Josie: Hello and welcome to Josie and the Podcast. This is Dr. Josie Ahlquist, and I am thrilled you are joining me today. This show features leaders who share everything from their latest tweet to their leadership philosophy. My goal is to connect tech and leadership with heart, soul, and lots of substance.
Josie and the Podcast is sponsored by Campus Sonar, a social listening agency for higher education. Because, y’all, here is a fact: Online conversation is reality, and the digital presence of your campus executive says a whole lot about your college or university to those that matter the most, from current students to staff, and alumni to future students.
That’s why this year I partnered with Campus Sonar to explore the digital presence of a 194 higher ed presidents and vice presidents over six months. Our goal was to help improve the industry’s understanding of digital leadership trends and get higher ed professionals thinking about what these benefits are for effective executive digital presence. You can get your copy of the study at info.campussonar.com\higheredexecs.
Josie and the Podcast is also part of a pretty great higher ed podcasting network called ConnectEDU. Learn more about us and our shows at connectedu.network.
All right, let’s dig into my amazing guest for today, Dr. Terisa Riley, the chancellor of the University of Arkansas Fort Smith. Dr. Riley is an experienced higher education administrator who has spent more than 25 years serving in virtually every facet of higher education. From academics to administration. Before her appointment as the chancellor, she served the senior vice president for Student Affairs and university administration at Texas A&M University Kingsville.
She is an advocate for student access, opportunity, and success. And you’ll hear in our episode how this comes across loud and clear on social media. Terisa earned her bachelor’s degree in communication and master’s degree in higher ed administration from the University of Missouri at Columbia. And, her doctoral degree from St. Louis University in Higher Ed Administration and Research Methodology.
A few quick highlights from our conversation with this first gen to first femme. You’re going to hear her story about why higher ed, the feelings and experiences of being the only woman in the room for so many years and what that led her to become such a serious advocate for women.
Her observations and insights before, during, and after her transition to becoming a chancellor. And then, of course, we dig all into social media, including her use of Snapchat and TikTok, how she is the queen of social listening, and how she delineates empowerment and not enabling students when she troubleshoots on social media.
So, you can find Terisa and me on all the socials found in the show notes, for Twitter especially. Make sure you’re following the podcast, JosieATPodcast, and I’m @JosieAhlquist. Terisa is also her full name, @TerisaRiley. Everything we talk about, resources, people, posts, all those are on the website josieahlquist.com\podcast. Enjoy.
Josie: Chancellor Riley Terisa, I am so excited to get you on this podcast kicking off season four of this show. And I will have all ready have given this really grand introduction about you. I find, a really fun way to kick off the episodes is to get to know you more from your bios from Twitter.
So, yours reads, “Chancellor at the University of Arkansas Fort Smith.” You list your Snapchat account as well as Instagram, IG, which is Terisa Riley. So, give us little deets about why you chose what you did for your bio and how we can get to know you a little bit more just from that.
Terisa: I just wanted to make it pretty simple. I think that it’s easy to confuse people with a lot of information, I don’t feel like I need a tagline. People know that I’m the chancellor as long as they know what that means, some people do not, other people do.
Then you have something about the fact that I’m responsible for oversight of the University of Arkansas Fort Smith, and that, although I do personal things on all of my social media, for me, a lot of it is about connecting with my higher education community.
So, whether that’s peers and colleagues across the country, people at my own institution, my own students, they recognize that a lot of what I do is professional.
Josie: But I don’t see a lot of chancellors post their Instagram handles, or that they’re on Snapchat. That is something pretty unique to you-
Terisa: Really? Okay.
Josie: … That you brought with you from, you know, even your vice presidency role, which we’ll bring up. So, what’s been the benefit in any of those vice president now chancellor roles that has been important for you to continue now at Fort Smith?
Terisa: So, I think it’s important to be on a variety of platforms and to be easy to find on those platforms. From my perspective, I didn’t use a different name. It often can be confusing. I just kept the same kind of handle on everything so that I’m easy to find on all platforms, but not all of my students are on all platforms. And so, I like to reach them where they are no matter which platform that they’re using.
Josie: Well, I also noticed you have recently joined TikTok-
Josie: … Which I’m going to get to later. So, again, I’m really seeing, even one a vice president always kind of gravitating to new platforms, especially like, you had mentioned your students might be on a variety of different ones and finding the ones that connect with them. So, to talk about your active presence online, whatever your favorite social media platform is of today, what was your latest post? And you can cheat and look it up [crosstalk 00:07:08].
Terisa: Oh, my gosh. I think I might have to cheat. I’m online so much throughout the day and posting different things that … I also don’t want to sound kind of self-serving because the last thing that was tweeted was very nice about me. So, I’m very lucky, I think, that I get a lot of that, but there is an account that basically said something to the effect that they didn’t deserve me.
Terisa: A student account. And I wrote back and just replied, “No, you obviously do deserve people who are looking out for you,” and there’s nothing that brings me more joy than to empower students to make the place better. I just think that’s amazing. And so, I was very lucky.
That was on Twitter, and I find that Twitter is sort of the place that I gravitate for narrative, for any kind of written information and that’s where a lot of people seem to take constructive criticism, complaints, observations, kudos better in writing, and so I like to do that. Although, I would suggest that the primary audience for my institution is Instagram.
Josie: Okay. Well, so what I love, going back to Twitter, that I’ve always seen is you are multidirectional on that platform. So, you’re not just putting out information, you are replying, you are retweeting, you’re listening and observing to a variety of different modalities. So, you really bring the platform alive, despite that sometimes it might be, like students might use it for frustration platform … Again, it sounds like your last tweet it was much more of a kudos, so I just think that’s really … Again, it really just brings the platform alive, which is fun to watch you interact.
Terisa: Well, it’s interesting because, I mean, I think we observe on every form of social media that people tend to air frustration or give comments that are not completely informed, and to have the opportunity to give correct information, to challenge the way people are thinking, or even to just give them information that makes them less frustrated about something has been a lot of fun.
For me, I think there’s a difference between enabling and empowering in social media. And so from my perspective, I like to call out on social media a great thing when people solve their own problems and kind of lift that up as the role modeling. So rather than just saying, “I’m going to fix everything that you think needs to be fixed,” And they can then go learn from it.
