Campus Life: Evolving role, uncertain future

Over the past six months, the Office of Campus Life has undergone many changes, some externally imposed and others initiated from within. Like every other department at the College, Campus Life has been forced to deal with two percent cuts in operating expenditures already this year, with further 12 or 15 percent cuts on the horizon.

At the beginning of last fall, the office downsized by two staff members – from 10 to eight – eliminating two Campus Life Coordinator (CLC) positions and reshifting roles and responsibilities within. When Jess Vega, former assistant to the director of Campus Life, left for the Multicultural Center (MCC) in October, the office could not replace her due to the trustee-mandated hiring freeze and thus has been operating short another employee.

In late January, Campus Life Director Doug Schiazza submitted his budget proposal to senior staff, but has declined to comment on the specifics of the budget before it is approved in April. “I will say that I did my best to propose cuts in areas that students will be least affected by,” Schiazza said. Aaron Gordon, assistant director of Campus Life for residential programs and housing, said he predicts only small ways in which the budget cuts will affect his work, such as “a couple less bags of candy at room draw.” However, he added, “What we submit as proposals and what we get back aren’t the same.”

In terms of shifting responsibilities within the office, staff members agreed that the downsizing has had a positive effect. Schiazza called the initial decision to eliminate two CLC positions “a very successful and positive move,” one that more clearly delineated the residential life and student activities sides of the office. Tim Leonard, currently the student activities coordinator but one of four CLCs under the previous configuration, said, “Before, it wasn’t as focused. Now, I truly focus on activities, and it’s more concentrated.” The other former CLC still in the office, David Schoenholtz, is currently residential life coordinator.

Referring to Vega’s departure, Campus Life Assistant Gail Rondeau said, “Any time somebody leaves and there are job changes, the one positive thing about this office is that everybody pitches in.” Schiazza pointed to Rondeau as having picked up most of the slack, taking on Vega’s duty of overseeing the campus-wide room bookings system. Rondeau said she now spends most of her time on room-scheduling, as well as assisting Gordon with residential life duties, helping students with room changes and missing room keys.

“My team has risen to the challenge and is doing a nice job of filling in the roles as best as we can,” Schiazza said. However, Rondeau sees one major downside to the new Campus Life format: “I miss Jess,” she said.

Both Schoenholtz’s and Leonard’s posts are “term” positions, slated to be terminated on June 30. Schiazza said he has yet to hear from senior staff what will become of the positions after that date, given the freeze on non-essential staff hires. Schiazza said that Campus Life’s responsibilities have remained constant throughout the downsizing and will not change anytime soon. “My hope is that we will not be downsized further,” he said.

Opinions vary on what exactly the specific responsibilities are that Campus Life fulfills on campus, but all staff agreed that the office’s primary focus is to listen to and work with students in order to improve life on the College campus. Schiazza explained all of the duties of the office as “upperclass residential programs, student housing placements, student activities, student centers management and campus-wide room bookings,” adding that while each division is handled by a smaller subset of his staff, he is ultimately responsible for the entire office.

Dean Merrill, who has direct oversight of Schiazza, outlined a more general view of the office’s purpose on campus. “The role of Campus Life is to work with students to support and develop the experience students have outside the classroom,” she said. “In both residential life and student activities, that work involves a multitude of things, such as brainstorming with students, organizing, publicity and making sure that all the relevant parties on campus are communicating with each other, especially with events.”

“In general, I hope our office is a place where students can go and be assisted in making whatever they’re trying to do happen,” Gordon said. “It should be a place where they feel comfortable enough to come in.” Ellen Rougeau, another Campus Life assistant, echoed the student-focused sentiment. “We love having them coming in, and we hope they like having us here too,” she said. “They know they can come to any one of us if one of us isn’t in.”

Student perspectives

Students interact with Campus Life in a variety of ways, whether it be through event planning, seeking funds or actually working in the office. While staff call their office a resource, it is in fact a requirement that almost all event-planning must at some point go through Campus Life.

Laura Berk ’12, a member of Frosh Council who worked to plan the presidential inauguration-themed frosh formal in January, said her experience was almost entirely positive. “Throughout almost the entire process they were very helpful and clear as to how we needed to proceed,” she said. “They did exactly what they’re supposed to do as a resource for students: provide students with help in planning and carrying out successful events on campus with efficiency and low-hassle.”

Chris Valle ’12, another member of Frosh Council, said that while Campus Life’s role in event planning in undoubtedly crucial, he found working with them at times “tedious” and difficult. “There are several steps that if not completed perfectly by their strict regulations and deadlines would force the cancellation of the party just days before it is supposed to occur and cause serious problems,” Valle said. “Also, I found that in terms of getting help from the office, the bureaucracy can be a bit overbearing and not at all conducive to helping student organizations get the money they need when they need it.” He added that the staff consists of “friendly and helpful” people, but expressed hope that they would reconsider their event-planning policies in order to streamline them.

A member of College Council (CC) who wished to remain anonymous said that CC and Campus Life interact mainly when matters of co-sponsorship come up, as the two bodies represent the two main resources for funding of campus events. The CC member said that while interactions are often smooth, Campus Life has made questionable decisions in terms of fund allocation. “At one point, Campus Life told a group with a $1000 request that they would grant $250 if CC gave $750,” the member said. “That really put CC in a corner, and kind of defeats the purpose of Campus Life giving money in the first place.”

