Category Archives: Students

Unsung Hero

One of my happiest memories was when my mother and I studied together. I was in high school and she was working days and attending Marion Business College on Madison Avenue in Chicago in the evenings. It was quite a hike on foot, but she made the trip with a spring in her step. She wanted to acquire secretarial skills in order to be qualified for an office job.

To study, we would close the door to the kitchen to lessen the sound of the television in the living room. In my memory, my grandparents were always watching the western, Gunsmoke.

Sometimes my mother and I would sit at the kitchen table next to a cold radiator because, more often than not, there was no heat. This inconvenience did not deter us from studying, however.

We would turn on the gas for the stove, strike a match, and light the oven. We would keep the oven door open to try to keep warm.  When it was too cold to study in the kitchen even with the oven door open, we would take our books to my mother’s bed and wrap ourselves in blankets and enjoy the warmth of our shared body heat. Rather than complain about the cold, we sometimes would exaggerate the chatter of our teeth when we tried to talk and laugh so hard that our eyes would water.   

Muhdear, as my siblings and I called our mother, was her best self when she was learning. She was excited about learning the Gregg Method of shorthand. I would quiz her by reading sample passages typically used in a business office and she would rapidly transcribe them into shorthand. I was fascinated at how easily and quickly she learned. She was so smart.

This photo of her as she exited the school with her certificate of completion captures her joy of achievement against so many odds.

I am so proud of her.

After September 11, 2001

After September 11, 2001, everyone had a story about where they were, the efforts they made to get home, and what they did to connect with loved ones upon hearing the devastating news about the attacks made on American soil by foreign terrorists. The senseless tragedy was almost beyond comprehension.

After September 11, 2001, I witnessed a NASPA staff that was shaken but not defeated. Although there were a multitude of anxieties, such as fear of being in Washington, DC, doing work on Capitol Hill, taking the Metro to and from work, flying on behalf of NASPA, and even opening mail because of anthrax, staff members adapted and redoubled their efforts in support of student affairs professionals who were needed more than ever on their campuses.

After September 11, 2001, student affairs professionals served as navigators and provided safe harbors for all members of their campus communities. Using their skills of empathy, understanding, and knowledge of crisis intervention, they were the first responders for students, faculty, and staff. They did what they were trained to do and shared strategies with colleagues across the nation on how best to respond to these unprecedented times, and the increased needs of the student and campus community amidst fear, uncertainty, and a range of reactions, including the bizarre and self-destructive.

After September 11, 2001, NASPA leaders looked beyond the tragedies of the day and sought ways, where possible, to reduce risk on campuses and, unfortunately, to prepare for the aftermath of future senseless tragedies.

After September 11, 2001, what did NOT—and never should—go unnoticed is the commitment of student affairs professionals to working with campus communities to create a climate that promotes learning and a sense of security and belonging in the face of adversity.  

Mixed Emotions

Zaila Avant-garde holding national spelling bee trophy with confetti coming down

I wasn’t surprised by my mixed emotions, several weeks ago, when headline after headline and several television stations were hailing the accomplishments of Zaila Avant-garde, the first African American champion of the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee. My feelings were complicated to say the least:

  • Elation for Zaila and her family and what this means for her future.
  • Collective pride, along with other Black Americans, that her hard work was rewarded.
  • Shame that the screaming headlines that highlighted the fact that Zaila is Black may cause some to draw the illogical conclusion that what Zaila did was extraordinary because Black Americans don’t usually have the intellectual capacity for such a feat.
  • Resentment that the United States is still recognizing “the first” among Black Americans.
  • Anger because “until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Black children were routinely banned from participating in spelling bees. All winners were White until Puerto Rican Hugh Tosteson Garcia was named champion in 1975.” (Shalini Shankar, “Zaila Avant-garde’s Spelling Bee win sends exuberant message,” Opinion, CNN online, July 9, 2021)
  • Disheartened that “Indian American winners who have steadily won since 1998 have endured a litany of racism on broadcast and social media for not being ‘American’—code for not being White. Seen by many as outsiders, and as part of communities subjected to waves of anti-Asian violence, they are left to make sense of negative reactions to their success in the form of calls for ‘real Americans’ to regain control of this contest.” (Shankar, “Zaila Avant-garde’s Spelling Bee”)

Despite my mixed emotions, I’m glad that Zaila received so much attention because her success will alert other families and their children that they, too, can have the kind of success that Zaila, the scholar-athlete, has achieved.

David Keymer on Student Affairs: Identifying Your Institutional Purpose

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 final installment in a seven-part series in which I shared some of the wisdom gleaned from David’s experience in student affairs across these varied institutions.