So a lot of times… I’ll give you a very general example of students wanted to know, I lost something, I don’t know. I could very easily have said, “I called the lost and found, they don’t have it.” They didn’t find your thing and it’s not in our lost and found. I could have done that. But instead I retweeted the students comment and said, “Anytime anyone loses anything, our lost and found is at this location, be sure you all know that and can check. Do it for yourself.”
Versus just being the enabler, it’s being the empowering person with the right resources and information. Oftentimes in the background, if I don’t have the right information, I also know how to get the right information and have the ability to do that easily, and will put out correct information. I’ll read comments from students that are completely incorrect and I’ll comment on it despite the fact that they have literally not invited me into the conversation. I invite myself in.
Josie: But you do it in this way that’s endearing, and they’re like, oh, okay, she’s bringing some heat, but she’s sincere.
Terisa: Sometimes, yeah.
Josie: Sometimes I describe you as having some sass,
Terisa: I would say that’s a good description.
Josie: I appreciate it. Well, it sounds like your technique also makes sure you’re not all of a sudden making the chancellor role like the chief customer service officer. I can’t even imagine how many emails in your inbox right now and things on your calendar. Some folks would see you even engaging in those ways of going above and beyond. So if someone asked you, I guess me, but if another executive was to ask you, what is your framework? What is your strategy? How do you actually make this happen in your life, especially at your level?
Terisa: Okay. So, I’m going to cover two different things. Number one, I don’t think there is way to model the use of social media for any one person or another. We all have different communication styles and techniques that work for us. I sincerely go on to all of the platforms that I use daily and do a very simple search for my university.
I read the things that are being posted and I have to make a fairly quick judgment because I can’t devote a lot of time to it, as to whether or not this is something that needs a reply, doesn’t need a reply from me. Is it something that we can joke about? Is it something that students would think is funny and cool?
I mean, I’m constantly evaluating, what is this? And does it need a very serious response? Does it deserve a little roasting? Which they can see I do for people that I genuinely care about, that I tease them a little bit. I think very deeply before I do post something about what that person and/or other people who see things that they see, how they would feel about it.
So I go through that kind of decision making process with almost every post. Now you can imagine, over time, that’s become super easy for me. And relationships that are built more deeply are much more obvious quickly. So as a new chancellor, I know I don’t have that credibility, trust and deeper relationship. So I’ve tried it slightly, at the very beginning, to be more informative.
And then as those relationships get built up, then there will be more of the inherent kind of I know you well enough to tease you, you will know that the teasing is good natured because I care about you and I’m not laughing at you. I mean, I think that’s the most important thing, is that students on these platforms want to be valued, and they should be for everything they bring to the platforms.
The other thing I told colleagues is I ignore bad language. I just ignore it, usually. I don’t even address it. So students have freedom of speech. They have ways of expressing themselves that use certain colorful kinds of language that I would not use as a professional. But I will tell you that when I see a student who is very frustrated about something in life, whether that’s university related or not.
That they’re like, “Oh, I blankety blank, blank, running late, couldn’t find a parking space, the elevator’s broken, my whole life is… My dog doesn’t love me.” I’m ignoring the bad language and responding to the actual content. I’ve had a lot of my colleagues who say, how can you respond to things when people are using that kind of language? I ignore it, I choose to.
I choose to read for what the actual issues are, what the person actually needs out of it, if they need anything. Some of them I don’t know well enough to reach out, some of them I do privately reach out. The ones that I know super well, that I’m incredibly close to, they use language that’s colorful as I suggested where certainly they could use other language to express themselves.
I will piece in about it and go, “Do you forget I’m your follower? Language, hello. Watch your mouth.” And I’ll put a funny GIF of I’m going to slash that out with a… They go, “I’m so sorry. Oh my God, I totally forgot you could see this. Oh, I’m so embarrassed. I’ll fix it right away.” And then they’ll put another GIF of some kind of like contrite of whatever.
That happened very recently with a student. So I think it’s a matter of sometimes just bridging that gap. And for those people that you know well, you can tease them, and then their friends see that too.
Josie: Well, it sounds like the tone, even in digital context, is it done in a shameful way, that again, it’s this kind of gentle mama bear almost tease.
Terisa: Yeah, it has to be. I mean, I think if it is something that deserves real attention because of a serious concern, you can imagine most of the time I’m doing that very privately, reaching out to the person as a private message saying, “I couldn’t help it read your tweet. Obviously, I’m one of your followers. I am concerned about you. I’m concerned about this. How can we work on it? Do you need something?”
By the way, I’m very concerned about the message they send to your peers, because when I read it, I felt blah, blah, blah. This was my concern. Am I right in thinking that? I give the benefit of the doubt because not everyone is as intentional, and I think you’d have to go into those as a private conversation.
I’ve had students who come to my office saying, “I’m so glad you reached out to me. I didn’t intend it that way. I wanted you to know I’ve already corrected something or I’ve already reached out to someone who might have been harmed by that.” So that’s been a really wonderful and educational way to help people understand the impact.
Josie: So it seems that your strategy is really in the moment. Take it each day, you don’t have, I’m going to tweet this amount of times throughout the week or…
Josie: It’s just really being present.
Terisa: Gosh, I wish I could tell you it was that intentional. I know that there are quite a few studies out about how many times you have to put something that’s new and fresh content on social media in order to stay relevant, but I’m relevant no matter what and how many times I do it, through my position, through my experience, and just the fact that I will respond to students and invite myself into conversation in ways that students are really good grateful for it, not put off by it.
Today, because I started to insert myself into something on social media where people were asking questions or they were upset about something, and I was able to give them accurate information, or at least up to date information even if it wasn’t something inaccurate that they were posting about to begin with, but it was concerning, and it was concerning to all of us.
But I was at least telling them, here’s what we’ve done, here’s how we’re taking responsibility or control or fixing something. We want you to be a part of that, we want you to be aware of it, I want to be transparent. So then today I’m getting, “we don’t serve you. You’re the best. I’m so jealous. I graduated last year, I didn’t get the benefit of you as my chancellor.” Like you get the benefit of me as your chancellor.
Josie: Right. Like, you’re not off the hook.
Terisa: Right. Now you just get it at a different level of reconnecting with this awesome place, and I get the chance to help you do that through social media, which is a pleasure and an honor to do that. And to represent it that way is really sort of the fun of this job. And being situational and responsive to people, again, is just that kind of servant leadership at play.