Shayla Williams ’09, who has worked with Campus Life in her capacities as a Junior Advisor, Black Student Union board member and, most recently, co-chair of the Claiming Williams Steering Committee, said she has had mixed experiences. “I think Campus Life does a good job of helping students learn how to plan events, but you have to already know where to go most of the time,” she said, adding that her most successful experiences have come when she went to Campus Life with a clear vision of what she wanted to plan.

In terms of room for Campus Life to improve, Williams said that the office should more actively reach out to students. “The Campus Life office should -communicate more with the entire student body, rather than just the few that frequent the office,” Williams said.

Rachel Ko ’09, who has worked with Campus Life in varying capacities, most notably as president of Wood neighborhood, throughout her four years at the College, expressed a similar sentiment. She said that while the office runs event-planning smoothly, she has noticed a general decrease in both the energy in the office and, subsequently, its outreach to students. “Back when they had their office in Goodrich, the space was very welcoming and lots of students would get involved,” Ko said. “Their office depends a lot on close partnership between students and staff, and I think a lot of it’s been lost.” She said that fewer students use Campus Life now than they did a few years ago, which she called a “symptom” of the office not fulfilling its purpose.

Paresky assistants with shifts during the day now sit in the Campus Life office, fulfilling the receptionist duties formerly carried out by Vega. Emily Spine ’11, Paresky assistant, agreed with Ko that “it doesn’t seem like a lot of students come into the office.” Spine said that the students who do come into the office are few and predictable – usually members of All-Campus Entertainment or CC.

Schuyler Hall ’10, Campus Life intern for student activities and leadership, said the office is “underutilized by much of the student body,” but that’s its role on campus was vital independent of whether or not many students use the office. “The only improvement I can see for the office is to increase its visibility to more students,” Hall said. He added that despite the fact that it is run by non-Williams alums, “Campus Life is pretty in tune with students’ desires and needs. The office being run by non-Williams alums is not a concern to me.”

Ko, however, believes that the office has lost a sense of purpose. “I feel like students could be a lot happier here if they knew they could make Williams the place they need it to be; a lot of times that can be by starting a group that helps bring about the changes that you need on campus, or it can be finding out what support systems are out there and being plugged into those spots,” she said. “Campus Life could be that place to show how much support there is, but it has been doing that less and less.”

Office environment

Despite comments that not many students use the office, Campus Life staff assert that working with students is the best part of their job. Rondeau and Gordon both said that the majority of their interaction with students is through case-by-case dealings with housing complaints, room switches and other residential issues. “I really love the interaction with students; that’s why we’re here,” Rondeau said. “Everyone in the office feels that way.”

Gordon echoed these sentiments. “I like to try to be as accommodating as possible,” he said. “I would hope that it’s been a positive experience for people who come in, at least that someone listened to them.”

“My favorite thing about working for Campus Life is that I get to help students figure out creative and safe ways to have a good time at Williams,” Schiazza said. Rougeau and Leonard both said that with student activities, working with students makes up the majority of their work. “I love working with students – when they’re not here I notice the quiet,” Rougeau said. “It’s terrible when students are on vacation.”

Despite the comparatively institutional feel of the Paresky office versus their old office in Goodrich, both students and Campus Life staff describe the office as a fun and friendly work environment. “We are a very fun office,” Leonard said. “We have a good time.”

Paresky Assistant David Caparrelli ’10 said that the office environment was productive. “The Campus Life office is quite the efficient team,” he said. “They make that place run like clockwork.”

Spine, however, described the office as having an “overly relaxed” atmosphere, one not always conducive to productivity. She said that during her daytime shifts in the office, she is often the only person in the office between 11:30 a.m and 1 p.m. “It’s a fun office, though,” she said. “There’s always candy.” Emily Flynn ’09, another Paresky assistant, said that every Friday, the entire Campus Life staff gathers to discuss office issues over pizza.

In addition to flexible working hours, Campus Life staff said that their vacation policy also allows for great flexibility. “My vacation package is phenomenal,” Leonard said. “I’m on an 11-month contract, but I think I have an additional 20 days, or a bit less.”

Other staff said that the office environment makes it easy to take mid-semester vacations. For example, both Leonard and Jess Gulley, assistant director of Campus Life for student activities, went on vacation in January, leaving Rougeau solely in charge of student activities. “They told me enough of what they wanted me to do,” Rougeau said. “There’s a lot of open communication among all of us; that’s why it works so well.”

However, when Gulley took her second vacation of the semester last week, a student who had been planning with Gulley to bring a performer to campus said she did not know where to turn. “She wanted to know why no one had told her beforehand,” said Spine, a close friend of the student.

Gordon explained the office’s informal policy regarding vacations. “We have a policy that at any given day, someone always needs to be here to answer questions,” he said. “If I were to be gone for a longer term, I would leave instructions with David [Schoenholtz] or Gail [Rondeau] so that they can answer questions.” Gordon added that, in his view, problems rarely stem from vacations during the academic year. “There usually aren’t questions that can’t wait 24 hours,” he said.

However, other members within the Campus Life office concede that communication with students could, in fact, be improved. “I think we just all strive to communicate with students as best as possible,” Rondeau said. “Personally, I think everybody can always improve.”

Schiazza agreed, noting that his office’s continuous evolution requires a constant eye toward evaluation. “Honestly, there’s always room for improvement, almost everywhere,” he said. “I’m one who tends not to be satisfied with how things are, and I like to seek and find ways to tweak – or sometimes overhaul – systems and processes and programs that need it.”