Different people have different strengths.  You need to look at the institution really hard and find what your own strengths are within that context. Figure out what the institution is for. And what your role is in that. And don’t forget that.

It doesn’t come from the mission statement and it doesn’t come from any of the “official language.” It’s more like Cardinal Newman’s idea of the university in an ethical framework. What kind of a universe is a university or a college? What is it there for? What does it do for our society? What does it do for the people who go through it? What does it do for the people who work there?

And you need to remember that it is a community. It may be dysfunctional at times but it’s a community. Communities are good. We live in communities. You need to make your community work.

If you can keep a clear focus on what’s important, you’ll avoid the trap of slipping into a kind of imperial boat mode: “This is our Student Affairs Empire. Don’t you touch it because we’re in a pond of our own.”

We’re not in separate ponds, we’re all in one big pond (that connects to the larger world in myriad ways). And if you think that way, you have a better chance of understanding the concerns of the other players, and what language they speak. That’s something you run across in higher education frequently: barriers that are there because we don’t learn how to talk to players in the other boats in our common pond.

David Keymer on Student Affairs: Documenting Success, Demonstrating Value

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 sixth 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.

One of the things I like about academics is that they tend to respect evidence. It doesn’t necessarily change their prejudices, but they do respect it. So, if you can get a large enough evidentiary base through student interviews and so on, and if your questions are consistent so you can kind of plot things, you’ve got exactly the type of evidence that academics will listen to. And it’s being presented in their language, not your language.

I think anything a student affairs professional can do to document the success of their endeavors is worth doing. Sometimes, student affairs professionals are so busy on the front end, providing service, that they don’t stop to think of documenting their successes and their issues. We need to supply evidence to other people that our services make a difference.  Like it or not, you have to sell yourself all the time.

We all have our own focuses. And we all want the thing we’re focused on to do well, and that’s one of the reasons for having a senior student affairs administrator on the President’s Council. The Provost is interested in students, too, but the Provost has the faculty, which is the 500-pound gorilla in the room. Faculty issues and concerns occupy 80, 90% of the Provost’s time. And when the Provost goes to the President’s Council to talk, that’s what the Provost will focus on.

Business and Finance offer a lot of services. But while they offer them so students can be there, students aren’t their primary focus.

The Chief Student Affairs Officer does two things. One is overseeing a lot of services that make it possible for students to get into the university, through the university, and do better. The second thing is being the voice for the students, for student concerns and issues, to make sure they’re heard at the highest level.

It’s a matter of focus: The Provost talks about faculty; I talk about students; the business and finance person talks about building plans or money; and the advancement person talks about university development. To do my job well, though, I’ve got to listen really hard to the other people at the table. Listening is a paramount skill—and if you do listen, and show them you’re trying to support them as well, you have a decent chance of being heard yourself.

David Keymer on Student Affairs: Seeing the Big Picture

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 fifth 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 never intended a job in Student Affairs. I’d been a professor. My specialty course was on Machiavelli and More: Political Thought on the Eve of the Reformation. It’s hard to get more un-Student Affairs-y than that.

I moved into an administrative job at SUNY—the State University of New York—and moved through four jobs in five years on the way up. Basically, I was a jack-of-all-trades, trying to be useful at whatever the college needed me to do. And I wound up—with no prior experience in student affairs at all— the college’s first Dean of Students. I didn’t think of the job as a detour. I was still an educator and at the schools I’d attended and worked at, the dean of students was a real player. I found I really loved the work. For one thing, it got me back to students again and I’ve always loved working with students. That’s part of the reason I left full-time teaching because though I was good at researching, I didn’t like working in a room alone. I’m not a monk, I’m a people person.

Then I moved to California, where I was the first vice president for student affairs at Cal State Stanislaus. I’d done eight years as dean of students in New York, nine years as VPSA in California, and then I moved to Dubai, and for three years was the first dean of students at Zayed University, a public university for Emirati women. Until  it was done, I didn’t realize how remarkable my career in Student Affairs had been. In all three schools where I’d worked, I was the first true chief student affairs officer the campus had had, which meant, among other things, that no one else really knew what I should do and so I could do as much as I could convince other people was needed to be done. I loved it. I really loved it. It was the perfect job for me.

But I didn’t come in with any expertise in any of the fields that constitute student personnel administration. I wasn’t a counseling guy or a student life guy or a res hall alum; I’d never worked in financial aid or educational opportunity or the registrar’s office…or athletics. I supervised athletics, too, at SUNY Tech, and if you knew anything of my history with Phys Ed courses, you’d know what a stretch that was.

