Conversations with Leaders: Robert Clay
If Dr. Robert Clay wants students to get involved at Governors State University, it’s because he knows what a difference it will make. “It’s the key to student success,” he says. As Executive Director of the newly branded Center for Student Engagement and Intercultural Programs (formerly Student Life), Clay oversees programs and projects beyond the classroom that range from fun to serious — all of it designed to help students excel.
Clay joined GSU in 2014 as Director of Intercultural Student Affairs. The university had just admitted its first freshman class, opening the door to more undeserved students who could benefit from supportive programs that remove barriers to graduation.
Clay was a natural fit. A first-generation college student who had grown up on Chicago’s West Side and attended Lane Tech High School, he won a music scholarship to Olivet College in Michigan. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do for a living but I knew college was a path of opportunity and a good place to figure it out,” he said.
Clay dove in. Becoming active in a lot of student initiatives and seeing the benefits firsthand helped him realize he wanted to have a career in education. After earning his bachelor’s degree, he spent a year teaching at Dunbar High School in Chicago. Seeking to make an impact on even more students, he headed to Western Illinois University to get his master’s degree in University Administration.
“I believe in providing an opportunity to give back,” he said. “A lot of folks poured a lot into me.”
Clay quickly found his niche at the college level. He worked at Slippery Rock University near Pittsburgh, where he launched its first MLK Day of Service. “It’s still going 20 years later,” he says with a note of pride in his voice. In his next position at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Clay instituted the tradition of celebrating graduates with a week’s worth of fun events.
Both activities are likely to sound familiar at GSU, since Clay introduced them here as well.
In fact, he has ushered in many programs, from traditional events like Homecoming to the Male Success Initiative, the premiere pathway to increase the enrollment, retention and graduation of first-year and transfer men of color. It’s all been part of his goal to empower and educate the campus community on diversity, social justice and inclusion, and also to provide support services for underserved student populations.
Named Interim Director of Student Life in 2018, then promoted to the position full-time in 2019, Clay expanded his focus to providing civic engagement and community service opportunities that would help students become more aware of societal issues. This fall, the department was renamed to better reflect the way it serves students.
“We have to address all aspects of their identity. When people come to school, they’re not just students. They bring multiple identities from all the different parts of their lives that impact them here and even beyond GSU,” he said.
Clay has even experienced GSU from the student perspective. In 2019, he earned his Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) in Interdisciplinary Leadership (INLD). “I was able to apply what I learned through coursework immediately to create resolution through innovative programs and services to enhance the collegiate experiences of students,” he said.
What drew him to GSU was a mix of the past and the future. “GSU has a history of academic freedom, with open enrollment for students even if their past life experience hasn’t been the best,” he said. “And I was attracted to the opportunity to build something from nothing. It’s great practical experience because I plan to open an institution one day.” Clay envisions a school of cultural learning for African-Americans from age 8 to 18, a place similar to those schools established by immigrants to keep their culture alive as children assimilate.
“GSU is giving me an opportunity to learn to build,” he said.