David Keymer on Student Affairs: Recognizing Your Best Human Assets

I recently had the opportunity to talk with David Keymer, who served as a chief student affairs officer at SUNY Utica Rome; California State University, Stanislaus; and Zayed University (Dubai and Abu Dhabi) from 1983-2004. This is the third in a seven-part series in which I will be sharing some of the wisdom gleaned from David’s experience in student affairs across these varied institutions.

At Stan State, we had a fairly small dorm complex. It started after I got there. When I first got there, all we had was a rundown motel across the street from the campus, and it was a hellhole hotel. Slowly, it had to be slowly because residence halls are self-financed, we built dorms and by the time I left, in 2001, we had started construction on a third set of suites. By then, we were housing, feeding and tending to the needs of between 600 and 750 students there. (I don’t remember the exact number any more.) That’s not a huge number but for those 600+, the campus was their community.

A lot of them spoke Spanish. Their parents were Chicana, mostly from Mexico. Many had parents who had worked in the fields. Many were the first in their families to go to college. That was an experience I’d shared myself long before them and I remember how disorienting it was at first.  The transition to university living isn’t automatic for anyone and especially not for first generation college goers from a “minority” culture. (God, I hate that word “minority”!)  

It was up to us to make them see our campus as their village and everybody on campus as their neighbors. I know that sounds glorified, idealistic, but it isn’t. You need to start with that mindset and work toward it in every interaction you have with these new, strong but still fragile, young people of hope.

Our best asset in the dorms was a Chicana cleaner. We made a point of honoring her for that, letting her know how much we valued her input. She worked hard but she always found time to listen to them—especially the female students—and if they wanted help or advice, she gave it. If not, still her sympathy. And from the female students, we learned about the male students, and so on. She was a great help.

On the recruitment side, one of our biggest assets was the building and grounds crew. They were always out and about campus and morale was high among them. And if a worker was friendly when a visitor or a student came up to ask a question, instead of acting like, you know, I’m a union person and I don’t have to do anything outside my contract, it painted a whole different picture of the campus. I spent time with them, regularly and often. Nothing formal. I just stopped and talked with them, listened a lot.

I walked the campus every day on every campus I was ever on. Now, remember, they were human-sized campuses so I could do that. But I walked. I talked to everybody I met. Well, I didn’t talk to everybody I met, but I talked pretty openly, and people gradually forgot I was a Suit.

David Keymer on Student Affairs: Getting Out and Talking Face-to-Face

I recently had the opportunity to talk with David Keymer, who served as a chief student affairs officer at SUNY Utica Rome; California State University, Stanislaus; and Zayed University (Dubai and Abu Dhabi) from 1983-2004. This is the second in a seven-part series in which I will be sharing some of the wisdom gleaned from David’s experience in student affairs across these varied institutions.

I walked around a lot. I mean a lot, like daily. Unless I was off campus on business or forced into meetings I couldn’t escape all day long, I walked at least a part of my campus every day. And I walked it to talk to people and to be seen walking around.

Now remember, the campuses I worked on were all small to middle-sized. I liked that. I like campuses I can put my arms around.

When students arrive on campus for the first time, you should have people there to help them—show them how to get from one office or building to another, help them move into the dorms, just be there to smile at them.

You’ve got to have places where you can step outside your official role just be another person to them, find ways to rub shoulders with no formal purpose or intent. Students have the same comfort issues all of us have. You’ve got to find a way to get through the nonacquaintance barrier, and the best way to do that is through informal—not always planned and rationed—contact. Be around students. Listen. Be a person, not a Suit.

I was a fairly benevolent boss, but I was hell-on-wheels on my people getting out and making contact. You don’t have to sit on a phone; you don’t have to use your computer —TALK.

Find out where the students, faculty, other staff hang out and go there. (For me, it was a morning coffee run to the campus coffee shop.) People relate best face-to-face.

