Q&A with David Randall, Senior Associate Dean, Student Support and Wellbeing

MITili Staff
Randall QA

MIT's commitment to supporting students is led by David Randall, Senior Associate Dean for Student Support and Wellbeing. David has been at MIT since 2005 and was a dean in Student Support Services for many years. David is responsible for coordinating many of the support resources on campus, including Alcohol and Other Drug Services, the CARE Team, Disability and Access Services, the Office of Student Wellbeing, Student Support Services, and Violence Prevention and Response.

David is also an avid sports fan and during his free time can be found on a basketball court, watching his kids do their thing, or cheering for his beloved New York Yankees. David lives with his wife, three boys, and his sock-eating therapy dog, Addie.

When did you first become interested in psychology and student wellbeing?

I majored in psychology as an undergraduate at Colgate University and got involved in a lot of research on animal behavior and social psychology. I was doing all kinds of cool experiments on European Starlings (yes, birds!) and designing new social psyc experiments like the ones you read about in intro textbooks. My big takeaways from these projects were that the mind is a powerful thing and that human behavior is more complex than we even realize. Because of these early experiences, I decided to pursue graduate work in psychology, and more specifically, child and family clinical psychology. I knew I wanted to help people. From early on in my graduate work, I had a naive fantasy that somehow we could build mental health and wellbeing into primary care doctor visits. I wanted children to see a mental health expert regularly to ensure their psychological wellbeing, the same way that they saw a pediatrician. This is challenging for so many reasons, but it launched me down the path of thinking a lot about not just how we deal with problems when they arise, but also how we prevent problems from arising in the first place.

Several universities are taking greater steps toward student wellbeing. What has MIT done in recent years to help students with this important aspect of learning?

We are at such an exciting time at MIT! Since 2014, Cindy Barnhart led the charge in prioritizing student support, preventing sexual violence, and promoting wellbeing at MIT. With her, and Dean for Student Life Suzy Nelson’s support, we have spent the last several years reinforcing our support network and making sure it was as coordinated as possible. The progress has been unbelievable and involves people from all across the Institute including the Office of Graduate Education, MIT Medical, Student Mental Health and Counseling Services, and the Division of Student Life. We now have a network of care that is coordinated, collaborative, and highly effective.

More recently, we have shifted our focus to wellbeing. We want MIT to be a place where innovation, research, and creativity allow us to solve the world’s most challenging problems and we want the people who are doing that work to be the best possible versions of themselves. Although we are just at the start of this work, we have already done a lot. We have created a new Office of Student Wellbeing and this team has brought together the absolutely critical Health Promotion Working Group. This group, made up of key partners across the Institute, meets regularly to talk about ways to coordinate support and wellbeing resources for students. They also work closely with students on the UA Support and Wellness Committee, GSC Housing and Community Affairs Committee and many peer education groups to coordinate this work. As part of these efforts, we have just launched a new website that aims to help students learn about and prioritize their wellbeing journey. We are also embarking on a really exciting renovation of our student center (W20) which is going to weave elements of wellbeing throughout the building and make it a place you want to come to, connect with others, and stay for a while! This will be a multimillion dollar effort and I think will have a significant impact on our entire community.

How might MIT leverage their research strength to enhance learning and wellbeing on campus?

The potential for coordinated and collaborative research in this space is so exciting to me. MIT doesn’t have a medical school, school of public health or traditional psychology department, so some of the larger research projects that happen at other schools haven’t materialized at MIT. Duke is a good example of a school that has done pioneering research in wellbeing in college students. However, a critical mass of researchers is forming at MIT who all have an interest in wellbeing and are committed to improving the MIT student experience, in and out of the classroom. I think the research power of MIT coupled with the tremendous efforts we have emerging around student support and wellbeing will make MIT a leader in this area.

What advice do you have for students who might be struggling with coming back to in-person learning after a year of remote education?

Transition is hard. It’s hard for all of us. In a recent letter to my team in Student Support and Wellbeing I wrote, “I am excited to get back to work but, honestly, also feeling nervous. I find myself wondering what it will be like, how I will adjust, and imagine that I may even long for some parts of the pandemic.” I think everyone is having mixed feelings about returning and also thinking about how to change patterns of behavior that emerged during the pandemic. I think there are some basic things students can do to make their transition easier:

  1. Ease in, and don’t feel the need to do everything at once
  2. Prioritize relationships, connect with others, and meet new people
  3. Take care of your body by sleeping, exercising, and eating well
  4. Expect bumps in the road and ask for help

What is your favorite thing about working at MIT?

This is an easy one. THE STUDENTS! I am inspired by them every day. I went to a liberal arts college as an undergrad, a state school as a graduate student, and a medical school for post-doctoral training. I felt like a fish out of water when I arrived at the best STEM school in the world and wasn’t sure I would understand the students or they would understand me. Wow, was I wrong. I have never in my life met students like those at MIT. They are compassionate, thoughtful, dedicated, passionate, and brilliant problem-solvers. They care deeply about the problems of the world and MIT, the place they call home. They are always pushing MIT, and those who work here, to be better. I learn from them every day and love sharing that with my sons when I get home each night.