I understand that every student that I’m interacting with, I’m serving them in some way shape or form, and I should be held accountable to them and to my staff and my faculty and stakeholders. So I think that’s one of the ways that I do that, is by being as transparent and sharing as possible.
Josie: Well, it has been fun to watch your transition. So you previously served as the vice president at Texas A&M in Kingsville for a number of years. That’s where we initially found each other and interacted, and you began the chancership in July of this past year. So are you counting the days, or months, or moments, like what day it is?
Terisa: I couldn’t tell you what day I’m on. So July 1st was my starting date, so not quite three months in this position.
Josie: Well, the transition started much earlier, there was an announcement in April. And that obviously with your move, and your cats that we got to follow along with, to get them to Fort Smith was just fun. I get a lot of questions about the logistics of the executive transition online, and you had mentioned you chose to keep your same username and you make it consistent across all platforms. But was there anything surprising about the transition for your digital spaces, or any lessons learned, or reflections, still knowing you’re in that transition still?
Terisa: So I think a couple of things. But first and most interesting one for me, because I’m constantly learning about myself, and I’m constantly evaluating me, was I learned which platforms were most important to me by how quickly I put any labeling on them. Isn’t that interesting? So for example, I almost immediately wanted to be in… So I went through a process of saying, I wonder when I should actually change the…
The announcement came out that I was selected, that was an April, and I had not been confirmed by our board of trustees yet, that happened in sort of mid to late May. So it is, I think irresponsible, particularly within enrollment place, to go out and tell everybody in April when I’m selected that I am the chancellor when I am indeed not.
So it was not until the point where I was confirmed by the trustees that I made sure at that point the labeling that I put in my bio ‘Chancellor beginning July 1’ was really important to me to be respectful of an interim who was in place at that time and the entire leadership team. At that point, I wanted to be really clear in my communication with people.
Although I was incredibly excited, humbled and honored to become the chancellor, I recognized I didn’t have any authority in it until July 1, because that was my starting date. And that was really important to me that I honored the, I guess, commitment of the current folks and their need to turn to the interim chancellor and not to think I saw myself as the chancellor the minute that it was an announcement that came out publicly.
I knew at that point I was very excited to go before the trustees in the hopes that they would confirm that, and they did, and I am very privileged to be able to be there when that happened. But I did not want people to think I saw myself in that bowl yet. And so I made sure all of my bio said, ‘Beginning July 1st 2019,’ But also showed my pride and excitement in it at the same time.
“Yay, I’m going to be the chancellor, July the 1st 2019, if the trustees confirm it.” I had to do a lot of corrections with folks, with media and others. So I knew to make sure… For whatever reason, no one told me to do that. I just knew that that was the right thing to do, and it could come across as arrogant, and I didn’t want it to be, if I acted in my online presence as if I was already the chancellor.
So I stayed very current and constant in the job that I had until I was fully confirmed here with the trustees in my role and when I really started. Although I began sharing, making friendships and followers with people in the new town, I still made it very clear, it’s not appropriate to bring that to me yet. Here is a person on campus that I know will be happy to work with you, and tried to redirect quite a bit of that as it was appropriate.
But a lot of it was just greetings and welcomes and warm, wonderful transition time, so that was incredibly important. But I also learned, that for whatever reason, my tendency toward LinkedIn was the last one I actually updated, and isn’t that fascinating? I check LinkedIn every single day, and yet I forgot to update LinkedIn.
Josie: Poor LinkedIn.
Terisa: Yeah, for whatever reason. LinkedIn is a great tool, and it is the most professional of the tools in terms of how it is typically utilized by all of the people who’ve joined that platform, and very few students get on there immediately. They sort of join as they learn about it in classes, or as it becomes more important to get internships or practical experiences they join. But for whatever reason, that was the last one that I thought to update.
Terisa: That told me a lot about where it falls in my prioritization and how I rely on it differently than I do my day-to-day social media that helped me with the operations of my campus. The others all tell me so much about what’s happening on campus, and the vibe, the temperature, the climate. I don’t mean that literally, I really mean that figuratively, although it was pretty hot in July.
But it was truly the recognition of how little I rely on it for day-to-day operations, and more often rely on it for strategic communication, and for excellent expert resources that I can turn to in our field. So that was an eye opening thing for me.
Josie: So you were very aware and it just came naturally to you to be sensitive of the timing of your transition, that that was a recognition, and then including the dates, even specifically in your bio. So when July 1st did hit, was there this overnight shift in how you were experiencing the platforms, how you were choosing to show up, other than updating your bio, and going to a different office and having a different name, and having a really different idea?
Terisa: Absolutely. Yeah, I think I took crowns on. No, just kidding. I’m certainly teasing. But yeah, I think there was this shift for me immediately to the recognition of representing the entire campus in the position of chancellor and having immediate responsibility for all action and activity as of July one.
And to take that very seriously I think meant also recognizing that, while I had positional authority and leadership on the campus, I had not built any of the trust and relationships, but it would take for people to know who I am, and how I make decisions, and how I engage.
And so, almost overnight I went from being very a well-known figure, very identifiable, to somewhat invisible and anonymous. Isn’t that fascinating? And it was really an eye opening time where I’d worked at my previous institution for 12 years. Everyone there knew me. I couldn’t go anywhere without seeing people. And it was interesting because the 4th of July of course came quickly.
At the beginning of my tenure, my daughter and I, one of my four children, we went downtown in our new town, to experience 4th of July with our city. And as we were walking along, she said, “Mom, no one knows you here yet. Isn’t that weird and amazing and strange and unusual? I would never have made it walking this far through a crowd of people without them knowing you.”
And I said, “Yes, that really is true.” And I’m sorry about the phone ringing. I thought that was needed. But ultimately, she was right. I had a little period of time of anonymity, and it was an interesting time on social media as well, where I could sort of scan the environment and people didn’t know I was doing it, because I chose not to respond to everything immediately for two reasons.
One, because I wasn’t the authority. People wouldn’t see me as the authority. I would have no credibility with them yet. But secondarily, I knew nothing about how to take action on anything, even if I did read it. I had to remember I was a freshman. I didn’t know what building was for, or was room for. I got lost one evening trying to get to a meeting.
And what it reminded me of is just a sense to go from being a big fish in a small pond, as our student do, to being a small fish in a pretty big pond. And even though I am responsible for the entire pond, people have no idea who I am, what I stand for, how I do my work, how I communicate. And so it was a really fascinating time to make that transition, and for me to learn and and observe what would I hope for if I were on the receiving end of this communication?
