Answering the Call: Kent State’s New Dean of Students Finds Personal Fulfillment in Helping Others Succeed

It’s a calling.

That’s how Lamar R. Hylton, Ph.D., describes his new career in student affairs as Kent State University’s Dean of Students.

“The greatest win for me is seeing the student be successful,” Dr. Hylton said.

Dr. Hylton’s eyes light up when he talks about his passion for helping students find their purpose. Dressed in a signature bow tie and collegiate saddle oxfords, he certainly dresses the part.

After chatting with Dr. Hylton briefly, you could go away believing that student affairs has been his lifelong passion.

But try to imagine for a moment, this man who is immersed in all things student affairs performing on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera in New York, his rich baritone voice rising to the rafters of the historic theater.

Singing opera on the stage of the Met is the exact future that Dr. Hylton imagined for himself as he entered Morgan State University with a scholarship to study voice and opera. Dr. Hylton had a passion for music that he knew would inevitably lead him to a career in opera. His time singing with the Morgan State choir took his talents to another level, he said.

His educational path to the world of opera led him to Ohio University, where he began to earn a master’s degree in music. As a graduate assistant, Dr. Hylton worked on recruitment and retention of students of color in the College of Fine Arts. It was there that he told his assistant dean that he had doubts about making music a full-time gig, but he loved supporting students.

“The dean said, ‘You know you can get a degree and do this day to day,’” he recalled. “My eyes lit up, and I said ‘Really? Point me there.’”

In 2005, when he enrolled in Ohio University’s College Student Personnel Program, it was the beginning of a journey that led him into his career in student affairs.

“I believe everything happens for a reason,” said Dr. Hylton, who also earned a Doctorate of Philosophy from Morgan State. “Part of me wishes I had known sooner because I may have been able to do some things differently. But I believe I needed to go through what I went through in music to help clarify what my real professional passion is, and that is working with college students.”

Dr. Hylton tells this story to students in the context of them not limiting themselves because what they are experiencing in their undergraduate lives may change. It’s okay to remain open to that change because life just may take them on an unexpected journey to find their purpose in life.

“If you had told me that 17 years after enrolling as an undergrad that I would be the dean of students at somebody’s institution, I would have looked at you and asked ‘What is a dean of students?’ and secondly ‘No, that has nothing to do with music,’” Dr. Hylton said. “And here I sit.”

Prior to joining Kent State in June 2017, Dr. Hylton served as the assistant vice provost for student affairs at the University of Minnesota, an urban campus with an enrollment of 50,000.

Kent State’s Vice President for Student Affairs Shay Little, Ph.D., said Dr. Hylton brings to the university extensive experience in student activities, fraternities and sororities, commuter student programs and leadership development initiatives.

“His extensive experience at several campuses and his engaging style set him apart to be the dean of students,” Vice President Little said. “Since his arrival in June 2017, he has met students, attended student organization meetings and been active on several university committees. He is part of the Division of Student Affairs’ senior leadership team where his insights on student engagement, retention and success are enhancing the mission and vision of the division.”

Dr. Hylton has realized that as challenging as the work is, what keeps him coming back is that there are students who need support. His purpose is to provide that support just as his mentors that came before him. Once he understood his own purpose, he was able to help others find their purpose.

“You have to help students navigate what they are looking for without telling them what to do and by giving them the tools that will make them successful beyond their wildest imaginations,” Dr. Hylton explained. “You have to help shape tough conversations and provide resources and tools to access what they can’t access on their own.”

And sometimes that means he may be in the position to sit at the tables with policymakers to whom students don’t normally have access. In those cases, he sees himself as responsible for interpreting the information to students that will make them successful –  which is in a sense – paying it forward.

“It is my responsibility to understand what we’re talking about at that table and how that translates back to helping the students find their purpose and to be a success not only at Kent State, but when they graduate,” Dr. Hylton said. “I had people in my life when I went through undergrad experiences who did the same thing for me. And now that I am afforded a seat, I need to do the same for the next generation of students behind me.”

Dr. Hylton grew up in Columbus, Ohio. His parents, Olan and Starlett Hylton, both worked for the state of Ohio. If you ask him who his heroes are, without hesitation, he’ll say his parents and grandparents. Yes, Dr. Hylton has had professional mentors who have had a major impact on his life, but his family built the foundation.

“I am fortunate to have had both parents in the home with me,” he said. “My mother and father played a huge role in my development and even in my pursuit of education. I’m a first-generation college student. Neither of my parents had the opportunity to go to college. They were big proponents of getting an advanced education past a high school diploma. They really embodied wanting more for their children when they had the access or opportunity to.”

During summers when Dr. Hylton’s parents worked, he and his brother, Maurice, spent time with his grandparents on both sides of the family.

“We had that old school flavor to our upbringing," he said. "That has shaped a lot of my values and my belief system – just the way I approach life. Now that I’m a parent, I can see a lot of them in me.”

Dr. Hylton has been married for six years to Rhonda, and the couple has two daughters, Emilee, 3, and Madison, 4 months.

As the proud husband and father talks about Mrs. Hylton and the children, he pulls out his phone and shows off their pictures. Emilee, the oldest, is holding a lunchbox because she is starting her first day at Kent State’s Child Development Center. Dr. Hylton said Mrs. Hylton and his daughters are “vital” to his life. And parenting his daughters has played a significant part in how he approaches his work.

“To now be a parent and understand at a foundational level what our college students’ parents go through shapes a completely different approach to the work, and it clarifies what’s really important in life," he said. "Sometimes it’s easy to get caught up with what’s happening in the right now. Having a wife and having children has grounded me in such a way that clarifies what’s important in life.”

Dr. Hylton has never given up his passion for music. He regularly sings in the church choir and at other engagements when he has the opportunity. It’s a hobby that gives him an outlet and a chance to catch up with old friends.

But when it comes to student affairs, it’s Dr. Hylton’s lifework.  

“I do believe I’m called to this work,” Dr. Hylton said. “I don’t need to have my name in lights. I don’t need to be recognized. I don’t need to be propped up.”

Follow Dr. Hylton on Twitter at @DrLamarHylton to learn more about Kent State's new dean of students.

POSTED: Tuesday, October 10, 2017 - 9:11am
UPDATED: Friday, October 13, 2017 - 11:06am
April McClellan-Copeland