A portrait of President Beasley holding the presidential mace with colorful rays behind her
Here To Ignite
Tracing President Vanessa Beasley’s lifelong journey to promote student success

For Trinity President Vanessa Beasley, Ph.D., student success is more than just important: It’s personal. All she has to do is think back to her first days as a college student. It’s probably an experience familiar to many Trinity students, alumni, and parents.

“I was used to doing very well in high school without really having to study or prepare for classes. I could listen in class and then do really well on the exams, and writing papers has always been relatively easy for me,” Beasley explains. “But when I went to Vanderbilt as a first-year student, the level of preparation that needed to be done outside of class was much more significant, and I just didn’t know how to do it. I didn’t know how to study.”

Fast forward to 2007, when Beasley returned to her alma mater as a faculty member and eventually served as vice provost for Academic Affairs, dean of residential faculty, and an associate professor of communication studies. She learned there were many students with experiences like hers: highly intelligent and achievement-oriented but not always prepared for the academic rigor of an elite university. But there was an even greater underlying challenge.

“I didn’t know how to ask for help. So that’s one of the investments in student success that I will always make—to seek ways to support a person like that, who was able to do the work but had no idea what doing the work actually meant or how to organize time and get tutoring,” Beasley says. “Higher education still needs to do some work on normalizing asking for help. If you’re that person who always did well in school and then became a professor or administrator without ever having to ask for help, you really don’t know how to do it. It’s a skill that is never too late to learn.” 

As a first-generation college student, Beasley knows that asking for help can be an even greater challenge. Her commitment to student success manifests itself in her desire to make a Trinity liberal arts education accessible to capacious students across the nation, no matter their backgrounds.

President Vanessa Beasley and her husband, Trey, bagged personal care items with students during the Service Ignited inauguration event.

President Beasley notes that she’s already seen how a Trinity education teaches students how to learn rather than simply what to learn. And that includes listening to—and learning from—fellow students as well as faculty and staff. She fully embraces the idea that the Trinity experience teaches you both how to answer questions and question answers.

“We want all students, no matter their backgrounds or any parts of their identity, to learn from each other. A central concept of the liberal arts is teaching people how to understand the world by providing tools to research more perspectives than just your own,” Beasley says. “I want our students to understand how other people think and also how to support their own arguments by using the best evidence. That’s how we prepare them for a life of meaning and purpose in their careers and beyond.”

This philosophy is reflected in President Beasley’s chosen academic field of political rhetoric, which she discovered during her junior year of college. During a final exam, she was challenged by a communication professor to write an essay evaluating a political conflict from multiple perspectives.

“By then, I had learned how to study and prepare for the exam. As I turned it in, I was happy with my essay,” Beasley says. “When we came back at the beginning of senior year, that professor asked me to come see him in his office. I figured I was in trouble for something I didn’t know I had done—because why else would a professor want to talk to me? He ended up telling me how impressive my essay was and that he thought if I was writing and thinking at that level, I ought to consider going to graduate school.”

Soon after, Beasley found herself studying at the University of Texas at Austin, where she received a master’s degree and doctorate in speech communication. No stranger to the Lone

Star State, she went on to teach at Texas A&M University and Southern Methodist University before moving to the University of Georgia and eventually returning to Vanderbilt University.

Vanessa Beasley came to Trinity from Vanderbilt University, where she served as vice provost for Academic Affairs. Photo courtesy of Vanderbilt University.

Beasley has continued her research on U.S. political rhetoric, authoring You, the People: American National Identity in Presidential Rhetoric: 1885-2000 and editing the volume Who Belongs in America? Presidents, Rhetoric, and Immigration. She still enjoys her research, although it has taken a back seat to her new role at Trinity. Even so, she’s finding ways to promote civil discourse.

In today’s politically charged climate, Beasley has been a champion of asking how we might imagine a renewed “civic literacy” on Trinity’s campus and beyond. It’s a concept that harkens back to the ancient Greeks, Romans, and the beginning of the liberal arts tradition, which she says the University continues to revisit and revise.

“The model associated with Ciceronian education, for example, requires that you have a sense of the importance of the greater community in ways that likely go beyond your own self-interest,” Beasley explains. And while that realization is important, Beasley says, there’s a second component to civic literacy that is also fundamental to the liberal arts.

“The second part of civic literacy is asking how we know what we think we know. This includes asking yourself whether you are only hearing from people you already agree with, which is not usually the most productive path to learning. How, then, do we learn to listen to people who we disagree with and to do so without being highly reactive, to listen with curiosity? How do you practice a habit of mind that enables you to say, ‘I don’t have to agree with it, but I want to understand why somebody else would think this way,’” Beasley says.

“Sometimes taking this stance confirms your own beliefs even more. It asks you to think about why you have the beliefs that you do. Other times, it might lead you to reconsider your beliefs, and that can be very meaningful, too. In both scenarios, you might also ask, and be asked, to provide better evidence for your claims. The ability to discover, interpret, and evaluate new evidence or data is one of the most important skills learned through a liberal arts education, ” she says.

President Beasley is energized and excited by what she sees at Trinity University: a faculty committed to scholarship as well as hands-on, experiential research and teaching; a newly reclassified, highly ranked national liberal arts college; exceptional new facilities, including Dicke Hall and Beneski Parkway; and a student body that continues to raise the bar in both academic profile and diversity.

“Trinity is a community where people genuinely care for each other and where relationships are important. I’ve heard that over and over again from faculty, students, and staff, and I have seen it, too,” Beasley says. “I’ve been struck by how many people have shared a story with me about how a relationship they formed at Trinity changed their life, and I’ve also been struck by how much people want to re-engage with each other right now.”