Maximizing your student activities experience with the staff you have

Maximizing your student activities experience with the staff you haveChristopher M. Kandus2004-11-0118The Centrefalse

Many institutions want their college union to be a "destination," not a just a building that people walk through to get to the other side of campus on a rainy day. To make a union a destination, it needs to have a strong sense of community. The Office of Campus Life at Babson College has a vision to create that destination, a real sense of community for the Reynolds Campus Center. In particular, this year the Office of Campus Life is taking on a new staff organizational structure to help achieve this goal.

A need for change

In the mid-1990s, Babson College, located in Wellesley, Mass., was recognized in several prominent publications, such as Businessweek and U.S. News & World Report, for its curriculum advancements. As the campus environment flourished in light of this attention, there grew to be a need for an area of central activity. In 1997, Babson College responded to that need when the Donald W. Reynolds Campus Center opened its doors to the community.

However, seven years later the Reynolds Campus Center has not quite achieved its envisioned potential. In 2003, the college sent out a Quality of Student Life Survey to the undergraduate student body (Babson College, 2003). The results of this survey offered insight regarding the modern needs of the campus community. Student activities and the cocurrucular environment was a factor for change (Babson College, 2003). Students wanted more experiences; they wanted the opportunity for more fun. In addition to the survey, staff at the Reynolds Campus Center began to notice warning signs that the building was being underutilized and that a possible change in vision needed to happen:

  • Peak traffic times only revolved around when food service was open.
  • Traffic increased on inclement weather days, meaning it was a walk-through, not a destination.
  • Some days there was minimal tono traffic in the building.
  • The community did not ask about rooms or spaces in the building that could be reserved for their use. They were not envisioning the campus center as a place to hold programs.
  • Outside vendors wanted to be moved to other locations on campus because not enough people came through the building.
  • Students, faculty, and staff were more or less shocked when a program was going on in the programming space.
  • Custodial staff cut back on the cleaning schedule because there was not enough traffic in the building to necessitate cleaning it.
  • Clubs and organizations were going across campus to hold an event instead of staying in the campus center. The student activities/cocurricular environment was present around the building, but not always in the building.

    The campus center was attractive, it was large enough, and it had a prime location in the center of campus. However, it was not viewed in the eyes of the students as the true heart of the campus community. This was mentioned several times in discussions at weekly Student Government Association meetings, at which more than 60 student organizations were represented. But even though staff members realized there was a problem, no one had time to change it and funds to hire additional staff members simply did not exist.

    Previous structures

    During the past five years, the Reynolds Campus Center has had several different staffing structures. At one time it operated under an associate director who had one other professional working under him. Then it was downsized to the associate director who solely oversaw the management of the Reynolds Campus Center. At another time, the Reynolds Campus Center professional staff was also in charge of campus-wide scheduling. These structures did not allow professional staff members the time to build student commitment and dedication to the building.

    In the most recent model, professional staff members' myriad responsibilities limited direct interaction with clubs, organizations, and student leaders because of the priorities of their employment descriptions. Specifically, the professional staff member who oversaw the campus center was a one-man show. Making sure that the building was being taken care of and that regular maintenance was occurring were enough to occupy a work week. Additionally, all Office of Campus Life staff had judicial and crisis management responsibilities. And finally, the structure did not have a logical progression to allow staff members to advance in the Office of Campus Life.

    The director of campus life and the dean of students wanted to create a new structure that was free from these limitations and allowed professionals to grow and move up the ranks of the Office of Campus Life. This model would provide an opportunity for more depth to the staff structure. However, Babson was challenged with the inability to add more student affairs staff to achieve that goal, so staff needed to work with the manpower they already had.

    A new model

    Mohammad H. Qayoumi (2000) states: "a more effective approach in achieving fundamental change requires a better understanding of organizational culture and its central role" (p. 36). As staff members gained more knowledge about the campus culture's needs, they realized the need to unite professionals in the student activities arena-including residence life-and the student groups they advise. The new model aims to do this and make the original vision of the Reynolds Campus Center a reality by creating a better orchestrated student activities experience. In this model, professionals in the Office of Campus Life serve as the primary advisors to the groups targeted to use the building as a space for programming. Under the old model, one professional was advising all of these groups and all were striving for growth. But with only one advisor, the time to facilitate that growth was not available. It is hoped that the new model will not only assist with the cocurricular environment, but will also truly meet the needs of the campus community as a place for gathering.

    As stated in a special report by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching (1990), "What is needed, we believe, is a larger, more integrated community in higher education, one that focuses not on the length of time students spend campus, but the quality of the encounter" (p. 7). Encompassing this concept of an integrated community will result in significant change in how the campus center is viewed. And, the Office of Campus Life now is able to oversee all activities that take place outside the classroom, not just what happens within the campus center, consequently enhancing communication and collaboration to provide a better student activities experience.

    The Office of Campus Life now encompasses the Reynolds Campus Center, student activities, clubs and organizations, leadership development, greek life, the Student Government Association, the Campus Activities Board, residential life, and undergraduate and graduate housing. And, in the new structure, the reshaped roles of current staff make more sense:

    Director
    The director of campus life oversees the operations and management of the Office of Campus Life, including housing, residential life, student activities, and administrative hearings. The director also supervises two associate directors, one who is responsible for student leadership and programming and one who is responsible for residential life.

    Associate Directors (2)
    The associate director of campus life, student leadership, and programming manages the overall operations of the Reynolds Campus Center, student activities, leadership development, greek life, and the Student Government Association. This associate director also serves as the primary advisor to the Student Government Association and Panhellenic Council/sororities.

