Featured Stories

Dr. Sidney Gardner Transitions to New Role

On Sept. 27, Dr. Sidney Gardner began her new position as Assistant Dean of Students and Director of the Office of Student Advocacy and support. After almost 20 years running LGBTQ+ and gender centers, this move is an exciting transition for Dr. Gardner to continue supporting students through support services, crisis management, and advocacy. 

How do you see your work as the Assistant Dean of Students and Director of the Office of Student Advocacy and Support intersecting with your experiences from the Women and LGBT Center?

“It intersects in a myriad of ways. That’s probably one of the things that I really wish people understood about running a shop like the Women and LGBT center is that there is so much that you don’t see. There are the front-facing parts that are all about programming and student advising and such, but then there are the parts happening behind the scenes–there is a lot of supporting students in crisis and students that are navigating really difficult situations, whether it be homelessness, food insecurity, financial issues, or anything related to Title IX. I have helped students navigate these issues throughout my career, but it’s part of the things that people don’t typically see us doing because it’s not front and center.”

What got you interested in the work you will be doing in your new position?

“I’ve been in the field for a long time, and again, a lot of it has to do with having navigated working with students in crisis for so long. But also, there was a time before the current iteration of Title IX, when a lot of support services fell under women’s centers on campus. I’ve also been doing that work for a really long time–in my previous position at another institution, I had been the deputy Title IX coordinator, I have worked with Title IX investigations, I’ve also served as the confidential support in these sorts of things. So that piece, I have a really strong background in, on top of just working both on campus and off campus to support students that are going through all kinds of personal crises. Because of that, I had really been interested in this type of position for a while—and then it was just good timing.”

What are you most excited about as you make the transition to your new position?

“I’m just excited about being able to support students in a different way—I still get to do some of the work that I love and am able to support students, but I get to be able to do that for our entire campus community and not just students that intersect with my previous position in the Women and LGBT Center. I’m also excited about being able to figure out things like best practices and how we can do an even better job of supporting our students going forward. Those are some things that I’m really looking forward to.”

What are some goals you would like to achieve in your new position?

“My predecessor had built this office from the ground floor during a time when these positions were just starting on campuses, so I think this is a perfect opportunity to be able to look at the work that we currently do and be able to take that to the next level. Now that we’re in a different day, so much of our campuses have changed, the world has changed, our students have changed–so what are their needs? What does the support that they need look like? How can we tailor what we do to have the greatest impact on our students? How can we get them to persist to graduation? That is the goal, but we want people to be able to do that in ways that they feel supported.”

What is your vision for the future of the Office of Student Advocacy and Support?

“My hope is that we are a space that our entire campus community really sees as somewhere that when you send students to, they know that they will be taken care of and that they will have the support and the resources that they need. I hope that other students will feel confident when they say to a friend about us, ‘Hey, you know who really helped me? You should reach out to them too.’ I think we do have some of that dialogue already, but my hope is that throughout the campus community, we’re seen as that space that is really all about exactly what our title is—student advocacy and support. I hope that people really value and express how much the work that we do means to them.”

Featured Stories

Engage Dallas: Beyond the Hilltop

Engage Dallas is a place-based community engagement initiative via SMU’s Residential Commons to address community needs focusing on South and West Dallas. The initiative is a long-term, university-wide commitment led by students to partner with local residents, organizations, and other leaders to positively impact the community. There is equal emphasis on campus and community impact stemming from the initiative.

Engage Dallas launched Fall 2020 with each of our 11 Residential Commons focusing on one specific community-identified need. Each Commons partners with non-profit organizations in South and West Dallas serving to address these needs. The 11 community-identified needs are: Homelessness, Food Insecurity, College Access & Preparation, Arts as Social Impact, Environmental Injustice, STEM Education Access, Immigration and Refugee Support, Community Wellbeing, Child Poverty, Childhood Literacy, and Community Rebuilding.


