Heather White: Setting goals and embracing uncertainty

Heather White, UF’s new associate vice president and dean of students, is committed to making sure every student feels advocated and cared for.

White began in the role last month after serving as interim dean since last summer and director of UF’s Career Resource Center before that. She wants every UF student to see the Dean of Students Office (DSO) as a place for resources, connection and conversation.

“We connect students to the resources they need, be it academic or personal,” said White, who joined UF in 2003. “If a student is experiencing struggles, we want them to know that the Dean of Students Office is here to help. We want to make sure that all students are set up for success.”

The DSO provides programs and services to enhance students’ academic and personal success. It is comprised of three core groups: New Student & Family Programs, which helps students transition to college and assists family members in understanding their students’ experiences; Student Conduct & Conflict Resolution, which educates students about responsible behavior and choices; and the Care Team — known by its slogan, “U Matter, We Care” — an umbrella program for UF’s caring culture that provides students in distress with support and the coordination of a variety of resources.

The Dean of Students Office provides oversight for both the Collegiate Veterans Success Center, a designated space for student veterans to study, meet and support each other, and the Alan and Cathy Hitchcock Pantry, a partnership with IFAS that provides food for students and employees in need.

As interim dean, White secured roughly $600,000 in funding to expand the pantry — the next step in acquiring enough space to accept more donations and, in turn, feed more members of the UF community. White is hopeful that the expansion will also include a cooking space for educational programs.

“We might not always stop to think about food security issues and how they impact our campus, but the fact is that some of our students, faculty and staff need help in this area,” said White. “Basic needs have to be met for success. If there are food security issues, we want to minimize them. We don’t want anyone suffering. We’re all Gators and we need to make sure people feel taken care of.”

Since starting in the role, White has been working on several initiatives, including moving the student medical withdrawal process from paper-based to entirely online, evaluating and revising the student code of conduct and updating the DSO’s strategic goals. She hosts a monthly “Dine with the Dean” event for students, and you may have also spotted her handing out doughnuts to passersby across campus each month for fun and, of course, to meet UF’s students, who amaze and inspire her every day.

“Our world is so fast-paced that when you stop to meet people face to face, there is a real gratitude there,” said White. “There is no replacing that connection.”

The importance of education

As a first-generation college student from Alabama, White knew the importance of education from an early age.

“My family was extremely focused on it,” said White, who will also oversee the Counseling and Wellness Center and Multicultural and Diversity Affairs as part of her new role.

She completed her bachelor’s in psychology at Troy State (now Troy University) in three years, knowing that she wanted to help people in some way. She began a master’s degree program in counselor education a week after graduating, and later, after getting the required three years of work experience for a doctorate in education (EdD) program, she started her EdD in educational leadership.

“I decided in seventh grade that I would get a doctorate someday,” White said. “My mindset was that I knew what I wanted to do, so if I finished early and stayed on track, I could do it sooner.”

You could say White is committed to setting goals and sticking to them. The beauty of this is that you can let go and let some of the smaller details work themselves out, she says.

“A year ago, if you told me I’d be in this position, I would have laughed,” she said. “There is only so much you can plan for and you have to embrace what you can’t. I try to practice what I preach to students.”

In addition to not sweating the small stuff, White tries to impress on students the importance of always working to grow and enhance their skillsets, being able to articulate their skills and building their community and relationships.

“At the end of the day, it’s not what you do but the way you treat people that matters,” she said. “This is a guide to me; the importance of kindness can never been overstated. There are lots of twists and turns in life, and you never know what people are going through. Kindness plus skillsets and networking is the recipe for career success. If you focus and work on these pieces, you don’t have to have everything else figured out; you can let go.”

In terms of her own path, White says she is grateful for UF’s support from the very beginning.

“You never know how a new job will change you, what impact it will have on you,” said White. “I’ve grown up here professionally. UF is an institution that I really believe in; its focus on excellence and caring fits with my values. When I joined UF 14 years ago, I didn’t have experience in career services but I had transferrable skills. People took a chance on me, and so I love being able to do that for others. Everybody has to have a first chance.”