David Keymer on Student Affairs: We’re All in the Same Business

I recently had the opportunity to talk with David Keymer, who served as a chief student affairs officer at SUNY Utica Rome; California State University, Stanislaus; and Zayed University (Dubai and Abu Dhabi) from 1983-2004. Over the next few weeks, I will be sharing some of the wisdom gleaned from David’s experience in student affairs across these varied institutions.

“And, by the way, guys, you do student affairs, too, you know.”

A good faculty member is an aid to retention and to recruitment because other people hear about them. But anyone on campus—whether working there, studying there, or just visiting—can be an aid to recruitment and retention as well.

Some parents come to campus trying to decide whether they want their children to go there or not. They don’t arrive on campus and ask, “Where is the Dean of Students Office?” or “Where is the Office of the Vice President for Student Affairs?”

They’re walking along; they see a grounds person planting something. They talk to them briefly, notice if they seem proud of their work. The parents walk on, there’s a campus police officer, they talk to the officer. They meet a professor, students. Everywhere they go, they’re imbibing a message about the campus.

So, what you want to do is get the same message across to everyone: “We really are all in the same business and we all sink or float by doing it well.”

I spent an awful, awful lot of time on my job networking, and I would say to anyone who wants to move up in the field of Student Affairs, you need to realize that everybody in your college or university is ultimately in the same business, and you can find a way to communicate that to them. You need to make connections.

Clothes: Uplift and Downer

Luevinia, Altoria, and Vidella were my best friends in the sixth grade at Melrose School in Memphis.

The scene was on the playground at recess after lunch. I won’t go into the pretend marriage between a boy I liked and myself, but it was on this occasion that my three friends—who were getting me ready for the pretend wedding—decided that the clothes that I was wearing were just “too ugly” for the “wedding.”

Vidella decided to lend me her pink sweater to cover up what I was wearing. I had never had such a soft lovely piece of clothing that I could remember. I felt beautiful in the sweater. The photo that resulted showed me posing as if I were a movie star, with head thrown back to highlight the grin on my face and one hand behind my head for good measure.

Another photo that reminds me of how clothes can be an uplift or a downer was taken when I was fourteen. Although I had moved to live with my mother in Chicago two years earlier, my brother had stayed with my dad. So, on the occasion of my brother’s seventh birthday, my mother and I traveled back to Memphis. 

The birthday party was something of a reunion, in that the kids I had played with when I lived in that neighborhood were there. My living in Chicago would have been something to increase my status among the kids if it had not been for what I was wearing.

Cute shorts and tops with sandals were the expected standard for the girls. Why, then, was I wearing my one-piece green gym suit from school with the elastic waist and elastic mid-thigh? I had no cute shorts and tops. The gym suit was my only option to keep cool in the heat of August in Memphis. Needless to say, I tried to stay out of sight as much as possible.

During the time when I was applying to colleges, my mother was losing jobs. She told me that there was no money to pay for my senior pictures. Understanding the situation, I told her that I would take the pictures and, if there was money when it was time to pay for the pictures, we would buy them.

The instructions for the photos was that the girls were to wear a black sweater and white pearls. My only sweater was a drab, olive-green, nubby-like sweater that looked as if it needed a clothes shaver. It was totally wrong for the picture. I didn’t have pearls either. My mother had some gold-painted beads that I paired with the ugly sweater.

When it was time to buy the pictures, my mother had the needed money. It was later that I found out that she had pawned the treasured wedding rings that my stepfather had given her in order to have the money for my senior pictures. With new eyes, I not only felt bad that she had pawned the rings; I felt even worse than bad because I had complained about not having a black sweater and white pearls.

Clothing, Confidence, and ‘ccomplishment

Clothes don’t make the person.
It’s not what you wear it’s who you are.

My mother’s parents probably used similar words and sentiments when she asked for new clothes.

My mother and a boy named Wesley Lee were the only students in the school that the teachers thought were ready to take the exams required to graduate from the eighth grade. The exams were given at the Sunflower County Seat in Mississippi (M-i-crooked letter-crooked letter-i-crooked letter-crooked letter-i-humpback-humpback-i) rather than at the school.

