Season 3 - Episode 344
There’s a lot on the plate of a Baylor University Student Body President, particularly in 2020. On this Baylor Connections, meet this year’s president, Sutton Houser. He shares details about the duties and responsibilities of student body presidents, what it means to be a voice for students, and takes listeners inside his work with Baylor leadership, local churches, campus initiatives and more.
Derek Smith:Hello, and welcome to Baylor Connections, a conversation series with the people shaping our future. Each week, we go in depth with Baylor leaders, professors, and more, discussing important topics in higher education, research and student life. I'm Derek Smith, and our guest today is Sutton Houser. Sutton Houser serves as student body president of Baylor University. A senior international business and entrepreneurship double major from Boerne, Texas, Houser has served in a variety of student government and leadership roles on campus. The student body president role at Baylor is the chief executive officer of student government and the official spokesman of the Baylor student body to all Baylor constituencies, the public, the media, at other colleges and universities. It's a busy stretch here as a student and the student government leader as we approach the end of the semester, and Sutton, it's great to have you on the program today. Thanks so much for joining us.
Sutton Houser:Thank you, Derek, for having me here.
Derek Smith:Well, it's great to visit with you and learn more about your role. And I'm curious, now, obviously there's not much typical about 2020. But as student body president for you, is there such thing as maybe a typical day or a typical week? And if so, what does that look like?
Sutton Houser:Well, you just said it. Yeah, there's not much typical about 2020, but just to kind of give you a little insight into maybe a daily routine. Thankfully, I have an office here on campus, it's in the SUB, so I'm able to be in my office with my vice president and really students are always filtering in, whether they're in student government or outside student government, just asking questions and wanting to kind of check up on things. But really on a week timeline, it looks about 15 meetings a week on top of some classwork, so it's very, very busy.
Derek Smith:Well, what are your priority responsibilities? What are the top of the line things that are the first things on your to-do list or on your list of responsibilities?
Sutton Houser:Well, my very first priority is to represent the needs of students, and so the only way to do that is to be truly that bridge between administration and students. And so making sure that I'm listening to administration, I'm in those meetings, I'm hearing what they're thinking and what they're planning. And then also doing my best to reach out to student leaders and other students on campus and make sure I'm checking in with them, seeing if we can help, if I can do anything for them. But really, additionally, my role is also to lead the organization of student government and to help facilitate change and to guide some of our members to make the change they want to see on campus.
Derek Smith:You mentioned representing students, Sutton. And with that, we have so many on campus, and I know you've got a great team and student government has a great setup to support you in that. But how do you go about that, learning the needs of students when there's so many, and we've got such a diverse student body?
Sutton Houser:Yes. Baylor really, truly has a uniquely diverse student population. The way I go about that is doing my best to reach out. Thankfully, I'm not the only one in student government who's wanting to reach out and wanting to do better. And so I know whether it's the PR Committee on Senate or my communications team or myself, we're all trying to reach out to student organizations. And I will say that we can for sure do a better job. More communication is not going to be a bad thing. But making sure that we reach out to organizations and to students, and really ask and be available to take questions and see if we can help, I mean, that's our job.
Derek Smith:We are visiting with Baylor student body president, Sutton Houser. And Sutton, you described yourself working with students, working with administration, and that's a unique role. And I'm curious for you what that's like? Sometimes you're in meetings with President Livingstone, the President's Council, perhaps the Board of Regents. Other times you're working with students. What's it like navigating that world and finding your place, and really kind of representing students and communicating with people of very different constituencies?
Sutton Houser:I would say it's all about having an open mind. There's a lot of things I know I do not know. And I know I do not share the same experiences of every student. I know that I do not have the maybe longevity of a career that some of our administration has. And so by knowing that and by really kind of going into each meeting being like, "Okay, have an open mind. What am I walking you to? What could I really try to get out of this meeting?" And really just trying to listen and do my best to move forward with the various initiatives that we have going forward.
Derek Smith:Sutton, you paint a picture of even just, as you said, all the meetings in a week and on top of your studies, you have to want to do this. It's a very busy role. And I'm curious, what drew you to student government and is this something that you've always wanted to?