Josie: It gave gave you an interesting pause to listen more and get to be that, and the learners see.
Terisa: Yeah, it absolutely did. It gave me an opportunity, like I said, just kind of privately taking the temperature and learning about things. And what I have really experienced was that, the more that I put out about things that I was doing, and the ways in which I’m very vulnerable. I think leaders to truly build relationships past to show and own their vulnerability.
I talked in a campus message about the fact that, on my calendar, it said I needed to be in a room on campus, and I had quite literally no idea where that room was. It was after hours and I got to campus. And as any good leader would do, who was supposed to be making The keynote speech, I followed students who knew more about where we were going than I ever did. I mean, it was part of the acknowledgement of being new, and not having to have all the answers right away.
It was almost truly an empowering thing not to feel like I had to have all the answers, and to be able to tell that to people. People loved hearing that because what it did was; A, remind them that they know things other people don’t know, and to abbreviate, or something isn’t helpful. But also, to remember that vulnerability and leadership is a pretty compelling way to express that we don’t all have to be perfect and know everything.
I don’t expect it of myself, which means I certainly don’t expect it of anyone else. And it’s an empowering thing to come forward and say, “I know you may expect us to do this. We don’t know how to do it.” And I would say, “What makes you think I expect you to know how to do it? Why don’t you learn it and do it together?”
Josie: Well, I think it’s so refreshing, but a framework that does tend to be emulated in higher ed, in the academy, that we are the experts. We publish scholarship and we’re supposed to have all the answers, and I’m not sure that’s always gotten us to where we needed to be.
Terisa: When it’s not healthy. It’s completely toxic to think that we could hold ourselves to that standard and always reach that standard. We can’t set ourselves up for failure, if that’s the case. But I think it’s most important to say, this is a great example. When I got my PhD, my mother said, “Oh, my gosh, you are so smart. I’m so proud of you.” And I said, “I’m super smart about a very small and limited amount of information.”
I’ve made myself smart on that. I’ve learned that. That does make me an expert in lots and lots of other things. And the really fun thing I think, in being a leader, I am not ever going to be the smartest person in the room or the expert in the room on everything, and to gather these great minds in academia together means you get the benefit and advantage of those great smart minds who bring their knowledge with them.
And that we get the opportunity to tap that, and use that, and know it through experts, I think is so incredibly important, refreshing, critical, to the work that we do. I don’t think we would create new knowledge or have the passion to do that if we didn’t learn from other people all the time.
Josie: So, one other thing I had to ask you considering the transition, because you had mentioned at your previous institution, in the town it was located in, you’d be recognized. You couldn’t walk on the street, go to the grocery store, be on a campus event, or on Twitter, and someone wouldn’t yell you down. Because I could always tell how much you were regarded by your students, the way that they would interact with you in your previous position.
And so, honestly, the first word that came to me when I was looking at the feed of their reaction to your new position was, obviously they were excited, but they were almost in mourning, they were grieving their loss. Even if they were graduating, there was this urgency to see you or to be in a photo with you or to make sure they were going to keep a relationship with you.
I’m not sure if they’ve seen this in other leaders, but I have seen previous VP’s or dean’s really cut ties in order to fully embrace that new institution, and I have not seen you do this. Just this week, I saw you retweet and interact with a student from your previous institution. I just wanted, I guess, to get your why. I’m not disagreeing with it at all, but why that’s so important to you, how you’ve been able to accomplish it so far, and what that was like then to get that overwhelming response from your community when you did announce the transition?
Terisa: I think I’ll start with that. It was humbling, honestly. It reinforced why I do the work that I do, that people believed I had done an exceptional job, and that their perception of me was very good. And that we had built relationships together was probably the most meaningful part for me of the whole process.
It felt kind of odd, I’ll be honest with you, to have a number of people that I had never met in person, but had connected with through social media, suddenly kind of showing up in real life and saying, “Could we do a picture before you go?” And what was interesting was that desire to make an even closer connection right before I was leaving.
And what I thought to myself was, “I will do anything that the people at this institution need in order to propel themselves forward.” And relationships don’t end because someone moves, they just don’t, and they don’t have to. I believe very strongly in the work that was being done at my previous institution. I believe very strongly in the work that’s being done at my current institution.
I’m very proud of things that were accomplished there, and I’m very proud of things that have been accomplished here, even when I didn’t play a role in them, that they happened before my arrival. I don’t think we have to take complete control or know everything in order for relationships to continue. I have had to make a transition with people at the previous institution and recognize that I can no longer be an expert to them.
Sincerely, I understand things change, and experiences change, processes change, people change. And I may not be aware of all of those changes, so I would never put myself out there as their campus level expert anymore, nor should I. That would be completely inappropriate. It’s not my role. I don’t have the expertise, and I certainly would not want to misguide anyone.
But to still care very deeply about their successes, their challenges, their growth and development. I don’t see how I could invest as much as I have over all of these years in students and not continue to want to invest in them, and care for them, and develop them as human beings. So, I am that way with alumni after they graduate. I am that way with current students here, and with our alumni, and I’m that way with previous students.
It just so happens that after 12 years at that institution previously, that was really good growth of these modalities for communication. Prior to that, I wasn’t gone anything but Myspace. And so, you can see the evolution of social media and that time. Vine has come and gone, TikTok in its place, sort of, but different. And as we watch the evolution happening, I spent the majority of my time at one place, and could develop those relationships in a very deep and meaningful way.
I look forward to that here. It’s kind of fun, and it’s almost like the dating relationship starts again, kind of a thing, where you really are learning a place, the culture, the climate, the people, their needs, their joys and sorrows, and figuring out the right places to insert yourself in that, while also recognizing you are representing the entire institution, as well as your entire system in your role.
It’s a fun challenge for me. And many people in their careers get to a point where they go, “Man, I’ve seen it all. I’ve done it all. I’ve dealt with it all. I’m kind of bored. I’m burnt out.” Not me. This social media has helped to keep me feeling fresh and engaged and valued and needed just as much as I value others and need them.
Josie: Well, and the way you use it is really activating the power of listening and gives you a pulse, not the only pulse of what’s going on on campus, but definitely more of the insight beyond your sweet walls.
