A culture of well-being

Leslie Ridgeway • November 2, 2022
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Dr. Nickey Woods, associate dean of student affairs and DEI and dean of students for the JD program, and staff emphasize resources in guiding students

Student Affairs, from left: Akita Mungaray (assistant dean of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion/director for Student Affairs), Deise Benitez (director of Registration Services), Maia Armaleo (assistant director, Student Affairs), Nickey Woods (associate dean for Student Affairs, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, and Dean of Students for the JD Program), Preston Ascherin (director of Externships), Malissa Barnwell-Scott (director, Student Care), Carla Golle (associate director of Registration and Records).

One of the first things you see when entering USC Gould School of Law’s Student Affairs office is a large map of the university in the waiting area. It’s a sign that guidance is the priority of Dr. Nickey Woods, associate dean for student affairs, diversity, equity and inclusion and dean of students for the JD program, and the Student Affairs staff.

“We are intentional about not knowing all the answers but [being] well versed in the resources,” says Woods, who assumed her new role in late July after joining USC Gould in 2021 as its inaugural assistant dean of DEI. “If students don’t know where to go or what support or resources they need, we’ll point them in the right direction.”

In a high-intensity law school environment, Woods intends to create what she calls “a culture of well-being” that softens the stigma surrounding emotional and mental health struggles and empowers all members of the law school community to recognize a student in distress and encourage them to reach out.

“Law students are smart, high achievers and accomplished, and [success] may have come naturally or easily prior to law school,” Woods says. “Law school is a different academic environment, and they may not feel as confident, or feel like an imposter, especially our underrepresented students. We want to normalize help-seeking behavior.”

As part of that strategy, Student Affairs is getting a makeover to better represent the department and its services. An upgrade is underway with plans for a new student lounge area, accent walls and artwork expressing the office as a place where students can rejuvenate and revive.

“This is where students come to put themselves back together if they’re falling apart and this space needs to reflect that,” Woods says. “Students may be in a professional environment, but they don’t need to lose the essence of who they are. We want them to know they can come here to put a smile on their face.”

New role inspires renewed enthusiasm

In reconfiguring Student Affairs, Woods brainstormed ideas with the staff and their plans have infused renewed enthusiasm into the office. Woods recently hired Akita Mungaray as assistant dean of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and director for Student Affairs. Student Care will become Student Life and remain under the direction of Dr. Malissa Barnwell-Scott, and Woods will hire a new director for curriculum to join Deise Benitez, director of Registration Services and Carla Golle, associate director of Registration and Records. Woods also plans to work collaboratively with Career Services to schedule workshops or a seminar on professional identity formation, helping students to align their ethics and values with their education.

To Woods, DEI and Student Affairs are a natural fit, and she appealed for continued involvement in DEI during discussions about her new position. In the year since she was hired to lead DEI efforts, Woods has led numerous workshops and trainings, collaborated with student organizations, launched the Diversity Fellows and DEI Ambassadors programs, and used her talent for networking to forge new connections throughout campus, including involving USC Gould in professional development programming for student athletes developed by USC Athletics, which also partners in this effort with USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism and USC Marshall School of Business. Woods was instrumental in bringing in Sean Kundu (JD 2007), vice president of corporate development for the San Francisco 49ers, as keynote speaker at a networking luncheon for USC football players. Woods also was the connection to other alumni including Casey Schwab (JD 2013), founder and CEO of Altius Sports Partners, which works with university athletic departments on NIL programs and athlete education, and Linda Hoos (JD 2001), associate vice president for USC’s Office of Equity, Equal Opportunity and Title IX, who Woods also brought in as a speaker.

Opportunities to collaborate

A born networker, Woods is constantly on the lookout for opportunities that might benefit the law school and students. She recently chatted up USC Annenberg Dean Willow Bay and Gordon Stables, director of Annenberg’s School of Journalism, about collaborating on projects. She’s also working with USC Gould’s Career Services Office on scheduling workshops or a seminar on professional identity formation, helping students align their education with their ethics and values. She also worked with a 1L who was president of her undergraduate improv group to set up an improv night for 1Ls in early October.

The word is getting out about the changes in Student Affairs, Woods says.

“I see a new energy among the team, and others in the law school tell me they notice it, too,” she says. “It feels really good. We’re going to do great work.”

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