Vice President for Student Affairs Connie Horton speaks to students in January 2020 at an Unplugged Retreat about the spiritual grounding that creation, time and nature can bring. Horton said the most rewarding part of her job is working with students. Photo Courtesy of Connie Horton
Sixteen years ago, Connie Horton was helping her son look for colleges and a job listed on her alma mater’s website caught her eye: the director of counseling.
Even though Horton said she admittedly had not stayed very connected with Pepperdine after graduating in 1982 with a degree in Psychology, this opportunity interested her, and she suggested the idea to her kids of moving from Illinois to Malibu.
In 2005, Horton made the move with her husband and two children and started her career as director of counseling at Pepperdine. Five years later, in 2010, she became the associate dean of students, and after five more years, she started her current position as vice president for Student Affairs. Horton also leads the Resilience-Informed Skills Education Program at Pepperdine, which is a new resource that helps students navigate life’s hardships and care for themselves in times of need.
“I just love being in the academy,” Horton said. “There’s always lectures, speakers, controversies and panels and I just think, ‘What a privilege it is to be in this environment.’”
As vice president for Student Affairs, Horton oversees student activities outside of the classroom. Horton said she thinks of her role in the form of a house — with spiritual life activities as the foundation; diversity and inclusion as the roof; and the three pillars holding up the house as the wellness programs, the community programs and the business programs.
“It’s not all me of course, it’s my team and it’s the students, but it is a very meaningful experience when you feel like you are making a positive difference in the world,” Horton said.
Throughout COVID-19, Horton continues to supervise programs like the Counseling Center, Student Care Team and Intercultural Affairs which aim to help the mental well-being of students, provide support and teach life-long skills. While Horton said she loves her job, she also recognizes that, during the pandemic, she’s encountered more challenges in maintaining her responsibilities.
“Right now, just like students, I have Zoom fatigue,” Horton said. “It just really is exhausting. And even in normal times, there are just a lot of layers to this work.”
After the Borderline shooting and Woolsey Fire, Horton said she saw a need for a resiliency program in the Pepperdine community, resulting in the development of RISE. Horton also has experience with educating people about resilience after spending years researching trauma, operating a private practice and working on the academic aspect of counseling.
“I feel like [RISE] is the culmination of my life’s work so far,” Horton said.
When Horton first came to Pepperdine, she said mental health issues were just starting to increase for college students.
“Part of that might be because of taboo being diminished,” Horton said. “But not all, because we track how many students are feeling anxious, depressed, suicidal, etc., and it’s going up, up and up.”
The RISE program at Pepperdine focuses on giving students the resources they need to develop coping strategies after trauma and to help them navigate emotional, spiritual, physical and mental challenges they face, Horton said.
“Let’s help students get the skills to be resilient,” Horton said. “Life is hard, but you have to know how to do hard things.”
Horton said RISE focuses on helping students in six specific areas: physical health, social well-being, cognitive understanding, spiritual life, service activities and life skills.
Infographic by Abby Wilt
RISE teaches these values through class lectures, films, testimonials, mentors and large, community-wide learning events. Horton said these six areas are well researched and are aligned with the mission of Pepperdine.
“Life really is hard, and the question is not if some things are going to happen — welcome to the human condition, you’re going to have hard things,” Horton said. “The question is, can you be resilient? Can you bounce back when you have adversity? And in fact, can you bounce back, wiser, more mature or more insightful?”
A Focus on Relationships
While every aspect is important, Horton said the relational skills RISE teaches are vital, whether students are struggling emotionally, mentally or spiritually.
“The research is very clear that relationships make a huge difference,” Horton said. “Yes, you want to fulfill your obligations, but relationships matter — real relationships — not just social media ones.”
When navigating hardships, Horton said she suggests connecting with others and taking advantage of the resources the University does offer, such as the Student Care Team and the Counseling Center. In addition, Horton said students should reach out to faculty members and get to know them on a personal level.
“Engage with what we have and engage deeply,” Horton said. “Even in normal times, you are wasting a huge resource if you go through Pepperdine and you never get to know a faculty member.”
Moving forward, Horton said she hopes for students to collectively heal from the past year by investing in personal relationships and finding community at Pepperdine, whether that is through RISE or other extracurricular activities that the University offers.
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