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Monday, June 8, 2015

Life, Death, and Student Affairs

Legends: Janet Waltman, Jim Potter, Debbie Kimbell, Pete Neville, Margaret Farris, Thurman Adkins, David Tuttle, Coleen Grissom, Gary Neal, Peg Layton, and Richard Reams
It's still too soon to talk about "the accident." But we'll get there.

This April, as the curtain fell on the Division of Student Affairs, it seemed perfect that former colleague Pete Neville was back in town for the first time since he left over ten years ago. After all, Pete, the Director of Student Activities was here when I began my Trinity University Student Affairs career in 1987. He was one of many. We'll get there too.

The dissolution of Student Affairs at Trinity has been more evolution than revolution. It probably started when VP for Student Affairs Felicia Lee left in 2010. Months later, her division would learn that she wouldn't be replaced. Student Affairs would report to Vice President for Academic Affairs, Micheal Fischer, in an effort to more fully integrate academic and student life. It made sense. I would remain as Senior Student Affairs Officer under the Associate VP title.

It's logical too, that the Trinity Tomorrow strategic plan would finally focus the University, among other things, on experiential learning, career success, and student support through a new Student Success Center. So this spring (2015) Student Affairs stalwarts (Counseling Services, Health Services, Career Services, and Community Service) were plucked away to be part of new campus "centers." What remained of Student Affairs then, was simply the Dean of Students Office, Residential Life, and Student Involvement (formerly CCI, formerly Student Activities...).

This is perfect in so many ways. The changes are mission and student centered, as they should be. It is an exciting time for Trinity University. But there is a little melancholy as the changes are implemented.

For Student Affairs folks, when the night is shattered by an early morning phone call, it is usually not good news. It can range from the report of a drunk or belligerent student, a request for a room search related to drugs, or an update about a student hospitalized for mental health issues. And at its worst, the call is about a student death. We fear it. It is hard for it not to feel like a failure - a failure to protect someone's child, sent here to discover, grow, become, not to die. Not on our watch.

When I arrived here in 1987, I could never imagine that I would be here nearly 30 years later. As a new Area Coordinator (now called Residential Life Coordinators) I was struck by my good fortune. I had never worked at a place that was so student driven. Most of that drive came straight from our Vice President and Dean, Coleen Grissom. Among her many axioms: "We don't do things to be administratively convenient - we do what is right for our students." Riding shotgun, Thurman Adkins seemed born old -- and wise. Over the years he would make Dean Grissom's goals his plans as a steady hand, working with student government and student conduct. With those two and Pete, Peg Layton rounded out my group of mentors and heroes.

It seems odd, now, for me to be at the helm as the division as it has unraveled. It feels Gorbachev-ian on a much lighter scale. It feels a bit like a failure to have happened on my watch, though it offers a fresh start. Res Life, and Student Involvement are now part of the re-branded "Student Life." This was my idea. For years, Student Affairs has seemed to some in the academy as a distraction to college, not a part of it. The new structure, and name, may put that to rest. In truth, Student Affairs, or Student Life, hasn't really changed, but it is just more of what it used to be. Sexual assault, alcohol, hazing, health issues, psychological hurdles, deceased parents, accidents, deaths.. these aren't new. In the age of technology, everything is faster, harsher, more public, more criticized. But with it are more rewards too. Working with young students, some more fragile than ever, has never been more gratifying. Students are clever, bright, sensitive, and they care about the world in ways they didn't used to.

Nevertheless, Student Affairs has always felt under-appreciated, and that isn't just a Trinity thing. In addition to handling crises, my colleagues here and elsewhere are expected to engage students outside the classroom. We need to keep them busy, happy, social (yet academically grounded), well-fed, well-exercised, and protected. At little schools we are charged to make the experience seem bigger and at big schools we work to make it smaller - for students to not feel like numbers. And we face harsh criticism - trying to balance a culture of order and at the same time a culture of openness. We face issues of the minority rights against the majority needs. We struggle to be consistent and flexible. And many days it seems no one thinks we get it right.