Terisa: Well, that’s right. I think it’s just triangulating conversations that I have and other evidence that becomes available to me. It is another way of me knowing how people feel, and it is also the platform where I’m more likely to hear from students, and where I can really direct them to the core values of the institution like shared governance.
I’m so proud of Student Government Association, have you worked with them on this? They are your voice for the campus, for students. So I can direct people to using the things that we value; shared governance, or explaining academic freedom, what it is or what it isn’t.
And students just don’t always know that, nor should they know that, unless they’re going up in the academy. And why do we value it? Why do we care about those things, civil discussions and civic kinds of opportunities for voting and debating? And so, it’s a lot of fun to express that, and to continually show why this endeavor is so important.
Josie: Well, and I find that they’re really looking for role models. Don’t just tell me what to do, show me someone that’s in it. What is dialogue and civility look like?
Terisa: That’s right. And it’s, what does that respect look like? How do we show that to each other? I think I have to be the highest role model for that. I expect the people around me to be. But if I wasn’t, then they have absolutely no bar to crossover, right? So I have to approach this from the very highest level perspective and value, and often you will see me tweak things and then put #ValueMyStudents.
That is a hashtag I use a lot in things that I do with students to clearly tell them this is my way of showing you I value you. Students vote with their feet. They leave, they transition, they transfer, they stop out, they drop out. And the truth is they could choose to go almost anywhere. I want them to understand how much I value that they’ve chosen to associate with the same place I have.
Josie: Well, so to step aside from social media for just a moment, and talking about another reason to celebrate your chancellor-hood is, well, you’re the first woman chancellor for the University of Arkansas. First I was like, “That can’t be right.” I was like, “Oh, I guess we’re not there yet.”
We’re still hitting those earmarks. But not only that, you’ve been on this journey from first being first generation college student, and now what you’re referring to as first gen to first femme. So share a little bit about what that journey has been like to get you to where you are today.
Terisa: I think for people who listen to this podcast, often they are in higher education, they can only really gather as much as I would say first generation, literally no compass. Know where is true north. How do you navigate this bureaucracy of higher education? How do you fund it? I worked three jobs to get through college. I did not have guidance or financial support from anyone.
I went off to college completely unaware of what I should do, or even could do, who I should talk to, what resources were available. I didn’t even realize that people worked at universities. Isn’t that an interesting thing? Companies happen and organizations occur, and you see outputs from them, but you don’t necessarily think of everything that goes into making them happen.
So as a kid, I knew of course, I had a principal of my school, and I knew I had maybe a counselor, okay, and teachers. So going off to college, I thought that the structure was the exact same. Yeah, of course, there might be a president or a chancellor. I didn’t even know what chancellor meant. I didn’t understand the idea that there were systems in schools and how governance worked at those, and that it could be very different from state to state, which it is.
I did not understand that universities had to get permission or had accreditation. I knew nothing, except I was supposed to go to classes that I had worked hard to pay for, and oftentimes had to skip those classes to work at the job to earn the money that it would take to pay for the class that I just get. So when you look at that as a cycle, it never occurred to me that there were people every single day putting together resources to help make my journey easier.
I didn’t know that. I didn’t know the code of them. I didn’t know what they did, and I knew there was a stigma in high school that, if you went to tutoring or you went for help, you were probably dumb. And no one talked to me about, “No, you’re probably not the smartest person on this campus if you’re paying for resources and failing to use them.”
This is the bad choice you’ve made because you’ve actually paid for all of these things, or someone has invested in them for you, whether that’s a donor, or a state taxpayer, to ensure your success. I didn’t know. And so, I got to a point where I almost dropped out of college because I couldn’t figure out how to pay, and was really feeling like I hit a brick wall when someone said, “Have you asked RA about that? And have you talked to the RA before? Just dropping out and go talk to the RA.”
That was the best advice I’ve ever had. Because I went to talk to the RA, really making the pre-determination that person would have literally no idea how to direct me, wouldn’t know what to do but just say, “Okay, here’s the check out date,” And get out. And she said, “Have you ever thought about being an RA?” I wish I could remember her name, or I wish I knew how to communicate with her now, because she actually put me where I am today.
I said, “I’ve never thought about being an RA,” A resident assistant, a residence hall. I hadn’t thought of that. And she said, “Well, we get free room, free board, and $100 a month in a stipend.” I said, “Well, you had me at free. This is so great.” Little did I know that that would open me up to an entire world of people whose daily work was focused on students being successful and graduating from college, to go on and be the best versions of themselves and to improve the world.
I had no idea that existed as a job. But the minute I did realize it, and got to have these wonderful encounters with people who absolutely were the ideal embodiment of servant leadership, I knew it’s what I wanted to do. That if there was work I could do to take down barriers for other people so that they could graduate, I wanted to do that work. I wanted to empower other people to take down barriers for themselves, which was sort of the maturing version of me from enabling to empowering people.
And then it became, I want to be the leader that builds up other leaders. That if I was gone, this place would be amazing because I built other people up around me, and that I help students every day through every decision by keeping them at the focus of every decision, help them to graduate from college. And so, I did that very frequently with men in my life, whether they were mentors or supervisors directly.
And it wasn’t until, I was probably a mid-level professional, when I thought, I am just surrounded by men all the time. Where are the women? And we need to really be promoting these bright, wonderful, capable women into upper level positions. I want to ask a supervisor, “Why do you think I’m sitting at this table and no other women are?” And that person said, “I don’t know, you’re like one other guy.”
Really, truly, that was the moment that I recognized my responsibility and leadership to promote people who were clearly underrepresented, and that I apparently somehow, for whatever hardworking great mentors that I had been so blessed with having, and people who took chances on me and let me try new things, sometimes fail at things, certainly learned from things.
That they continually invested in me, then my obligation was to do the exact same for people who were underrepresented in this field. And so I take very seriously, what I would say is not only my obligation, but my privilege to support people around me, to help them to learn and grow, to do better, to be better, to have those important seeds because their voices are equally important, if not more important than my own.
So I often inherit these structures that are primarily dominated by men, particularly White men. And from my perspective, it’s fun to put together groups of people who do not have the same lenses through which they see everything. That they’ve had different life experiences, that we can challenge each other, because ultimately, we end up with a much better and more robust result when we all do that. So, that’s sort of the first gen, the first femme first story.
