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.

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