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Class Deans Close Cracks in Oberlin's Student Support System

Year-Old System Is Working Well for Students and Parents

by Anne C. Paine

Sophomore Logan Hegg can chuckle about it now, but his very first semester at Oberlin was anything but a laughing matter.

"Around Thanksgiving of last year, I had this ridiculous accident," he said with a sheepish grin. "I'd gone to the mall with some friends
and we decided to get pierced. I had this bizarre neurological reaction, and I had to go home. I finished some of my credits there, but I had one incomplete and I ended up on academic probation."

This less-than-auspicious start to college could have had disastrous results but for the fact that last fall Oberlin instituted a class-dean system that assigns a "point person" for every member of the student body.

Linda Gates, dean of the Class of 2004, immediately became involved in Hegg's situation, helping with the arrangements for a medical leave, for communicating with professors, and for returning to campus.

"The one good thing that came out of this is that I met Linda," Hegg said. He was back on campus by winter term and hasn't looked back. A lacrosse player and a student mediator with the Oberlin College Dialogue Center, he's planning to major in biopsychology.

Helping students like Hegg who experience difficulties - and keeping them from falling through the cracks - is exactly what the class-dean system was set up to do.

"The idea dates back to the winter of 1999, when I was interviewed for this position," said Dean of Students Peter Goldsmith, who worked in similar programs at Dartmouth and Princeton and who instituted Oberlin's program. "President Nancy Dye observed to me that the College did a better job of supporting students as groups than as individuals, and that we could use a system that enabled us to be more attentive to the needs of individuals."

"(Class deans) support the students in thier academic, social, and emotional lives, recognizing that when a student ecounters difficulty in college, it is rarely one problem in isolation."
Peter Goldsmith

At Oberlin, each class dean follows his or her class throughout its four-year college career. A fifth year dean works with students whose class has graduated. The deans are all administrators who had class-dean responsibilities added to their positions; all have at least two other job titles, and one has four additional titles.

"It's a wonderful system because it provides a clearly identifiable person who can gather and coordinate information from a variety of sources about any student who is having difficulties," said Gates. "When faculty members sense that a student is having trouble, they can contact a class dean. Students and parents also have found this to be a very helpful system because they know immediately whom to call."

The class deans do not replace faculty advisors, who focus primarily on academic matters. Rather, they practice what Goldsmith calls "holistic deaning."

"We support the students in their academic, social, and emotional lives, recognizing that when a student encounters difficulty in college, it's rarely one problem in isolation, but more often a combination of interlocking challenges," Goldsmith said.

Last spring semester, senior Anique Olivier, a chemistry major, faced just such a set of "interlocking challenges." She was having roommate problems. As chair of three different student organizations, she was overextended. And she was feeling academic pressure and anxiety. She wanted to take a leave of absence, and was etting mixed advice.

"I was still passing my classes and doing well academically, but I just didn't want to be here," Olivier said. "One of the people I talked to about this was Bill Stackman (dean of the Class of 2002). He ended up telling me, with a big hug, that I should just take some time for myself. 'Become well, and then you can meet your other goals,' he said to me." Along with that hug, Stackman recommended a number of books for Olivier to read.

Olivier took that leave, returned to campus this fall, and is flourishing. Because she took several advanced placement courses in high school, as well as some 16 credit-hour semesters at Oberlin, she's on target to graduate this May.

Many matters handled by deans are routine: scheduling conflicts, class access, life-balance concerns, time-management strategies, roommate difficulties, and various academic issues. The deans frequently refer students to Oberlin's other resources: the Counseling Center, Student Academic Affairs, Student Health Services, Residential Life, the Multicultural Resource Center, and the Ombuds Office, to name a few.

Each dean also faces a unique set of circumstances, depending on what year of college his or her class is currently completing.

"Each year has a culture and tasks that students need to accomplish that year, such as declaring a major, working up a resume, looking at internships, and applying for fellowships," said Brenda Grier- Miller, dean of the Class of 2003. "Part of a class dean's responsibility is to make sure these things happen for their students."

Kimberly Jackson-Davidson, for example, makes sure her first year students are adjusting to college life. "I help people learn the ropes - all those things that older students take in stride," she said. "Some first-year students panic, and others aren't concerned enough. When I see people on campus, I quiz them: Do you have all your classes lined up? I try to see if they're taking on too much."

Kay Knight, the fifth-year class dean, reminds students to make sure all their loose ends are tied up. "My biggest message to students is that they need to identify their references and find out about the alumni networking system available to them," she said.

Other issues are more unexpected. Stackman recently worked with a student who has Celiac disease (gluten intolerance) and needed help getting his dietary needs met. Jackson-Davidson assisted an international student confused by American students' informality in addressing professors.

It is in emergency situations where the class-dean system is at its most personal and proactive.

As supervisor of the Office of Safety and Security, Stackman receives daily security reports. He scans each day's report for names of students who may need support and makes sure he or another class dean follows up.

"I saw recently that a student reported receiving harassing telephone calls. I called her in because I wanted to check on how she was doing emotionally, and to ask her if she wanted me to talk to her professors, if she wanted to talk with a counselor. I wanted to know how I could help."

Last year, several students living off campus were left homeless due to a fire. "Helping them meant finding temporary living space, getting them books, and notifying their professors about the problem," Stackman said. "Sometimes helping a student in an emergency means such practical things as driving them to the airport or helping them get money for an airline ticket because they don't have enough money in their bank account and they need to leave tonight," he continued.

After the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., all the deans sought out students who needed support. Grier-Miller, for example, helped arrange leaves for one student whose family and friends were affected and for another student whose Army Reserve unit was called up.

Everything is not always dire, however. Once emergencies pass, students and deans often become friends, as did Logan Hegg and Linda Gates.

"I took Linda to lunch recently," said Hegg. "I feel comfortable talking to her about almost anything. She's a really genuine person, someone you can count on to give you straight advice or to kick your butt once in a while. To realize that you can have that kind of access to someone is a great support system."