Student development is about developing the whole student — intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, physically, and socially. The field of student development is about fostering a student’s growth beyond the classroom, helping them cultivate knowledge, competencies, and skills that will enable them to live balanced, fulfilling lives.

At Jepson, I have the luxury to work with students both inside and outside the classroom. Outside of the classroom, I see it is my role to engage them in meaningful ways so that they can be successful in their academic studies and can find complementary opportunities and activities to supplement the knowledge they are acquiring in class.

When you mentor students through their internships, you have them write a number of papers that explain or reflect upon their experiences. How do community-based learning placements and internships fit into learning about leadership?

Experiential opportunities, like those provided in community-based learning classes or through internships, provide Jepson students the opportunity to observe and apply the theories and concepts discussed in the classroom. In their internship and "Justice and Civil Society" papers, students reflect on the fact that witnessing leadership and communication styles or injustices first hand makes class reading and discussion significantly more relevant. And students indicate that recognizing that Jepson-related insights they have on-site fuel their actions and the strategies they employ. So experiential opportunities enable students to live the Jepson curriculum.

How does experiential learning shape a student’s perspectives and shape the student as a person?

Students may choose to complete their community-based learning requirement or internship at a particular organization or agency because they want to pursue a career in education and they may find that the experience solidifies their interest or raises questions about whether that field is an appropriate path. So experiential learning can really help students explore the types of work they might like to pursue, the kinds of environments in which they work best, the type of organization in which they would like to work. But experiential learning may also expose students to realities and life histories that are removed from the student’s personal experience and that can also really impact a student. Students may reevaluate beliefs and values as a result of working with a particular agency/organization. They may reconsider priorities.

Among senior administrators at Jepson, you probably have the most contact with our students’ parents. What advice would you give parents about the student experience?

Having worked with first-year student programs for many years and served as a Dean of Students, I think the best advice I can give parents and guardians is to ask your student questions, ask them to elaborate. If your student “loves” or “hates” a class, a roommate, a program they attended–-ask them to talk about what it is that they “loved” or “hated.” It can be difficult if you are many miles from your student and they “hate” something, but it is important to help them articulate why something has really engaged them or bothered them.

The other piece of advice, which is difficult at times, is to encourage your student to follow up with concerns and ask questions for him/herself. There is much to be learned if a student goes to the appropriate offices to ask questions and address issues. They develop the ability to advocate for themselves. 

The University is committed to providing a unique student experience to each and every student. How do you see the Jepson experience as supporting that element of the Richmond Promise? 

As the only academic program that requires majors to complete a credit-bearing internship and given the infusion of community-based learning in the curriculum, Jepson clearly provides engaging co-curricular experiences that immerse our students in communities around the globe.

This is a key component in the Richmond Promise and something that has been part of the Jepson experience since the School’s creation.

Jepson is a small community within a relatively small University and our students really cultivate the ability to look at the world, at different issues, with a multidisciplinary perspective and a critical mind. They have the ability to apply what they learn in the classroom in practical settings during several intervals of their tenure at Jepson.

What are some priorities for this year and the near future in terms of enhancing the Jepson student experience?

I want to expand opportunities for Jepson students to be engaged in our School community. Last spring, the JSGA made changes to the constitution, instituting a special election shortly after Prelude so that recently admitted sophomores can get involved with School governance earlier. We’re also instituting a more structured orientation program for newly admitted students so they can think more strategically about the way in which they want to create their Jepson experience. This year we’ll be inviting the first group of students to serve as part of the Jepson Corps, an emissary group for the Jepson School of Leadership Studies. These students will assist with prospective student programs, faculty and staff searches, the new Jepson orientation program, Jepson related alumni functions, and other programs. We’re also working to cultivate a manageable mentoring program that will connect Jepson alumni with current students.