Josie: I mean, I only got like a dozen chills when you were telling me that story. So being first gen was so core to who you are, and your values, and your ethos, from taking down barriers, and having a lens of servant leadership. Also, an aha I had was, I think… So I was not first generation, but I did have a lack of resources. And if I was to somehow correlate, again, like first gen and figuring and navigating on your own, and the emotional intelligence.
That you probably had to develop in order to read a room and figure out resources and read people, I think you would do that really well also on social, is that you’re so tapped into the relational and you observe first, which we may not see because you’re just doing that on your own. We’re not seeing what Terisa is scrolling through, which I think that’s just really interesting.
Terisa: Absolutely. Well, and I think you hit the nail on the head. That when you have fewer resources, and for my case it was a combination of fewer resources, both financially and in terms of guidance. That you do not take any resources that you get for granted. That’s number one. But number two, that you are more, I think effective, and you can be, learn to be, more effective in your use of the resources that you have.
I remember challenging a faculty member one time who was canceling class, and I think I said something to the effect of I paid $10 for this 50 minutes. I had to learn. I didn’t go work for three hours as a waitress last night to make this $10 to pay you just to have you cancel this class. And so there is this level of accountability in it. And now to this day I joke around, but I will see students post on social media, “It’s Monday morning tomorrow, and I have an 8AM class and it’s supposed to rain. Sleep it or nah.”
And my response to them is, “Go get your damn money’s worth. I know you didn’t just pay $25 to keep your lazy butt in bed. Go get what you paid for, go get that education.” And I’ll tell them that, because the truth is, that’s just who I am and what I value, get your money’s worth. Money doesn’t grow on trees, according to my parents, and I’ve learned that that’s true, no matter how many trees I’ve tried to shake.
But I hold my own children to that standard. My kids have had advantages and privileges from being White, from being not first gen, from being with a family that has resources financially to support them. I still say things like, I saw online that you’re not going to every class. So tell you what, for every day your bottom is in a seat, just well worth me paying the $40 for you to be there.
So for any day you skip class, and I obviously can see that you do, you will need 40 bucks, and mama’s going to buy some new shoes. And I call them out on that, on social media. My kids know that they’re that they’re going to be at the brunt of a little of my teasing and/or a little of my confrontation, but they are my children. I wouldn’t necessarily call out someone else’s, although I often joke that, not only do I stalk my own for children on media, I now talk about 6500 of other people’s children.
Josie: A fascinating interview would be to get all your kids on this podcast at once.
Terisa: And they would come at it from such different angles. I have one child who has social media accounts, but he is never, ever on any social media. He just doesn’t post, he doesn’t look at it, he does not care. I have one who truly believes her clout comes from Twitter, and she will never be convinced otherwise. She’s awesome.
But she also is studying higher education administration at Harvard this year, and is learning a lot about what it means to be a chancellor president in one of her first classes. So that’s kind of fun to process that with her, and she is watching me now on social media and looking at it through a completely different lens. So she’d be kind of fun to talk to.
Josie: Well, also, just what is it like to be a child of a campus executive, because you are kind of part of the package, right? You might be at campus events, or when you’re out and about and town. I know your kids are grown. I also noticed your son, you had some fun with him on Twitter, he followed you finally for Mother’s Day.
Terisa: He told me that was my Mother’s Day gift, was that he added to, it was either my street cred, or my cloud, or something like that. By following me, that was the best gift he could have possibly given me. And I said, “Well, at least you remember it’s Mother’s Day this year.”
Hello, you were a 10 pound child that I birthed, I would think I would get a little consideration, and it truly is the best gift you could give me. But whether you follow me or not, I don’t care, because I follow you. And I remember telling one of my children, not that one, but a different one, when they were little and one of them was really angry.
He hid behind a curtain and he said, “I hate you.” And I said, “That’s okay sweetheart. I love you enough for both of us.” And the truth is, that’s one of the ways that I love my kids, is by trying to maintain what I think is a really relevant connection with them when I know what they think is interesting, cool, uncool, how they value things.
They often share it with their friends, and we know this, about developmental levels that individuals will share with friends before they will share with families. What my children tend to forget is that I am following them and I do see things. Frequently, I do not comment on anything that they post because it is about them sharing with their friends.
But what a wonderful kind of entry point to their lives and constantly feeling like I know what’s important and how to stay connected with them. But they also help to educate me all the time on how to stay connected with my students because all four of my kids are college age.
Josie: That’s definitely been a theme, having kids or nieces and nephews that you’re seeing it play out in the wild while they’re not on guard or they’re just happened to be on TikTok and that’s how you’re discovering things or learning from them. At least the earlier platforms, that’s been interesting to hear from, I guess.
Terisa: It absolutely is true. And so, I told my kids that they now have a very, very big obligation to me as their mother, like most families will make the joke of they choose your nursing home. My children, instead, I don’t care about nursing homes. What I care about is that they help me to stay relevant on social media platform, that’s their obligation. Teach me the new one, if there becomes a new one.
Tell me about the pros and cons you’ve found about these things because for me, that is incredibly important to be relevant in my job and in my community. I like to promote things that are happening in my community, and if I didn’t know where to do that, or which audience was most active on something, then I’m afraid that it’d be very easy to be discounted or less accessible.
And for me, it’s not only do I feel that people should hold me accountable, they can’t do that if I’m not accessible and sharing who I am in just a real way, and social media allows for that.
Josie: So we’re a few months into your chancellorship… We should come up with like a queen F title like chancellorette or something that just fits you. I feel like we should add a little bit of sass to that.
Terisa: The sass that they’ve already added for me here is that they put a big star, almost like the Hollywood Walk of Fame, on my door, and it says, “Chancellor Teresa, sweet tea, Riley.” And I said, okay, so we’re going to do a tagline of filling the tea with sweet tea. A little fast. A little something fun. That’s my rap name. Tell your husband that that’s my rap name. If we’re going to have a real rap battle, I need to own it with my new sweet tea rap name.
Josie: Yeah, you got your stage name ready to go. So three months in, you are still on Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, you’re at least update on LinkedIn. I mean, I know you’re on Facebook. I don’t know if you’re open to the whole community, and you just added TikTok. So what do you see as the future of your use of those platforms, even if it’s just the rest of the semester, or your home for the next year?
Terisa: I truly see that I’m gathering credibility. I mean, if you go look at Twitter today, you’ll see lots of students who four months ago didn’t know I was alive, or didn’t know what a chancellor was, are now tweeting and directing that to me, or that they are putting things that I’ve put out there. They’re putting it on their stories on Instagram.