My volunteerism at Geneva Heights Elementary School here in Dallas the past two semesters has significantly contributed to my personal growth in many ways; the service has revealed to me that I can be spiritually fulfilled in helping these young students. While the objective is directed towards their growth and improvement, it has internally also contributed to my growth and knowledge of the English and Spanish language. Moreover, this service has given me greater social understanding and greater diversity exposure; I tutor two young girls that are Hispanic. Learning about their culture and experiences in education has broadened my innate perspective and challenged my views about early childhood education consequently. I have always had a passion for childhood literacy, and so the fact that I had this opportunity has just strengthened my affirmation for it. I am so incredibly thankful for it. My commons’, Virginia-Snider, directed audience is childhood literacy. I am appreciative of this implication in volunteerism because childhood literacy is truly a factor that will continue to aid students into furthering their educational pursuits. Due to this, the importance of having a good childhood literacy experience is crucial to young students’ growth. My residential commons’ puts forth the effort to bring awareness to this, and I have had the pleasure to be a part of assisting that social problem through volunteering at a local elementary school in Dallas ISD, which has impacted me as a student, as a young adult, and as a Dallas resident. I would not have been able to do this if it was not for Engage Dallas that offers access to these programs–and it allows for students to gain their CEPE in an impactful manner.

Gracie Holder, ‘25
English and Social Innovation & Nonprofit Engagement Majors
Virginia Snider Commons


Volunteers are the lifeblood of our organization. Like most organizations of color, we have a small staff who wear several different hats. Our relationship with Engage Dallas has been a godsend. The young people who volunteered in February during our one-act festival arrived on time. They were professional and courteous, definitely representative of our brand. We look forward to a long and continued business relationship.

Teresa Coleman Wash
Executive Artistic Director
Bishop Arts Theatre Center


I was excited about the opportunity to work with Engage Dallas this year because doing so presented a unique opportunity for me to put my research into practice and to have an impact on both SMU and our community. My research focuses on the relationships universities have with external organizations and how those relationships shape what universities do and the impact they have on their stakeholders. For example, Engage Dallas has created a number of partnerships between SMU and community-based nonprofits, I want to understand how these partnerships impact all parties.

To that end, I joined Engage Dallas to help create a tool for evaluating the usefulness of the partnership between Engage Dallas and the respective community organizations. This tool will help to answer questions like whether or not this partnership helps the community organizations to better achieve their mission, or allows them to expand their services. Contributing to Engage Dallas to help build this evaluation tool is a welcome opportunity to put my research knowledge and expertise into practice in the hopes of ensuring that Engage Dallas benefits the community, the nonprofit partners, the students, and SMU.

Dr. Sondra Barringer
Assistant Professor, Education Policy and Leadership
Simmons School of Education & Human Development
Featured Stories

Peer Chaplains in the Commons

Written by: Kaleb Loomis, Assistant Chaplain in the Office of the Chaplain and Religious Life

In 2021, the Office of the Chaplain and Religious Life launched the Peer Chaplain Program as a new Peer Leader Position within the Residential Commons. This year, four student leaders worked within the 11 Residential Commons to help create spaces for students to reflect on their spirituality and explore their religious lives. Through programming and one on one conversations, Peer Chaplains cared for students, offered opportunities for belonging, and encouraged students to grow in their understandings of themselves and the world around them.

Serving and Learning

Throughout the entire 2021-22 Academic Year, Peer Chaplains had the opportunity to provide unique programs and events for students that centered around their spiritual lives, mental wellbeing, and community building. From ice cream socials to arts and crafts nights, Peer Chaplains hosted 24 distinct events within the Commons. Additionally, they started initiatives such as the weekly Peer Chaplain Monday Message and the Candy Basket Program to provide encouragement and raise awareness of on-campus resources for their students. The Peer Chaplains immersed themselves within their Commons community by participating in Commons Leadership, attending signature events, and investing in the lives of students and staff through intentional relationship building. The Peer Chaplains Program serves as a model for providing spiritual care to the Commons. In fact, Kathy Crow Commons honored their Peer Chaplain, Stella Cho, with their Community Engagement Award at the end of the Year Banquet.

“As a Peer Chaplain, I loved meeting students and planning fun programs for their spiritual life. As I met students in the Commons, it was meaningful to show that there is always a presence who can communicate and help them, and provide the religious resources they might need.”

Master of Divinity
Peer Chaplain for Kathy Crow, Loyd, and Ware Commons

Though they provided community service to their respective Commons, the Peer Chaplains also reflected on the value of serving in the position for their personal growth and learning. They gained skills in event planning, teamwork, and community organizing by hosting programs. Working with a variety of students from diverse backgrounds challenged them to think creatively about inclusive programming. They valued the opportunity to adapt their unique skill sets to different communities in order to offer care to students and unique programming efforts. Through this experience, the Peer Chaplains were able to connect their interests in offering care with their vocational aspirations.