Sutton Houser:No, I would say that my student government experience is a truly unique one compared to many of my colleagues. I knew, in fact, I did not want to do student government my freshman year. Personally, I thought it'd be hypocritical for me to want to advertise I wanted to change Baylor or make Baylor better when truthfully I hardly knew much about Baylor. But really by the end of my freshman year and by being able to pour more into my experience in the university, I was excited to give back. And so I went for sophomore class president and really kind of started on this journey in student government. But the more I was able to invest in Baylor and invest in student government, invest in my community, the more excited I was to serve and wanting to do more.
Derek Smith:What was it about your Baylor experience? Starting that freshman year, and then I'm sure adding to it in various ways these last three years for you, what is it about your Baylor experience that makes it meaningful to serve?
Sutton Houser:I think it's the community. Baylor University is unique in its Christian commitment and in our goals and in the way we go about our higher education. And so thankfully, we have surrounded ourselves with an incredible community who is loving, is kind and is wanting to help each other out. And so that's why I want to serve. I know other universities have very contentious relationships with their student governments at times, but thankfully Baylor student government has a great relationship with senior administration. And going forward, we all have a similar goal, what can we do better? How can we help our students and really going about the best way to do that?
Derek Smith:Are there aspects of student government that maybe those of us on the outside don't fully appreciate? Are there aspects, that you not having originally wanted to go into it, that you've really come to appreciate more that you might not have known if you hadn't served?
Sutton Houser:I think it's the people. I understand that due to my role, people tend to perceive me as a sole focus of student government, that mouthpiece of student government. But I honestly wish that you all could see more of the members of student government and really get to talk with them more, because I can say with great confidence that my team especially is absolutely incredible. The students in my team have very diversive backgrounds, desires, goals, ambition and interests, and they all work so hard. And so thankfully much of the work that student government is really able to get done and the impact we have on our campus is due to them. And so I understand that many of you all won't be able to meet with them or see them, but they are truly the change makers on this campus.
Derek Smith:We are visiting with Sutton Houser, Baylor University student body president, a senior international business and entrepreneurship major here on Baylor Connections. And Sutton, you mentioned the last couple of years you've served leading up to this year's time as president, so you can appreciate the differences in 2020 versus past years as it relates to student government. What are some of the ways that this year, the past few months during the pandemic has impacted the way you and your colleagues serve and the way you have to go about what you do?
Sutton Houser:I would say the way that it's impacted is really in two different ways. First, we're having to be very innovative and flexible when it comes to planning any sort of initiative. We're always having to come up against challenges and see, okay, what can we do to fix that? What can we do to make this event happen or really provide this service for students? Having to be innovative and flexible is key. But also, additionally, we're having to be a lot better about being intentional with our communication. How are we communicating on social media? What are we doing to reach out to students? How are we having those meetings and these conversations? Because due to COVID, we can't all meet the same. We all can't communicate the same. And so having to be very intentional with how we reach out to students and really trying to make that a focus of what we're doing.
Derek Smith:To what extent, what have your priorities been as you headed into, let's just say, going into this fall semester back in August leading into that, and the summer to now? What have been some of your real priorities as it relates to the uniqueness of this semester?
Sutton Houser:I started campaigning in the midst of COVID, and so the world that we're all living in was the one was I stepping up to meet and to try to serve in that capacity. And so really the roles and the focus that I'm trying to go for this year is really in three areas. First, how can we help the health and wellness for our students? Students are hurting right now, whether it's mental health or food insecurity. And so how can student government be a resource for students and help and serve in that capacity? Next is, as we were looking over the topic of racial healing and the racial discrimination in our nation, Baylor itself is looking internally and saying, "What can we do better?" And so through various initiatives, we're really working hard to see how can we make student government more representative of our student body. And then finally, like I said, communication is key. Making sure we communicate with students, and be available and listen, and do everything we can to share the resources and just share information and be available for feedback is one of my key priorities for this year.
Derek Smith:What has stood out to you? We talk about the efforts to keep students safe, to support students' needs in a variety of ways. You talked about whether it's food insecurity, mental health areas that are exacerbated in some ways by the situation that we find ourselves in. What's it like approaching those, and what stood out to you about the efforts that have been most meaningful for you and your fellow students?
Sutton Houser:Well, with the topic of food insecurity or mental health, some of these health and wellness issues, some of the things that stood out is Baylor's focus on it and how Baylor has zeroed in to, "Hey, we know this is an issue, we can see it and we're doing our best to serve." And so thankfully, student government has paired alongside university. One example being we had the first-ever Mental Health Week in the fall. Normally student government plans a mental health week in the spring. But how we're looking at this year, we said we cannot wait until the spring to make sure our freshmen and our students in vulnerable positions know the resources we have on campus. And so we made the even happened in the fall of the first couple of weeks of school. We had this great mental health week and paired with the counseling center. And so that was one specific area in which we said, "Hey, we need to make sure these students know these resources and seek to fill that need for students."