This trip was a very special occasion and a testament to the accomplishments of these students.   My mother’s Aunt Alma (by way of marriage to my mother’s daddy’s brother) promised to get her the white dress and shoes that girl graduates were required to wear. Instead of buying new clothes and shoes, Aunt Alma gave my mother one of her old white dresses that she often wore to church and a pair of her white, old-lady, blocky-heeled shoes. The shoes were so much larger than my mother’s feet that she had to wear them with socks instead of nylons.

My mother was so embarrassed about how she looked in Aunt Alma’s clothes that, for the first time that she could remember, she was nervous and scared. Thinking about how awful she looked caused her baking soda deodorant to stop working. She could smell her sweaty underarms and was sure everyone else could too. Although she passed the exams, the memory of the shame about how she looked and felt in those clothes lasted.

Words and sentiments thought to teach and appease get passed down through generations when parents can’t afford or won’t buy their children the clothes they need and want.

I was living with my dad; my mother was living in Chicago. When my dad didn’t buy me clothes, I would write to my mother to ask her to buy me what I wanted or needed.

When all the other kids in fourth and fifth grades were wearing penny loafers, I was still wearing the scuffed white and black Oxford shoes that had been popular in previous years. The really cool kids put a nickel or dime in the slot where the penny was supposed to go. I really wanted penny loafers! I even sent my mother a picture of the shoes in case she didn’t know what they were. I never did wear penny loafers. I didn’t feel that I belonged.

When it was time for school pictures, I wrote my mother to ask her to please send me a new coat. I told her that when I took school pictures the year before, the sleeves on my coat were too short and kids laughed at how I looked. My sleeves were even shorter in the next pictures since I was wearing the same coat. I was ashamed and felt ugly.

Clothes may or may not make the person. Clothes may or may not cause others to prejudge based on what one is wearing. Clothes may or may not have an effect on one’s behavior and level of confidence. However, from my personal experience, how I think about myself in particular clothes impacts my feelings of self-confidence and ultimately how I perform the task at hand. 

Amazing Grace

Patricia Telles-Irving

Dr. Patricia Telles-Irvin assumed her position as vice president for student affairs at Northwestern University in 2011—the same year that she began her term as president of the NASPA Board of Directors. As executive director of NASPA, I was aware of the difficult decisions that she had to make and the many responsibilities that she carried ever-so-thoughtfully and gracefully in both of her leadership positions.

When I think of the year that I spent close to her as a colleague, friend, and confidant, I realize even more in retrospect that she was the epitome of love, kindness, and compassion. She was amazing grace, a gift to the world. I am privileged and honored to have known her and to call her friend.

RIP PTI 2019

A Pie in the Face

Sometimes you can have your cake and eat it too.

Other times, you get a pie in the face when you think that you can tell your boss and colleagues that you’re ready to seek other employment.

Things start to happen…sort of like eating pie outside at a picnic table. Like a fly buzzing your pie, you fan away the rumors you hear about why you’re really looking for another job.

Then there are a few more flies, but you think you can still swat them away because your boss has just given you an evaluation so flattering about your accomplishments that you’re embarrassed.

Because of the increasing number of flies, you cover your pie carefully and put it in a safe place.

You tell your boss that you are a finalist in your search for a new position. You are asked to withdraw your application and stay one more year because you are needed. Your boss – who said that they would help in your search – tells you that the higher-ups are questioning your commitment to the institution.

You forget about the pie completely.

You make an appointment with the higher-ups. When you enter the office to attest to your commitment – WHAM! The pie you forgot about smacks you right in the face.

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Having your cake and eating it too…

There is nothing like savoring the freedom that comes with making the decision to change jobs. 

Your freedom tastes even more delicious when you are able to tell your boss and colleagues that you are looking for a new job without fear of repercussions.

And the icing on this cake is when you can respect and trust your boss enough to ask for their help in finding the position that best matches what they see as your strengths.

When you can do these things, it’s like having your cake and eating it too!

