Motivated by her own positive college experience, Renée Watson ditched her childhood dream of becoming a judge in favor of a career in higher education. She strives to give students the same support and encouragement she was given when she enrolled at the University of Kansas as a first-generation college student.
After serving as dean of students at Kentucky’s Pikeville University and as associate dean of students at Illinois State University, she arrived at UNLV last November to take on the role of associate vice president for campus life. She oversees eight departments and 131 employees charged with helping students navigate their academic careers while also taking time to enjoy the college experience.
This also was a chance to move closer to home. I grew up in LA. Being able to see my mother more often and make up for the 15 or 20 years I was away was really attractive.
Also, it’s not often that an African American woman can be mentored by a vice president of student affairs (Juanita Fain) who shares the same identity. I saw that as a valuable experience I could have.
It’s my job to ensure that students have a meaningful experience outside the classroom and find some kind of engagement outside the classroom, which is needed for their success. I need to help them get ready to survive life after college. They need to make friends, develop leadership skills, learn how to manage conflict, learn how to run a meeting effectively. They need help with life skills.
We are creating memories. They need to leave saying things like, “I held my first leadership position. I met my best friend. I wrote my first resume, which led to my first job. I got exposure to other cultures. I helped with community causes — building a house, beautifying campus, reading to children.” We help students do all those things.
How you ended up in this career field
I needed a community and something to be a part of at the University of Kansas. African Americans were 3 percent of the 30,000 students there. The residence hall became that community for me. Later I became an RA (resident assistant). That was good for me. I was able to earn money. I had to keep my grades up to keep the job. I loved being there and seeing the students through moving in, roommate conflict, first grades, and eventually graduation. It was really, really rewarding.
I earned a bachelor of general studies with an African American studies emphasis. Later I earned my master’s degree in higher education administration at the University of Missouri at Saint Louis and then a doctorate in educational leadership at Northern Kentucky University.
What you thought you wanted to do when you grew up
I wanted to be a judge but then I really just fell in love with education. I knew it was my way out of South-Central LA where I grew up. I was an only child of a single parent. Homework and school were my regimen. I was really involved in volleyball, basketball, and dance camp. My mother kept me really, really busy.
Advice for students
You have to find someone on campus who is your go-to person, whether it is a faculty member, someone in a department, a coach, or a job supervisor. Hold on to them. Go to them when times are bad and when times are good. They can advocate for you. They can give you a nudge when you need it. Having someone who will be committed to helping see you through is so important, especially if you are a first-generation college student — someone who can help you find a job, someone who can help you decide about graduate school. Having people like that in your camp can really make a difference.
Your biggest misconception about UNLV
I was surprised how quickly I felt I was a part of the fabric of the university. People immediately wanted to take me to lunch. I was signed up with a mentor. People wanted to work with me on different initiatives. I wouldn’t have thought it would happen that quickly on a campus this size. It was not very hard for me to become a Rebel.
I have been surprised, though, that the person in my role didn’t have an immediate strong connection with the students. Everywhere I had worked, that had been the case. Dr. Fain really supports my desire and direction to serve students in this capacity. I now meet regularly with CSUN leaders.
A viewing recommendation
The miniseries When They See Us is a must-see. It’s about the exonerated Central Park Five who were wrongly convicted of raping a woman in Central Park. It talks about how this changed their entire lives, about all they lost. It really shows you the downside of criminal justice, what happens when there is racism. It also talks about needed reforms. Ava DuVernay directed it.
Something that people would be surprised to learn about you
I have a daredevil in me. I love roller coasters and water parks. I went parasailing in Hawaii. I jet ski when I go on vacation.
How you spend your free time
I am a shopper — everything from Ross to the department stores. I love a good bargain. I love going through the clothes rack. I love accessories — purses, sunglasses, shoes. No matter where I go, I shop.
I am a very serious person, but I love laughter. One of my favorite things to do when I have downtime is go to a comedy show.
Also, I travel. I have been to Italy and China. I am scheduled to go to South Africa in mid-October. I get recharged by learning about other cultures.
It probably would be something like short ribs, mashed potatoes, collard greens, and cornbread. When I eat, I like a hardy meal. I don’t want to be skimpy. That’s also my favorite meal that my mother would cook. Eating for me is also about recalling fond memories. My mother didn’t cook often, but when she did, she threw down.