I didn’t find it a problem though because the job of chief student affairs officer is so different from any of the subordinate jobs. Well, maybe not if you’re associate dean or something like that. But if you direct an office, you basically have expertise in a functional area and you know how people operate in that. And you have much more direct control over the product you turn out. If you’re director of counseling, you have a counseling staff with whom, you meet, you can set up counseling standards, everything will be fine. But if you’re a chief student affairs officer, you have a panoply of offices under you. I had 12 directors reporting to me in California and they ran the  gamut from student recruitment, admissions and registration, financial aid to residential life, student life, the health center and things like that, various academic success and assistance programs, counseling, and various special entry programs.

The people who worked in these offices—really, really nice people—often didn’t see what they had in common because their particular professions came with a focus. That’s one of the first things that anyone who moves to a top or near-top job in student affairs has got to learn. All of a sudden, what you’re doing is outside the grasp of your own hands. And it may be outside the grasp of your own expertise. What you’ve got to do is persuade the people who work for you that they’re all in the same business, with the same ultimate end. The person who’s doing financial aid is helping students get into school and stay in school just as is the person who works in the residence halls. Students need many services and supports in order to succeed. Our job is to create the conditions that make it easier for students to pursue their educational goals.

Students don’t come to our campuses because we have good dorms. They’re not there because we have financial aid. They’re there because, ultimately, even if they don’t know it, they want power over their lives and to achieve that, they need to be educated. It’s our job to help that happen. If you can get that message across, instead of just talking about your expertise and your services as though they were stand-alone treasures, you can persuade everyone, even faculty, even other administrators who are competing for resources with you that there’s a value in supporting you.

David Keymer on Student Affairs: Making Alliances to Enhance Services

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 fourth 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.

There was a concern on our campus with the time it took students to register. We were just going into online registration but as helpful as it was in speeding the process up, it didn’t solve everything. When people have problems, they want to talk to people, not a machine interface.

I made an alliance with the manager of the business office, Becka P., and the associate VP for facilities and planning, Carl C., both great people. “Look,”  I said, “The President’s on our butts about the length of time people stand in line on registration days. We have to do something about it. Now.”  Every registration day, I was out in the halls outside the registrar’s and financial aid offices. When the lines started backing up, which they always eventually did, I would go inside and ask the supervisor, “Who do you have who’s not working a window? Get them up there so students don’t have to wait.”

My goal was no wait longer than ten minutes. We didn’t always make it but everyone knew I’d be a pain in the neck if they hadn’t tried. I mean, students are in high stress at that time. We’ve all been there. We know what it’s like, so why wish it on the students who are our responsibility?

But there was resistance to changing things. The offices and staffs worked in silos –one for registration, another for financial aid, a third to pay or receive money. And the offices reported to different supervisors in different supervisory lines. So if we wanted to change things, we had a lot of persuading and to do because people tend to fear what’s new. Carl, the buildings man, and Becka, the business office one, and I talked through a plan to coordinate offices, at least as far as front-end services went.  Then we did a dog-and-pony show—actually, I did most of the talking in it—with selected audiences on campus, showing what we hoped to achieve.

First off was the President’s Executive Council. Second was to the Admissions and Records, Financial Aid and Business Office people. Third was a general presentation to the campus, aimed primarily at faculty and staff in other offices.  One of our concerns was staff burn-out. Front desk jobs are high stress jobs and the people who did them had limited opportunities to move up or over to new jobs when they grew tired of what they were doing. So, we worked out a plan where all of the people in admissions and records and financial aid were cross-trained. Then we redesigned the whole area so there was much more front area and many more windows to go to.

At the same time, we enhanced the computer backup. And then what we did was, during peak periods, almost all of the workers in those offices worked in front for half of the day and then in the back for the other half. That meant the people in those offices now had two career paths open to them instead of one: they could move out of admissions and records to financial aid and back again, even over to the business office. It also meant that students were dealing with people who weren’t burnt out by a week or two of eight hours a day straight answering the same questions and dealing with the same issues. 

But by the time we got around to actually implementing these changes, we had gone through three rounds of explaining what we wanted to do to different groups of people and levels of staff to convince them it was the right thing to do. And we listened to them and incorporated their ideas in the final design. It was worth the effort.

That’s what you do as a senior student affairs officer. I never thought I‘d be a salesman but that’s what I was for that project. Because good sales is informing, explaining, listening. We’re in the persuasion  business. We have to communicate a vision to the people who work for us so they in turn can communicate it to the people it affects. We definitely have to communicate to our peers as senior administrators because in the end, when the pot gets divided up, they’re the ones who vote on it.