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The “selective” nature of memory

It’s a funny thing about memory. I’m not talking about when you find yourself in a room and can’t remember why you’re there. I’m referring to what might be called selective memory.

It was 1967 or 1968, and Charles and I were newlyweds living in our own place. We were feeling quite grownup when we extended a dinner invitation to former college classmates who were now engaged.

It might have been the cheap Chianti that we were drinking, Aretha’s Respect on the stereo, or the fact that my girlfriend had a new bright yellow Dodge Charger. For whatever reason, during the course of the evening we set a date to drive from Chicago to Florida, get on a ship, and take the short sail to the Bahamas. This would not be anything of note to remember if we had been making a well-thought-out decision.

The four of us were all beginning teachers off for the summer, and we had no money. What we had were gas credit cards that could be used at restaurants as well as gas stations. In our thinking at the time, these credit cards were all we needed. We would take turns driving the Charger and eliminate the need for a hotel on the trips to and from Florida.

I have no memory of the long drive or how we paid for the hotel in the Bahamas. What I remember is how horrified we were when we could not use our gas credit cards at restaurants in the Bahamas. We ate a lot of hot dogs in Nassau.

On the way back to Chicago, we stopped at a nice restaurant in a small hotel in Georgia. Now that we were back in the United States, we planned to use our gas credit cards to pay for our meals. I don’t recall what the rest of us ordered, but I remember that Charles ordered the most expensive entrée on the menu, “Duck a la Orange.” Seemingly pleased about the expensive selection, the server told us that this dish was a special order and would take extra time.

While we waited for our meals to be prepared, we laughed a lot and it seemed that anything any one of us said was hilarious. We were probably giddy at the prospect of a good meal. At some point, one of us noticed a sign at the reception counter that we had not seen upon entering. It read “No credit cards.”

We only had a few dollars among us. It was too late to stop the kitchen from preparing the food we had ordered. We whispered among ourselves about what we should do, all the while keeping a fearful eye on the door to the kitchen. Moving as if we were one single unit, we calmly exited the restaurant, jumped into the Charger and drove away as fast as we could.

We were scared because we thought we might be pursued by the police and hauled into jail for making that order and running out. But at the time, we knew of no other alternative than to flee.

Although we had not experienced any overt racism at the restaurant, we were uncomfortable because we were Black people in Georgia in the late 1960s. Perhaps we were hypersensitive because, on our drive to Florida, a clerk in a service station had sprayed disinfectant or something when we exited the store. So out of character for him, Charles had gone back into the store and made a confrontational comment to the clerk about what we saw as a racist gesture.

I didn’t remember this—Charles’ sister told me that we told her about this incident upon our return. If I didn’t remember this rather significant incident, I wondered what else I might have forgotten, so I called my longtime girlfriend whose Dodge Charger we’d driven to and from Florida. When I asked her what details she remembered about our trip to the Bahamas, she responded, “What trip to the Bahamas? I don’t remember taking any such trip!”

I began to relay numerous details about the trip. Then I asked, “Do you remember anything now?” She said, “No, but we were very irresponsible to take such a trip with no money!”

It’s funny how people can have the same experience and recall it differently or sometimes not at all. Perhaps most puzzling is that I recalled many aspects of the trip, but not the incident about the store clerk and Charles’ uncharacteristic reaction.  

Thinking about the selective nature of memory, perhaps my sister-in-law remembered the episode because her brother, Charles, could have been in danger. Perhaps I didn’t recall it because my mind was sparing me the trauma of what I might have been experiencing as the incident was occurring. Perhaps my girlfriend’s brain suppressed the entire trip because of some memories that involved her and her fiancé.

We say memory is selective, but it seems that the selection of what memories to recall and which ones to bury are beyond our control. We don’t consciously decide to remember this and not that, or this part and not that part. What does our brain know that we don’t know? Is our brain protecting us? If so, why do some memories cause us trauma over and over again and others make for a good story?   

It’s a funny thing about memory.