Get to Know Your Campus: Under Dr. Wallace Southerland’s leadership, Millikin’s Student Affairs strives to build a more vibrant campus

From the Student Success Center to the Office of Campus Life and Student Mental and Behavioral Health Services, Student Affairs reaches every student on campus.

This is the second in a series of articles focusing on each departmental group represented by the Millikin University Staff Advisory Council (MUSAC) members. To learn more about the different campus departments, we will highlight a new area each month.

DECATUR, Ill. – Spend some time on Millikin University's campus, and you will likely meet Dr. S. 

If you haven’t had the pleasure yet, Dr. S. is Millikin University Vice President of Student Affairs and Deputy Title IX Coordinator Dr. Wallace Southerland. He’s a fixture in the University Commons, and if you are a Big Blue student, it’s only a matter of time until he says “hello” and asks how classes are going and, at lunchtime, how the food is in the cafeteria.

The intent is to help break students out of their shells, increase students’ sense of belonging and continue to build a vibrant Millikin community. 

Wallace Southerland
 Millikin University Vice President of Student Affairs and Deputy Title IX Coordinator Dr. Wallace Southerland.

“When I'm walking around campus and talking with students, you never know who you will interact with. As I walk past students, I catch them off guard, and it's almost like I make them speak. I make them say ‘hello,’ and I make them tell me how they're doing, and sometimes they're shocked,” Southerland said. “It’s different for them and that's good. For me, it is also an indication that as a university community, we all should be intentional about speaking to students when we see them and not just let them walk by us.”

Dr. S. is quickly approaching his first anniversary leading Student Affairs after coming to Millikin last July with more than 30 years of higher education leadership experience. He has enjoyed his time as he and his team reimagines the Student Affairs office, which includes the Student Success Center, the Office of Campus Life, and Student Mental and Behavioral Health Services. 

Wallace Southerland
Dr. Wallace Southerland speaks at the 2023-24 Opening Convocation ceremony. 

“I'm having a really good time at Millikin, and I'm finding joy in my work. I enjoy working with President Reynolds, the leadership team, and my colleagues and staff. I absolutely love the students that we have here. Returning to a smaller private university environment, we (as administrators) often wear multiple hats,” he said. “There are days when I'm not just a Vice President. I'm also going to be a mentor, I'm also going to be a coach. I've stepped in and helped students with career development. I also enjoy that there's a lot of flexibility because we are a small and private university and there's so much incredible potential at Millikin.”

Southerland was recently honored with a Legacy Award by the Academic Achievement Programs at the University of Maryland, where he earned his doctorate, for co-founding and his support of the Dr. Ronald E. McNair Scholars Program, which was celebrating its 25th anniversary. National McNair Scholars programs are one of several TRIO educational outreach and access programs funded by the U.S. Department of Education.

Wallace Southerland
Dr. S speaks to students during New Student Welcome Week. 

The program honors McNair, who was America’s second black astronaut and one of seven crew members killed on the space shuttle Challenger, and encourages low-income, first-generation, and underrepresented college students to expand their educational opportunities, enroll in graduate school, and pursue doctoral degrees. Southerland directed the program while at Maryland and was asked to deliver a keynote at the anniversary event. 

“I wanted to keep the scholars inspired, keep them encouraged, because doing research can be discouraging. I wanted to validate their concerns, fears, and frustrations and encourage them to stay the course,” he said. “Getting the award (The Dr. Ronald E. McNair Legacy Award) was a total surprise and it was an honor. It was a sense of validation for the work that we do with the students we've served which is difficult work. For me, this work is my ministry. It's a personal ministry for me.”

Student Affairs staff
The Millikin University Student Affairs staff in August 2023. 

To continue and expand Millikin’s mission to deliver on the promise of excellence in education, the University was awarded a five-year $2.2 million Dept. of Education Title III Grant in 2023, and the project initiatives include: 

  • Success coaching for first-year and sophomore students, students majoring in exploratory studies, and underserved students.
  • Career-focused success coaching.
  • Improved training for Millikin’s student mentors.
  • Professional development experiences for faculty and staff.
  • Investing in new technologies to improve student experiences and retention.
Dr. Brandon Cockburn
Millikin’s Director of the Title III Grant/C-IDEAS Dr. Brandon Cockburn.

Joining Southerland’s staff to manage the grant is Dr. Brandon Cockburn as Millikin’s Inaugural Director of the Title III Grant/C-IDEAS (Creating Inclusivity, Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Sense of Belonging at Millikin). He will direct the grant's activities and coordinate with university stakeholders to strengthen Millikin's ability to improve student success from enrollment to program and degree completion. Dr. Cockburn began his position virtually in March and will be in person after June 1.

“Brandon has been building relationships and those relationships are just as important as the work that we do. His role has two big functions. One is to be a university-wide facilitator leader to bring people together across campus to focus on how we can improve Millikin's capacity as an institution to improve student success from the point of entry to the point of graduating,” Southerland said. “The other piece is to work with C-IDEAS on their initiatives and to help the university move forward on diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives that we need to get off the ground.”

Athena Pajer
Millikin's Athena Pajer will shift to Student Affairs on May 1. 

Also joining the Student Affairs staff is current Center for International Education (CIE) International Student Services Coordinator Athena Pajer as the inaugural Director for Student Engagement and Leadership Development. Athena will start in the role on May 1 and work to promote and contribute to student retention and success by providing leadership and oversight of student involvement, engagement, and leadership development. 

As the Class of 2028 begins their Millikin journey later this summer, Dr. S. and Student Affairs are also reimagining orientation and registration days and the first few days, weeks, and months of the Big Blue experience – all of which are hallmarks of Millikin’s new “Great Start” initiative.

New Students M symbol

“We are being intentional about making sure that our new students have a solid foundation for academic success, and to do that, we are reimagining many things. We're reimagining how we do orientation and registration, a New Student Welcome Week, and bridging that into the first six weeks of the fall semester, not just for students, but faculty and staff as well,” Southerland said. “All of that comes together to create a sense of belonging for our students, ideally leading to better retention rates. I'm excited as we refine some of those ideas and roll those out to the campus.”