Sometimes it seems our task is the impossible: to protect students from one another and themselves, and to keep them safe.

There's been an accident and there may be fatalities. First year students were in a fast car, and there was a turn, and there was a crash. You better get to the hospital. 

Everything seemed to align in April of 2015. Pete was coming back, the division was evaporating, and it was the perfect time for a send-off. Student Affairs didn't start at Trinity in 1987. But it did for me. It became my life, and my personal and professional identities have been forever merged. So it seemed important to put this chapter appropriately to bed with Pete's visit. The call went out, and "legends" from 1987 already mentioned, along with Janet Waltman (Health Services), Jim Potter (Intramurals), Margaret Farris and Debbie Kimbell (Coates Center), and current staffers Gary Neal and Richard Reams (Counseling) answered the call.

We had lunch in the Skyline Room on April 9, 2015, to celebrate, reconnect, talk about old times, and to share our experiences. Those were shared when each person said a few words to our current staff and Jamie Thompson's leadership class. The underlying message: impact.

It was less than three months in as an Area Coordinator in 1987, when the night was broken. The impact of the crash hurdled two students out of the t-top and over the highway ramp. We lost two first year students, Michelle and Matt, and nearly lost two others, in a brief moment when the car swerved and hit a guard rail. Matt's sister was an upper-class student here at the time. That was over 25 years ago. And it still seems too soon to talk about. Too much raw pain. As I follow the lives of the survivors on Facebook, today, I never forget the two we lost, though I never knew them. It simply became "the accident." The speed, the unfairness, the randomness, and mostly, the tragedy.

What has been amazing about Student Affairs here became evident at the April lunch. The names and faces have changed and dozens have come and gone, leaving there indelible marks on the institution and mostly its students. The ethic of care that was so important to Coleen Grissom, as well as her successor, Gage Paine, and then finally, Felica Lee, has only become stronger. A culture is set at the beginning and there is a reason it is hard to change. The culture of Student Affairs in 2015 is the same as it was in 1987. The legacy of OUR legends (and yes, there are Grissom, Neville, Adkins, and Paine awards) lives on. The division and the structure may change, but the ethos doesn't. Indeed, while so much about our work has transformed since 1987, so much is exactly the same.

This time it was the TUPD Police Chief, Paul Chapa. His late night calls are never good. There's been an accident, and there may be fatalities. It was March 30, 2015. And it was happening again. Speed, a curve, and impact... We lost Corey. His sister, Natalie was a senior here who graduated this past May. We nearly lost two others, Andrew and Claire. And it feels too soon to talk about. Too much raw pain. It simply became "the accident." The speed, the unfairness, the randomness, and mostly, the tragedy.

In Student Affairs, we routinely and quietly deal with gravity, levity, and absurdity. It is how we live. Each year brings more of the same. Every issue seems familiar, yet each is different. If it is a circle of life, it can be one that is as gratifying as it is cruel. This spring, on this campus, we had a rare chance to reflect on that, to celebrate, and to get closure before we start a new chapter. What we heard about was fulfillment, making a difference, and being part of something bigger. I think most of us feel fortunate to have been called: through life, and death, and student affairs.


flacius1551 said...

I was in Matt's mentor and first year seminar (Freedom and Responsibility) group in the Fall of 1987. I still remember those days vividly; it was a very stunning (in all ways) time in my life. Prayers for their survivors.

erin marie said...

As an alum, who, as a student, was involved or on the edge of situations at times grave, ironic, and/or absurd, I thank all of you "Student Affairs" folks who did and do so much to keep safe, educate, and build the Trinity community.

David Tuttle said...

Thanks to both of you for these touching comments.I learned that Thee was a Michele McCusker Award at Ursuline Academy where she attended. I have tried to connect with her family with no luck. Not sure why I feel a need, but I want to know how they are doing, even after these many years.