Class Deans Close Cracks in Oberlin's
Student Support System
Year-Old System Is Working Well for Students
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
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
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."
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."
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
"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
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."