The President Next Door

The President Next Door

For the spring semester, the president of Ursuline College moved into a new residence hall on campus. In just a few months she gained insights into college students and their lives.

When students moved into the new residence hall this January at Ursuline College, a small Catholic liberal arts school for women in suburban Cleveland, they had a most unusual hallmate. Ursuline's president, Sister Diana Stano, had decided to spend the spring semester living with juniors and seniors in the college's new dorm.

To Stano, the decision to live in the dorm was not a publicity stunt but an effort to find out more about college students. Like many administrators, she wanted to know what students think about these days-and she wanted to connect with them.

Her decision gave her a sneak peek at the way students are experiencing Ursuline's new dorm, a 31,000-square-foot facility that includes 18 suites. Each suite has four bedrooms, a shared living space, a kitchenette, and bathroom. The dorm is designed to give students a sense of autonomy while still living together on campus.

Through monthly journal entries, Stano shared her thoughts about dorm living with University Business. Here are highlights from her entries.

Initially, I think this is either going to be one of the best decisions I have ever made or one of the most foolish. As I pack my belongings from the convent where I have lived for the past 16 years along with nine other sisters, I realize I need a lot of things to outfit my suite. I finally understand why our students need U-Hauls on moving day.

I can't help but wonder what this new experience is really going to be like. How will this new living arrangement compare to the time, years ago, when I lived with Ursuline students? I was a faculty member then, and the residence hall was traditional, with two people per room, a common bathroom, long halls, and a common living area. How will the 30 students living in this new building respond to my presence? Will I get any sleep? Was it a mistake to choose the suite above the front door (the one designated for the resident assistant)?

My reason for the move is to see how the new building functions and how students respond to the new living arrangement, but also to give the gift of presence. We administrators talk about respect, collaboration, spirituality, and the focus on student learning, but I need to model these things for students. That means not telling them how to act or behave; I need to walk my talk.

Before I can do this right, I must gain a level of trust from the students. Communication will be important. I have great hopes of spending time with students, learning what is on their minds, and what is important to them. What do they worry about? What do they value? And, as president of a Catholic institution, I want to know where they are in terms of spirituality and religious beliefs.

When I'm in my suite, my door will be open so students can visit me any time. I guess the worst thing that could happen is that no one will visit me.

This is the third and last night I have alone before the students move in. I'm in my night clothes and working late when I get a call from a producer from the ABC television network show, Good Morning America. They are interested in coming out to do a live remote on student move-in day. Who would believe it? I realize this is just the beginning of a massive media flurry.

I begin to type up information about the new residence hall to be used for tours that I plan to conduct for various audiences. I find I enjoy working from the computer lab on the third floor instead of hauling my laptop back and forth to my office.

My day is jammed with TV and print interviews. Our marketing director advises me and my student helpers to unpack and repack my belongings a total of three times so photographers can snap pictures.

We have the official ribbon-cutting ceremony for the residence hall followed by a reception in my suite. That evening, three students visit. We sit around the table chatting. I think they get a kick out of my 10-pound box of candy that I bought for just such an occasion. Later, another student and her boyfriend stop to tell me how much they like the new hall and how amazed they are with the space.

Everyone is adjusting to the new learning environment. Because the new residence hall is limited to upperclassmen, the students are responding positively to being treated more like adults. They have greater autonomy, freedom, and flexibility.

Probably my greatest awareness was just how important the gift of presence could be for students. It wasn't always what I said or did, but rather the simple fact that I was in their space. I felt my pres ence was both known and felt by the students.

Students like that each suite contains four bedrooms, a shared living space, kitchenette, and bathroom. They are thrilled with the size of the bathroom and that there are privacy doors for both the shower and toilet rooms. The double sinks are a plus, as well as the full-size mirror that compliments the huge mirror above the sinks.

I try to be of assistance to students on various issues. I have become an expert assistant in assembling TV stands and installing toilet paper rolls. Like all students, I have to deal with building maintenance issues; the heat is not well controlled and it gets very cold in the building. We encounter a backup in the plumbing system, and on one occasion a microwave burns.

Everyone is enjoying the privacy of their suites. I am feeling a little lonely.

A group of students in one suite invite me to watch the hit television show American Idol. Other students bring me to their suite for a root beer float and to enjoy an episode of Lost. I have to admit to feeling lost just trying to follow the story line.

As I stroll through the halls one evening before bed, I notice that there are visitors from the college's two other residence halls. It's 10 p.m. and one student is getting ready to go out for the night. A student from another floor stops in to bring me earplugs and stays for a visit. These students are not only dear, but extremely thoughtful.

Once school begins, the building is quieter and the students stay in their suites more. When I occasionally run into students, I notice that they seem to be working on projects or studying for classes. They're serious about school and studying.

I use every opportunity I can to talk with students and get a sense of what is happening in their lives. I watch the television show Beauty and the Geek with a student in the gathering area next to the computer room. We chat about how some colleges are known for wild, all-night parties (we're not one of them) and how students enjoy going clubbing. We even talk about wedding plans. We discuss the differences in living in various types of residence halls.

A few things have already made impressions on me:

The students seem to feel that their expectations of the new hall have been exceeded. I continue to receive comments on how adultlike students feel in their new living quarters.

The hall is very quiet.

