For Dr. Debra Sells, her educational career always has been all about the students.
After 27 years at Middle Tennessee State University, she’s retiring as vice president for student affairs and vice provost for academic and enrollment services.
Sells came to MTSU in 1996 after spending two years in Iowa, two years in California and nine years in Arizona. She wanted to see the world and thought her time in Murfreesboro would follow her nomadic pattern.
“I had the great fortune or terrible mistake of falling in love with the students here, and I couldn’t leave,” she said with a chuckle in her large office (about the size of two dorm rooms) in Keathley University Center, just steps away from a large campus dining hall and student gathering place.
Sells became MTSU’s associate vice president of student affairs in 2009 after she and her boss realized that she was already handling those duties.
“I am the only vice president with ‘student’ in my title,” she said. “That’s very important to me.”
On July 1, Sells’ admissions, enrollment, orientation and family program duties will be taken over by Dr. Laurie Witherow, MTSU’s associate vice provost for admissions and enrollment services. Witherow will also be leading CUSTOMS this summer.
A national search is being conducted for a new vice president of student affairs, according to university officials.
“For more than 25 years, Dr. Deb Sells has been a force of nature on our campus with her ever-present optimism, commitment to our educational mission and unmistakable passion for recruiting, welcoming and supporting the thousands of Blue Raider students on their journeys toward their degrees,” MTSU President Dr. Sidney A. McPhee said in a statement provided by the university communications department.
“Her excellent leadership of our Student Affairs and Undergraduate Recruitment efforts and the wonderful staff under her supervision has played a critical role in making MTSU the top destination for first-generation and transfer students across this state and region, so it goes without saying that she leaves this university so much richer than when she arrived. To say she will be deeply missed doesn’t even begin to address the tremendous impact she’s had on our students, faculty, staff and supporters, and I am deeply honored to have worked by her side all these many years. Her legacy will live on through all the many lives she’s touched during her time here, and for that, she has my heartfelt thanks and gratitude.”
Sells has been the voice of the students while overseeing areas like housing, disability services, tours and orientation – to her the second-most important activity MTSU does after commencement.
“That’s where we teach students who we are, what we expect, what they can expect from us, how they’re going to fit in. We demonstrate that they can do hard things, that they’re going to have support as they do it,” she said.
In the 15 years Sells has been doing MTSU orientation, called CUSTOMS, she has greeted approximately 45,000 students. A self-described introvert, she said she feels a change when she pulls her car into her vice president parking spot.
“I get out, and I’m the vice president, and that means I talk a lot, I present a lot,” she said. “I really have come to love that part of my job.”
Educating the parents also
Many young Tennesseans (34.8% of this year’s fall freshman class at MTSU are from the state) are first-generation college students. Their parents don’t know what they don’t know, she said.
Additionally, even parents who have been to college themselves are not sending their children to college with the same mindset they were years ago, Sells said.
“The students we have today were born after Columbine, and so the parents we’re working with today have never known a time when their kids were safe in school,” she said. “Never.”
Columbine dramatically changed what parenting is like, Sells said. Her parents never worried about her safety at school. They didn’t know the name of her dorm, her major or how she was paying for college, she said.
While some faculty get frustrated with this new level of parent involvement, Sells has reminded them that these parents have never had a time where their children have been completely safe in school.
“Their kids have been at-risk. They’ve been doing active shooter drills since those kids were in kindergarten,” she said. “Of course, they’re more involved. Of course, they’re more worried.”
Sells said her job is to instill confidence in the parents and help them navigate the changing parent-child relationship.
In a recent Facebook post to parents, Sells encouraged them to loosen some house rules over the summer, spend time with their students and let their students know how important they are to their family.
Facebook posts are a large way Sells communicates with students and parents.
She admitted that as she rose in the administrator ranks at MTSU, it got harder to stay in touch with students. She has eaten in the dining halls, attended Student Government Association meetings and hung out at Welcome Week events.
But when news (or a lecture) needs to get out fast to a large group of students, she turns to the Facebook groups. The university is running eight pages (six class groups, a parents group and a transfer student group) to provide information, guidance and support.
Sells said she has been surprised at the effectiveness of the groups with a generation known for ignoring Facebook, but the pages reach about 50 percent of each incoming class. They show Sells what’s working and what’s not – which sometimes makes her unpopular with other administrators.
“Those silly pages have been so helpful to me because it gives you a chance to sort of stand on the edge of the freshman class and peek in at them, and what they’re talking about and what they’re doing,” she said.
While students have consistent complaints like parking, the one that concerns Sells the most is loneliness and isolation – something made more pronounced by COVID-19.
“It is a major concern for students, and it is a major concern for their parents, and everyone wants to fix it,” she said. “I have to keep reminding everybody (that) learning how to make friends as an adult is a skill just like learning how to drive a car or learning how to speak French.”
She encourages students posting about how lonely they are to “open your door” and work on their friend-making skills, which will be uncomfortable at first.
“They don’t yet have the social skills that they need,” she said. “It’s OK. They’re going to learn them here, and then they’re going to use those social skills all the rest of their life.”
Changes for everyone
To Sells, MTSU with its 20,000 students in some ways is the “largest small college in the world.”
“Students get taken care of. They get personal attention. People know them. They find a niche,” she said, using an example of a board game organization with over 100 members.
Where students attend college will definitely change them, but they will also change their college, Sells tells the incoming freshmen at orientation.
MTSU students have raised money for the Student Union, participated in clubs and helped other students with resources.
“We’re a different place at MTSU because of every student that’s been on our campus,” she said. “They change us.”
As Sells talks, it’s apparent that her students keep her young. She laughs at the escapades of a student riding a hoverboard with an attached beach chair and uses Gen Z phrases like “drop your Snap” with ease.
“They are so eager and hardworking and funny,” she sighed. “Oh, they just make me laugh so much.”
As for Sells, she’s been working on a farm in Michigan since she could walk and has worked for pay since she was 14. She wants to see the world, lay in a hammock, visit her family and emphatically not work, she said.
Yet even in her retirement, she has her students in mind.
“I’ll miss my students. I’ll miss their families, but there’s got to be more to life than work, and I want our students to know that,” she said. “Work hard. Have a career. Make a life. Have an impact. And then be willing to walk away from that and have a life.”