Derek Smith:Sutton, a lot of us listening could probably think back to our own college experience and what you all are experiencing right now is so different. Whether it's when the spring semester went remote after spring break and suddenly for a lot of people, for seniors, they weren't coming back. And then you come back to campus. And some classes are virtual, some classes are in person, and everyone has various levels of comfort with that. Probably some of your normal weekend, if you're going out with friends, you can't do that as easily. I'm just wondering, this is a broad question, but how do you as students, maybe you individually or from you talking to other students, just sort of adjust to all that, try to make the best of it and try to make the best safely of enjoying the aspects of friendship and community that college has?
Sutton Houser:That's key right now. And we've, myself and my team, have had many discussions with Student Life and the President's Council about how can we make sure we're helping students foster that community? And I'll say it, it is a challenge right now. For many students, that looking back on previous years, the expectations of what this year could have been, and they're upset about it. Or they're freshmen and maybe they don't know better, and they're jumping straight into Baylor and they're trying to find a community and it may be difficult. But I will say our students, Baylor University students, have truly stepped up to the challenge of COVID-19 and really met it full force. And we've done our part to make sure that we stay on campus. I know the first couple of weeks, we were looking at other universities closing down and we were nervous about Baylor's chances of staying open. But I'll say it's because of our students and the guidance we have from administration that we're able to make it through this year. And I'm even looking at the dashboard right now and I think there's around 63 active cases, and I think that's just a testament to students saying, "Hey, we know we can't do it the same way as we have in previous years, so we're going to gather in more smaller friend groups, go out less, but still work in meaningful ways of how we can hang out with each other in a safe way."
Derek Smith:It has been fantastic to see and really a model in a lot of ways as we visit with Sutton Houser, Baylor University student body president here on Baylor Connections. And Sutton, I want to shift gears a little bit and ask you, this role, there's a structure to it. There is, like you said, you represent the student body to a variety of different constituencies. To what extent does each president, and of course you specifically, get to put his or her own stamp on the job? What does that look like?
Sutton Houser:Well, I think it's unique for each year and I think it's unique to the leader going into this role. And thankfully, I have an incredible team who are all go-getters. I was telling them the other night during our meeting, I'm thankful for the change that they're making on campus because I may be wrapped up in several meetings and not be able to reach out to organizations or reach out to campus partners and really help plan some of these events that we're trying to do and these initiatives we're trying to get forward. And so I believe the stamp that each president can do in this role is really chalked up to the circumstances they're walking into as well as the effectiveness of their team. And so some areas of my focus, I touched on earlier, health and wellness, making sure our students' health and wellness needs are provided for and that student government's sharing its resources. That student government actively working to make student government more representative of the student body. Having diversity initiatives key to what we're doing this year, that is main focus of mine. And that initiative is to communicate more with students. And so obviously walking into this position in 2020 in the midst of COVID and a lot of hurt going on in our nation, in our community, those have been key focuses of how we can help our students and help our community during this time.
Derek Smith:Sutton, you mentioned hurt that people are feeling. You referenced earlier some of the issues we've seen of racial discrimination and conversations about justice that really, particularly in the early summer, were really blooming in some unique ways. And certainly Baylor has worked to bring a Christian voice into these conversations and to see where we can do better. And I know you're on the Diversity Council. What's your role and what are some of the aims that you pursue as a group together?
Sutton Houser:Yes, so the Diverse Coalition was an idea we had last year going into this year knowing that student government had to be better, and we know that the leadership needed to get more perspectives of our students. And so my role on the commission, this coalition, my apologies, really is a facilitator. Brought together 15 students and these 15 students are really representing different backgrounds. And we get in this meeting and they get to talk about what's going on, either in their organizations or in their lives or ideas that they want to see happen on campus. I'm there to facilitate a conversation, I'm there to listen. And then from that, the Diversity Coalition is really working towards making sure student government is more representative our student body. We're reaching out to more organizations and making sure no organization feels like they're being left out from student government or that their student representatives are not wanting to listen to their voice. And then really providing opportunity to discuss ideas and potential plans that we can implement that these students on the Diversity Coalition are wanting to make happen on our campus.