Most students work and are absent on weekends as well as evenings.

Life in the residence hall has settled into a routine. The students are enjoying their new sense of adulthood and independence and, thankfully, I have become just another resident.

The building remains quiet, with students spending most of their time in their suites. They tell me that having a private bedroom is a real plus because they can come and go as they please without worrying about waking up a roommate. They are also enjoying sometimes staying in their rooms where they can eat alone or simply watch TV. With such a fondness for their newfound privacy, I try not to interfere.

The common areas do get used, but not on a regular basis. Having spent some time living in a more traditional residence hall in the 1980s, I have been surprised by how little interaction occurs in our new hall. All of us are so busy, we are lucky to acknowledge each others' presence and enjoy a brief chat. Since the college's theme for residence life is "building community," I am becoming aware of the need to find new ways in which to create community within suite-style living.

Working in the lounge afforded me a great opportunity to interact with the students. I couldn't help but wonder if there were times wh en my presence might have influenced the type of internet activity in wh ich they were engaged.

Students feel that their new community is their suite, and, in some cases, have determined their own division of labor. They are quite content, but some do try to reach out to others by attending other campus events.

I continue to reach out to students and make myself accessible to them. Whenever I see a student, I acknowledge her and attempt to make small talk, always being careful not to be too intrusive. I learn that most of our students come to Ursuline College because of our programs and academic reputation; however, once they are here, many appreciate the woman-focused environment.

In the new building, the sense of community truly revolved around a much smaller group of students, their suitemates. Additionally, the sense of independence and self-reliance emerged much more than I anticipated.

I have attempted to connect on the topic of spirituality by offering a 15-minute Scripture reflection once a week. Thus far, no one has accepted my offer. This is something I need to think about and investigate further.

When students returned from the midterm break, I had planned a late-night sloppy joe and chili snack for them. I even made fliers to let them know about the gathering and posted the notes throughout the residence hall.

A number of students stopped by. It was interesting to see how many of them have become so comfortable in my presence, sitting with legs dangling over the arm of the chair and conversing in a very comfortable manner. There were still a few students who seemed shy, but finally, the students carried on conversations almost as if I wasn't present.

I was greatly surprised about the lack of noise in the new building. It really was quiet! To liven things up a bit, there has been discussion and planning among students to plan activities to bring them together.

I'm touched when students come to my door to ask for something (although this does not happen frequently, even though my door is always open when I am there). A couple of students baked cookies and delivered a batch to me in my suite. On St. Patrick's Day, I ran into two students who were going out and they asked me if I had any suggestions on where the fun was. I got a kick out of the fact that they thought I'd know where to send them.

Students eat healthier than I expected. They seem to enjoy having their own small kitchens to use. Unfortunately, I seem to be the only one eating all of the chocolate candy, chips, and ice cream that I buy for them.

Life has settled into a very quiet routine.

Since the hall houses only juniors and seniors, there is a seriousness about the end of the semester. Seniors are contemplating leaving college and finding a job and moving on to an even greater level of independence. Some are a little anxious about leaving the college environment.

When I first moved in, I was very proactive in inviting students to my suite for food or conversation, to play cards, or just chat. As time went on, it was nice to see that my fellow neighbors started posting information and invitations on my door. That's how I got involved in an evening of cosmic bowling that lasted until midnight.

As leaders of educational institutions, we primarily exist to serve our students. Therefore, it is insightful to spend time with them simply by observing and listening.

I'm still spending time with the facilities department working out all the kinks of the new building. Figuring out how to regulate the temperature has been a concern, especially in the common areas of the building. The students now know that they can adjust the thermostats in some areas to make it more comfortable.

With graduation quickly arriving, the seniors continue to be very diligent about their work. Students who are returning in the fall tell me they can't wait to move back into the new residence hall, their home away from home.

The weather has turned warmer. I have been told that there was a discussion among the students about laying out in their bathing suits on the grass but overheard the comment, "What would Sister Diana think?" I never did see any sunbathers.

So what do students really think of having me next door? Here are a few comments from an article written for our alumnae magazine:

Public Relations major Amanda Santiago said she felt a heightened sense of security having me close. LaTisha King, a Nursing major, commented that she thought it was a great idea for a president to experience college life from the student perspective. And Psychology student Bridget McNamara said, "Here's an example of a president who has actually taken the initiative to get to know her students better. We had fun including her in our resident hall activities; she can really be a blast!"

Unfortunately, I was out of town when the majority of students were moving out. However, I did receive thank-you notes from students, which I will treasure.

I think my presence in the residence hall had a calming effect on the students.

I feel extremely blessed to have shared this experience with such wonderful women.

In closing, I would like to encourage college presidents and administrators to consider living with their students, if even for a short time. There really isn't a better way to understand students. For me, the semester in the residence hall provided a once-in-a-lifetime, eye-opening experience that I wouldn't trade for anything in the world. In short, it was priceless.

As I look back over the past five months, I realize that living in the residence hall was probably among the most rewarding experiences of my nine years as president. I have always tried to have a presence on the campus, often walking the grounds and the buildings and attempting to attend as many events as possible. Because of this, I know most of the students by face, if not by name.

To read Sister Diana's diary entries in their entirety, visit www.universitybusiness.com/webexclusives and click on "The Unexpected Neighbor."


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