From the President: Making a difference for students

From the President: Making a difference for students2003-11-01Boardroomfalse

I began working in the college union field as a program advisor to the Union Activities Council at Emporia State University, known as Kansas State Teachers College in those days. There were many things that I enjoyed about that job. Among the greatest rewards in that graduate assistantship were the close relationships that I was able to form with many of the students on the council. I found the very same thing in my second position, which was really my first full-time job, at Boise State University. Even though my position was primarily on the operations side of the house, I relished those times when I was able to work directly with the students on the Student Union Program Board or was invited to participate in their retreats. The deep relationships, creativity and fun that stem from working directly with students in a programming unit, the recreation center, or perhaps the outdoor program center are undoubtedly among the best experiences found in a college union.

As my career progressed, I have taken note that it's often not just professional staff members who have formed deep relationships with and had impact on students' lives. It is clear that many classified staff and frontline workers have similar impact on students. I've found that it's not just student organization advisors who have formed great relationships with students. It's also food service workers, cashiers, audio-visual technicians, and office personnel. In the course of doing their jobs, there is a sufficient amount of time spent just relating to people, finding out about their lives, family history, and personal aspirations. I don't consider this wasted time, rather part of the essential ingredients to building a sense of campus community. I often take my lunch break in the union's employee break-room, since I'm a lifelong "brown-bagger." The employees who are most often present in the break-room are the building's custodians. Throughout the years of conversations with them, I've come to appreciate how closely they've gotten to know the students who frequent our building. I often see them talking to the "regulars" who come early, or those students who have a favorite location to study or just hang out.

Relationship-building opportunities are not so much a function of the direct duties found in our job description; they are a matter of simply keeping our attitude open and welcoming. If our attitudes invite relationships and we allow ourselves to care deeply for those in our midst—particularly the students who attend our institutions—wonderful, lasting attachments are formed.

I find former students coming back to campus, as alumni, who want to visit the accounting staff that may have helped them manage the student organization finances when the student was first selected as treasurer of a campus group, or the office were they worked as a student employee. Other former student leaders and student employees have brought their children back to the union to meet the people who had a hand in shaping their lives. We have one former student employee, Jason, who routinely stops by the campus to visit the front-office staff when he's home from Korea, where he's now a teacher, even though he graduated from Oregon State four years ago.

Often the fact that someone has begun acknowledging a student's presence on campus, or better yet, has taken time to reach out and begin a friendship is sufficient to make the student feel connected to the institution. The more frequently it is done, by staff in the union, officials in the housing organization, campus grounds-keepers, food-service workers, and campus administrators, the more likely we are to find ourselves building a sense of community on our campus. All acts of community building start with the most simple of gestures … reaching out to someone in our midst and acknowledging their presence. While it takes a great deal more to form the bonds of a great community, encouraging yourself and the staff around you to engage and fully appreciate the students on your campus can lead to powerful, cultural shifts in the atmosphere of your campus. Don't underestimate the power of civility and human connection in building community. They are the foundation that will allow us to later successfully engage the more difficult challenges.

Updated Nov. 9, 2012