Terisa: That they’re starting to really connect and to feel and see the value in having my ears for things that are important to them, they know. And in fact, someone even acknowledged this morning on Twitter, “Wow. Dr. Riley, we don’t even have to invite her in. She just knows what’s going on.” I’m like, “Well, yeah, because you posted.” This isn’t brain surgery or rocket science.
You put it out there, and when you put UASS, the letters that make up my institutional name, I see it because I look for it, I’m intentional. And so, what I see happening over the next semester, year, years, is really creating that deeper and developed relationship where people know that they can trust coming to me with things, that I take it seriously, that I care about each of them individually.
It’s so amazing the symbolic nature even of retweeting or liking something. I had a student yesterday who contacted me privately and said, “You have no idea how much it meant to me when you retweeted and commented on being proud of our LGBTQIA group for being present in our Student Union Building, our campus center, for Bi Visibility Week.”
And he said, “There are a number of people who don’t feel comfortable coming out. There are a number of people who go through periods of self hatred, and to see someone who is a chancellor, and by retweeting and saying you’re proud of us, tells us we have someone who believes in us, and you have no idea how much that meant to me.”
And that meant the world to me. It was something that was so small, so little to do, it took maybe 20 seconds of my time. And the truth is, I was proud of him. I just said what was true. It was my truth. I’m proud of them for bringing Bi visibility to be visible, to make sure that people understand, and love each other, and respect each other.
It was so easy to do, and it meant so much to one student. And my guess is, if it meant so much for one it meant so much for a lot of students who just don’t know me yet. And over the next few months, semesters, people who know me better should be able to hold me accountable and come to expect that from me.
Not be surprised of it or proud of it, but just say, “That’s our chancellor. That’s what she does. That’s what she stands for, and she never changes her stand on being proud of all of us.”
Josie: I mean, the reason why I do this podcast is so you can hear examples just like that, like a simple retweet that takes 20 seconds, how that could make an impact for years with that group.
Terisa: And with lots of groups. I mean, it’s just amazing how much people appreciate even putting out promotional things. I get it all… It’s so funny I got the first one here. It happened to me all the time at my last position, that people know that I have a lot of followers, and a lot of people follow and read what I put out all the time.
And so the for the first time here, yesterday, I had a student group, our theater group, send me a digital copy of the flyer for the play that’s going to be coming to fruition, finally after all their hard work, this weekend. And so it’s the first play of our season that they are performing, and he sent me the flyer and said, “Would you please help promote this on social media? People follow you.”
Of course, I said, “Absolutely, of course I will.” But it was the first inclination here of someone saying, I recognize that if you put it out, people will actually pay attention to that, and it brings some credibility to what we’re doing.
And in my mind it takes about 10 seconds to cut and paste and put that into social media, but it shows students who are working hard to perfect the craft, or to do research, or internships and other activity organizational work on campus that makes it better. It takes almost no time for me to show how much I appreciate everything that they’re doing and learning, and it means the world to them,
Josie: And it goes a really long way. They are lucky to have you.
Terisa: Aww, you’re sweet. Thank you. I want to earn that, I do. When they say that they feel lucky, I want it to be because it’s been earned. I don’t ever want to let them down, so it’s great to be out there in the public eye and in social media, as well as on campus, and be available and tell them don’t send out tweets.
“I’ll be in the dining hall, anybody want to come have lunch?” And I’ll have 20 students who say, “Yes, I do.” And it’s a wonderful opportunity to engage and connect in real life, and it’s fun because quite literally it is a free modality for me to get information out, or just completely selfishly, to engage and interact in my own time as well.
So it can be 11 o’clock at night. I’m getting ready for bed. I’m checking Instagram, and going, “Oh, shoot, there’s a game tomorrow night. I better put that on my calendar. Oh wait, do I have my tickets? Am I ready to go?” It’s really helpful to me as well.
Josie: Well, the access goes two ways, you being able to keep a pulse, and then the interaction with you from your community. So I have a couple of questions to end this out. It’s been so, so fun to chat with you. These two questions I end every interview with, and we get real deep, so I’ll get out my tissue box. No, I’m just kidding. No pressure. So if you knew your next post was going to be your last, maybe on Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram, what would you want it to be about?
Terisa: So you can imagine, as a mother with four children, there’s no way that if I knew it was my very last post, that I wouldn’t want to center it to them as the audience. But the truth is, it would be about people who have made this life worth living. That’s ultimately the case. I have had the privilege of my four children, my siblings, my parents, mentor, good dear friends, who have made life worth living. And for me, as a continuous and lifelong educator, it would probably be to remind everybody not to ever take that for granted.
Josie: And last question, I find social media is not always about the what, but the why. So what would be your why, your purpose for why you have intentionally day after day shown up on social media as a now chancellor in higher education?
Terisa: I think that’s really easy. My Why is the people. It is the joy that it brings me in any role that I have where I may not get to be in the classroom educating people every single day, or I may not always have the chance to run around and be seen on campus. For me, it is about going to people where they are, and being able to show the value. That’s the why.
I know how meaningful it has been in my life when people have shown up where I needed them, and they didn’t always have to. They didn’t always have all the answers. They didn’t always have the answers I wanted. They didn’t, but they were able to show up. And I have to tell you is, again, I think the first gen, lower socio economic status, hardworking professional, just how much I have valued when people were able to show up and be there for me where I needed them to be, when I needed them to be there.
And also, did it in a way that did not detract from their knowledge. That I could do things on my own if I need to, but I shouldn’t have to. And that’s really what I think the joy is, as my why of showing up every day. Not a single person on this campus needs me to show up on their feet, not one of them. And yet, there are times when unbeknown to them, it’s helpful.
It is valuable and it shows them value and respect, and that’s my why. I’ve been their recipient of that level of grace and investment as a human being, and I firmly believe in passing that and paying it forward. So that’s my Why.
Josie: Breaking down barriers and paying it forward. Those are big Why’s for the relationships that you are showing up for. Well, I am such a huge fan of a fan girl. If you’re the Beyonce of higher ed
Terisa: Do not try to compare me with Bey. Let’s not even remotely go down that road. I’ll never be that cool.
Josie: No, that’s fine. We’ll figure out another comparison. So, for folks listening that are like, I’m also on team, whatever we call it, how can people find you to connect, to get in touch?