    The associate director of residential life now reports to the director of campus life, creating a more coordinated student activities experience. The associate director of residential life supervises two resident directors (who each supervise resident assistants) and a housing coordinator.

    Assistant Director
    Reporting to the associate director of campus life, the assistant director of campus life is responsible for the day-to-day activities of the building and serves as the primary professional contact for programming in the building. The assistant director is responsible not only for planning events in the building, but also works with student organizations to hold events in the Reynolds Campus Center. The assistant director also manages the information desk and assists with the training of the building managers and student staff. Additionally, the assistant director advises Greek Council.

    Coordinator for Student Programs
    The coordinator for student programs, also reporting to the associate director of campus life, serves as a liaison to students by advising the Campus Activities Board. Campus Activities Board is the largest programming organization on campus. Historically, the board sets the example for the rest of the community, and many other organizations follow its lead.

    These professionals working together can better maximize the use of the Reynolds Campus Center through the organizations they advise. Under this model, the Reynolds Campus Center can be the primary venue for student activities, leadership programs, greek life, clubs and organizations, student businesses, community service, the Student Government Association, and the Campus Activities Board. The new model gives staff the student interaction needed to make the Reynolds Campus Center a true student and community destination. And in the new model, staff will plan events to draw people to the center and showcase it as a destination for fun. In the works are novelty acts, poetry slams, billiards tournaments, Dance Dance Revolution competitions, sorority and fraternity recruitment events, battle of the bands, student leadership conferences, and even bingo. There is also a logical chain of command. Now, if you enter into the Office of Campus Life as the coordinator for student programs, you can see that there is a possibility of a promotion to assistant director and to associate director.

    Implementation and evaluation

    Combining several areas of student involvement and student programs under one house takes collaboration, and that is the plan. In preparation for this model to be fully implemented, the student activities staff went on a retreat to discuss the plan of action, who will do what, and how to manage the changes. Additionally, for consistency, the associate director will remain involved in the planning process of Family Weekend and Campus Center Programming, with the assistant director and coordinator shadowing the events in preparation for taking them over.

    The Reynolds Campus Center kicked off the year with "Catch the Excitement of Reynolds," a late-night event that was geared to showcase all of the programming space in the building. The event had a coffee house entertainer, roving artists, a sandy candy station, the ever-popular butt sketch artist, and a billiards tournament. The students seemed to have a lot of fun with the first event and are now asking to have a monthly billiards tournament. In addition, the weekly programming series "What's Up Wednesdays" also has been a success. The Residential Life Team and Health Services will be co-sponsoring many of these events. This series deals with many topics, including men's and women's health panels, stress management programs, and massages.

    Additionally, the student activities team held an open house demonstrating how to use the building as a venue for programs. The open house had events throughout the building, ultimately giving the students and community a visual aid for future programs. This event was planned to involve the whole community. The theme for the open house was "We Want You in Reynolds!" Uncle Sam was on all of the publicity, giving the event a patriotic feel. The best part of the event was the look on the students' faces when they walked in the building. They were shocked, to say the least, about the fun atmosphere that the campus center had taken on. One hundred coupon books were given out; these coupon books had certificates for free merchandise in the building, discounts at the bookstore, and much more.

    This month, the assistant director also is devising a marketing campaign to inform the student body about the benefits and capabilities of holding events in the Reynolds Campus Center. Programs will continue to be held that communicate that the campus center is an ideal venue for student organization events and programs because of its location and diverse set-up options. After that, it is hoped that other students and student organizations will hear about the benefits of the center by word of mouth.

    In looking to the future, staff members know that changing a campus culture is not an easy task, but they remain focused on bringing students together to plan events. Additionally, a Reynolds Campus Center Advisory Board, a combination of faculty, students, and staff, will be brought together to communicate students' needs so staff members can better meet those needs. The advisory board was a committee in place at the creation of the building, but had slowly dwindled in recent years. It now will have a clear purpose to ensure the Reynolds Campus Center is achieving its vision. There also will be an ongoing discussion at Student Government Association meetings, and the Reynolds Campus Center will be a topic for student speak-outs (open-forum discussions led by the Student Government Association Executive Board).

    Bimonthly, the student activities staff will meet to discuss progress and the new structure. Staff members have made a commitment to each other to be open and honest about successes and failures. The staff wants to ensure that the changes have a positive impact on the students and community, ultimately bringing students closer to the cocurricular environment they would like to enjoy. Additionally, staff recognize they probably have not figured out all of the kinks and cannot predict what will happen, but they feel the steps they are taking are definitely moving them in the right direction.

    A destination

    As a department, staff members realized student activities and the Reynolds Campus Center could be improved, but they knew it would not be easy. They could have been daunted at the task of reshaping student life, they could have dwelled on what was lacking, or they could have waited until the funds were available to hire more staff. But instead they decided to make a difference now rather than later. To make the necessary advancements, they modified job descriptions, looked at their programming vision, and then made changes with the staff they had. Porter Butts (1971) states: "There are many kinds of unions, with many variations of purpose-and some, regretfully, with no apparent purpose at all ..." (p. 111). The new staffing model for campus life at Babson College aims to create a strong purpose for the Reynolds Campus Center as a destination and a place for developing the college community's cocurricular offerings.

Babson College. (2003). Quality of student life survey [Unpublished]. Wellesley, MA: Babson College.
Butts, P. (1971). The college union idea. Bloomington, IN: ACUI.
Qayoumi, M. (2000). Benchmarking and organizational change. Alexandria, VA: The Association of Higher Education Facilities Officers.
The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. (1997). Campus life, in search of community. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Inc.
Updated Nov. 9, 2012