Derek Smith:Visiting with Sutton Houser, student body president. And Sutton, you engage with students, as you talked about there, and interact with the administration. I know there's also a role external to the campus as well. You engage with people outside of the immediate Baylor family, local churches being one example. Tell me a little about your efforts that you're working in building just relationships and how you work with local churches.
Sutton Houser:Yes. This is one of the key areas for this year that I've been really excited about working on. We had an initiative start this year called The Church to You Initiative, so bringing in minority church leaders onto our campus to really connect with our students. And so through this opportunity, we've been able to do virtual events where local pastors are able to speak with our students. And then additionally, we'll work with Spiritual Life right now to see how we can help our multicultural religious organizations to really voice their presence on campus and see how we can share their resources. I think there's a misconception that there's a Baylor bubble where students at Baylor are not wanting to break outside of their normal routine or really leave campus. And many of our students, I know, are doing an incredible job serving the churches and getting involved. And so I want to help students connect to those churches and connect to those communities because I think that's where great growth happened. And churches continue to be a main resource for students to connect with the larger Waco community. And so knowing that we've had a Church to You Initiative and we're working through that to make sure students are getting connected to our churches. Because at the end of the day, I think if students are connected to churches, they'll be able to interact with individuals in a different life or a different really life stage, or who are maybe different from them. And so by getting connected, I think we will help the health of our students and really seek to enrich the quality of the student experience because they're making those connections and because they're getting involved in churches.
Derek Smith:Visiting with Sutton Houser, as we head into the final few minutes on the program. Sutton, we'd be remiss if we didn't get to know you a little bit personally. Here you are an international business and entrepreneurship double major. The question that begs to me is, what are you pursuing next when your time at Baylor is through? When you envision yourself looking down the line, what is it that you want to do?
Sutton Houser:Well, thankfully, I'm excited about the time of had at Baylor and looking forward to what my time outside of Baylor looks like. And so I, right now I'm pursuing a few different opportunities, looking to do some consulting work in Dallas, business consulting that is. And then additionally looking to DC for a few opportunities to see how I can get involved and help work on policy for our nation, but we will see. This year continues to be interesting, but I'm really just trying to knock on every door and see which one got opened.
Derek Smith:You mentioned the schedule that you keep. It obviously doesn't sound like that leaves a whole lot of room for free time, but do you have some of that? What do you enjoy to do to when you need to get away from the busy-ness of you being student body president? When your studies, when your homework is completed, how are you able to kind of mentally get a break from all that?
Sutton Houser:Well, I'd say my friends and my roommates are very gracious about that. I know at times I can be very distant due to this role or due to the responsibility to have on my plate. And so when all that is done, schoolwork is done, everything on my plate is put to the side, I would say I'm just finally able to connect with friends, and spend time with them and pouring into their lives. And I mean, whether we're going to see a movie, whether they're going hunting or fishing, or really just hanging out at the house, my greatest story comes when I'm surrounded by those who I care for and those who are really caring for me and pouring into my life.
Derek Smith:Well, Sutton, it's been great to visit with you as we head into the final moments of the program. Again, looking ahead here, obviously this semester as we get through this, we know that there will be adjustments for the spring semester, we don't know exactly what it's going to look like, but are there anything you're especially looking forward to as we head towards the holidays and then welcoming everyone back to campus in 2021?
Sutton Houser:I would say that our students have done a great job so far with being safe and allowing us to remain on campus, and so I'm looking forward towards the next year. Now that students have kind of gotten this first semester underneath them looking forward, "Okay, what can we do to really kind of give back to our students? What can we do to foster more of that community at Baylor, because Baylor truly has that unique community?" And so, because of that, I'm excited to see what we can do when we welcome students back to really give back to our community and give back to our student body saying, "Thank you for keeping us here on campus. Let's stay safe, but let's also see what innovative ways we can pursue in order to foster that community and a really to keep that Baylor spirit alive."
Derek Smith:Well, that's great. Well, Sutton, it's been great to visit with you. Really appreciate your time and taking the time to share with us. Thanks for joining us today.
Sutton Houser:I really appreciate it.
Derek Smith:Thank you. Sutton Houser, Baylor University student body president, our guest today here on Baylor Connections. I'm Derek Smith. And a reminder, you can hear this and other programs online at baylor.edu/connections. Thanks for joining us here on Baylor Connections.