Terisa: So obviously, I’m on almost… I can’t say… Is there a social media platform I’m not on? I don’t know. You need to tell me that. But I’m on Facebook, Instagram, I’m on LinkedIn, I’m on TikTok, I’m on Twitter. I use TERISARILEY, all one word, T-E-R-I-S-A-R-I-L-E-Y. I didn’t add Chancellor. I know some people do. I didn’t add a title. I didn’t put Dr. because I’m not always responding as chancellor or Dr.
And people would not be able to find me easily if I added things or changed things around, so I just like to be who I am, to be present and to acknowledge when people choose to follow or send a friend request. That is awesome. And I actually am writing a book chapter in a book right now because a woman met me about 10 seconds at a car. I mean, literally just to shake hands. Hi, your name is what? And we met at a conference.
And she started following me on two different social media platforms, and I started following her. And then the book started to come about, and I was invited to be a part of writing that. I just think that there is such tremendous the in connecting with one another, learning about each other through these platforms.
And when you realize that you’ve got maybe a soul out there in the world that you either connect with in a much deeper way, that you respect because of how they present the world and their places in it, that it can be really powerful. And so I’m hopeful that people will continue to want to follow me just like I want to follow them. I continue to work with them all the time.
Josie: Wonderful. Well, I’ll list all of your socials in the website of this episode
Terisa: Yaay. Follow me. This is my like self promotion.
Josie: Save it for the end. It’s all good. I’m sure people have already been looking you up as we’ve been chatting because you really, really are a fun follow you. Well, thank you so very much for jumping on this. This was just a treat.
Terisa: For me as well. I really appreciate being able to have the discussion and it challenges me to think more deeply about why I do what I do as well. And so I appreciate you giving me time where in the day I might not have taken the time to really be thinking about my intentionality, that this is a great opportunity to do that. I appreciate that chance, that time, and your investment in it.
Josie: What a way to kick off season four of this podcast with the first featured guest, Terisa Riley. Thank you so much, Teresa, for jumping on. I’ve been a fan girl of you for quite some time in the way that you really authentically show up in all physical and digital spaces.
A few themes from the podcasts that I want to unpack and react to; the whole concept of her being first generation to now the first female president, first gen to first femme. She shared about what that college experience was like. That she knew the equation of how much it would cost to miss a class.
All the work that she had to put in outside with additional jobs and stress, and I really felt like she carries that experience and memory with her today. She keeps it very real in order to serve students in a very relevant and needed way. Even so far as her reflections of being resistant to go to tutoring, as she shared, back then you they going to tutoring and that made you dumb.
I am sure many students still think those same things about seeking out services that we painstakingly provide for them. So we’re always putting ourselves back into the shoes of our students, whether they’re first gen or not. We re-reminded how we need to, I mean, honestly create programs, market them, and really engage with students so they feel like they are approachable.
It was also neat to hear her story about becoming an RA, having an RA tell her she could do this role, and how that really led her into this entire career path that I am sure Terisa was quite the epic array. That’s a question I probably would have wanted to ask if I was to add one more question back to her.
But I liked then how she also brought up; I wanted to take down barriers for other people to graduate. I wanted to empower people to take down barriers for themselves. I want to be The leader that builds up other leaders, and I appreciate that combination of empowering, but also just not being the doer of it, but getting those themselves to be able to take down their own barriers.
Sometimes we get in our own way, and that philosophy has really stayed With her, now becoming a chancellor. We had fun talking about that, and her strategic choices about how she would show up, or even correct folks when the announcement came out as early as April, that she was in the running, as it wasn’t completely approved yet by the board.
And that was really a value statement, is no one really guided her on that, it just felt right. I think that’s such a lesson for us to gleam from Terisa is really how much our intuition and our values need to show up, not just on our Twitter feed, but in our decision making process.
And again, what I really loved is, even today, she isn’t just leaving one institution or one community behind, wanting to keep relationships strong, and elevating, and empowering, the relationships that she had in a previous institution. Obviously, that’s not going beyond administrative duties, but she’s found that value add.
Also fun to hear her freshman experience, now at a new institution, and in a new city, that maybe she’s not so well known for. But what she’s able to learn now kind of being that anonymous, and I doubt if that’s going to last very long because she is so quite memorable, and I’m sure folks are are learning more about her every day.
I also really appreciated her all-in value to her students. Even the hashtag ValueMyStudents proclaims, professes her why. We got into a little bit of strategy and logistics that one may not see just on her twitter feed or within her 24 hours on Snapchat. She says, “Daily, I do a search of my university, and see what is being posted. Does it need a reply? Does it need a replay for me or from someone else? Can this be a joke?”
She’s constantly evaluating. And that social listening that she’s committed to, again, you’re not going to know she’s doing that. But as an executive, how extremely powerful that strategy is, is both information and equips you to decide what your online engagement is going to be every day.
She also has her own decision making process about every post that she does share, which she dug into the episode, and I appreciated it that. She also saw opportunities, and not just issues. If she even saw a student post with certain language, or incorrect information, she saw all those things is opportunities still for relationships, for correcting information, and inviting them into the conversation, and not just silencing them.
All of these are interesting opportunities that she opens up conversations for. So I could give oodles and oodles of more highlights. This is when I feel like you could have probably been writing some more your own reflections and notes throughout. But I am just so darn appreciative to Terisa taking her time to chat with me.
It was also one that I kind of wish we’d kept recording afterwards because we had like another half hour conversation after we stopped recording, which happens a lot. But Terisa has a special place in my heart because I’m just so darn inspired by her and I’m cheering for her as she’s made this really amazing transition as a chancellor.
I’m excited to see the impact she’s going to make, not just in what she’s going to post on Snapchat next, or her presence on TikTok, but I think her style is one that I think a lot of folks will find a new fun way to be a chancellor. That I think our students are going to respond well too, so it’s going to be fun to watch her journey.
And then of course, I brought up the potential that maybe she is the Beyonce of higher ed, which she quickly corrected me on. But in any way, I see her as flawless, and I’m crazy in love with the work that she is doing. So Terisa, thank you so much for how you’re showing up online, and in real life for your students, for your community, and for this profession.
It’s very admirable. It does not go unnoticed, And thank you so much for that vulnerability and dedication. Thanks for checking out this episode. Please subscribe to the podcast so you don’t miss a single future episode. And please, think about sharing it with your colleagues, friends and family on all those socials that you know and love.
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