Walehwa Guides Student Support Through the Pandemic and Beyond

Social Work; Students

As the Brown School’s assistant dean of student affairs, Josh Walehwa provides leadership and support to an array of staff focused on the out-of-class needs of students, such as financial aid, academic advising, student engagement and career services. The challenges of that role can be daunting, but they’ve been even more so when complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic..

“With students in Zoom classes all day, we had to be creative in engaging them,” said Walehwa. Pre-recorded events, and communicating while working from home were among the Brown School’s responses, some of which will continue even as the pandemic fades. Dealing with students’ interpersonal needs remotely was another issue. “I really do think that was a challenge,” he said. “They weren’t just dealing with the usual school stressors, but with how COVID was affecting their families. Connecting and developing relationships with students was a challenge. I am looking forward to more in-person meetings and organized advising opportunities, which are better in person.”

Walehwa assumed his current role in September 2021, after working in admissions, leading Career Services, and earning a PhD in education from the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Connecting Brown School students with job opportunities was a significant challenge in 2020-21, as the pandemic hit hardest. “It was a time of uncertainty,’ he said. “Zoom became a great tool for us to connect with alumni, current students, having coaching conversations and hosting programming.” The online opportunity brought employers in from all over the U.S. and hosted alumni events from all over the world. “That was really exciting, it’s a great resource for students who are trying to network, which can have a significant impact on their job prospects.”

Those prospects for Brown School graduates are outstanding, due to a nationwide shortage of social workers and the heightened attention to public health prompted by COVID.

The wide variety of topics with which he engages has been building Walehwa’s experience. “I work with so many different parts of the student experience, the learning curve is really exciting,” he said. “The Brown School community is one of the best things about it, it’s the people who do hard work and support students who are doing incredible things.”

Now his team is reconfiguring the school’s student support process for students in crisis or in need and increasing the number of people directly involved with supporting students. “Grad students deal with a lot of interpersonal, financial, and transitional needs,” he said. “We help them work through all that.”

The team includes Da’Shaun Scott, assistant director for student engagement, who oversees student engagement and support, including housing insecurity, and mental health. Scott came to the Brown School in 2021 from Florida State University, where he worked in student governance and advocacy. Moving to a much smaller school offered the opportunity to make connections with students and colleagues. Unfortunately, the pandemic put a damper on those aspirations, at least for a while.

“It’s been a struggle,” he said. “We were overcautious in a good way, and so I never got to meet a lot of students. You get drained doing virtual events all the time.” But Scott did get the chance to lead planning for the 2022 Brown School Commencement, the first in-person celebration since 2019. He also came to appreciate the Brown School’s special role in providing student services for graduate students. “Everybody at the university looks up to the Brown School for how much we do for the graduate students,” he said. But he’s especially looking forward to the fall semester, with a full year of in-person classes, student events, and one-to-one meetings.

“I feel new all over again,” he said.

Walehwa’s team is also developing consistent communication plans and educating faculty and staff about their role and how to support students when they’re in crisis. “I’ve been charged with being innovative, and that to me is exciting. I can see how small changes can mean big results.”

Walehwa’s passion, he says, is leadership. “I’m curious about human beings and what influences people to be at their best,” he said. He has taught leadership at the University of Iowa with middle schools and high schools through their summer program for over a decade. In addition, he serves every year as co-lead (instructor) with LeaderShape – an organization dedicated to helping people grow in their capacity to lead.

An early inspiration came after his family came to the U.S. from Uganda when he was one year old: The biblical story about Joseph and his coat of many colors. 

“That story was fascinating to me,” he said. “It showed ways to help people and make things better.”