Growing and Expanding the Program

This year’s cohort of Peer Chaplains demonstrated the potential for the program, and provided valuable feedback for how to build upon their work. The Peer Chaplains highlighted the value of being involved in the regular life of the Commons and engaging with students in a residential context. They see opportunities for further collaboration not only with other Peer Leaders but also among Peer Chaplains. Amidst these successes, the Peer Chaplains recognized some of the difficulties of helping to launch a new program. Providing adequate attention to 11 different Commons with only 4 Peer Chaplains proved challenging. Because the position was so new, other students weren’t always quite sure the role or purpose of having a Peer Chaplain. Despite these circumstances, the Peer Chaplains saw these challenges as an occasion for continued creativity and enhancement of the program.

“Providing care to students as a Peer Chaplain involves being active in your designated community and the community, knowing why you’re there and spreading awareness about the resources that the Office of the Chaplain Provides. It also involves sitting and listening to students about the issues that they face and helping guide them in a positive direction or getting them the help they need from other resources that are on campus.

I love getting to hear students talk and work towards their future, watching them mature and accomplish more as they learn to navigate the academic environment. Also, I value getting to hear their struggles and supporting them to move in the direction of a healthier and happier life.”

Hunter Barnett, ‘23
Master of Divinity
Peer Chaplain for Mary Hey/Peyton/Shuttles, Boaz, and Virginia-Snider Commons

As a result of what we learned this year, the Office of the Chaplain and Religious Life is excited about changes and updates for next year. In order to better define the purpose and role of the position, we have changed the name from Peer Chaplains to Spiritual Life Mentors. We made a concerted recruitment effort in order to expand our team from four students to nine students so that more time and attention can be given to each Commons. Finally, we outlined guiding values to help lead the program forward: Care, Belong, and Grow. The work of the Peer Chaplains this year laid the groundwork for the Spiritual Life Mentors to offer intentional care to students, create spaces of belonging, and offer opportunities for students to grow in their spiritual and religious lives.

Featured Stories

Answering the Call for Mental Health Needs

Written by Dr. Randy Jones, Associate Dean of Students and Executive Director of Health Services

At peak levels last year, the demand for mental health services exceeded the existing capacity of the Health Center. Our system was operating at maximum efficiency caring for as many students as possible, but was unable to readily accommodate a higher influx of patients. This resulted in longer wait times for appointments, a doubling of students calling our after hours on-call counseling service, and a greater number of students voicing frustration over limited access to these much sought after resources.

In efforts to meet the growing demand for mental health services, the Health Center has partnered with Academic Live Care (ALC) to expand counseling services to students. Our students now have access to ALC’s large network of tele-mental health providers as another avenue for obtaining counseling and ongoing therapy. This partnership provides students with greater flexibility in appointment times and they can select providers based on preferences such as gender, cultural and ethnic background, language spoken, and specialties. It also offers a venue of support to our students who for various reasons cannot or prefer not to present in-person to the Health Center. All counseling sessions are made available at no expense to students.

The Health Center also added a new resource called Togetherall designed to provide our students with 24/7 access to a large peer-to-peer mental health support community. This new web-based platform and media-style mental health app gives students a safe place to connect with other students experiencing similar feelings. Students log in and make a post (anonymously)…then someone responds to their post, often to validate how they are feeling or to give advice. The online community supports over 250 colleges and universities with over two million registered users and is monitored at all times by trained clinicians. This tool is an excellent low-acuity mental health intervention and offers a supplemental venue of support for the students we may be missing through our existing conventional approaches to care.

Onsite SANE Service

In response to requests from our students, provisions were put in place in late this spring 2022 to offer SANE (Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner) exams 24/7 at the Health Center for victims of sexual assault. Through a partnership negotiated with The Turning Point Rape Crisis Center, a SANE nurse and advocate will be dispatched on demand to the Health Center for SMU students who have experienced sexual assault and request emergency examination. Previously, access to such services was only available to students off-campus.

To learn more about the mental health resources mentioned in this article, visit