Published in Macalester Today
BY REBECCA DEJARLAIS ORTIZ ’06
Professors aren’t the only ones who make a big impression on Mac students.
“Who are the people who aren’t professors?”
Wayne Lee ’14 thought about this question more with each passing year at Macalester. Yet when he arrived as a first-year student from San Francisco, “relationships with staff weren’t on my radar,” he says.
Arriving in St. Paul a week early for the Bonner Scholars orientation (see page 19), though, Lee immediately connected with Sedric McClure, a Department of Multicultural Life staff member involved with the civic engagement program. Besides serving as an important mentor for Lee over four years, McClure supervised Lee as he developed—and put to work—his own mentoring skills on campus and in the community.
In other words, McClure played a big role in Lee’s education—just not as a professor. “To say that Sedric has been an integral part of my time at Macalester would be a terrible understatement,” says Lee. “I’ve gotten tremendous support from the staff here on campus.”
He’s not alone. Guidebooks may highlight college student-to-faculty ratios, and it’s undoubtedly true that meaningful connections with professors have been a hallmark of a Macalester education for decades. But countless alumni can also immediately recall work-study supervisors, department coordinators, and coaches who shaped their experience as much as professors did. Partly that’s because staff connections often span four years, in contrast to faculty connections that may not truly gel until after a student declares a major. Says Vice President for Student Affairs Laurie Hamre, “Staff are the constant. They have a larger capacity to open their arms a little wider.”
Who are the people who aren’t professors—and how do they shape the Macalester experience?
In three years of doing work-study for the media services department, Jeff Jones ’01 spent many hours coiling microphone cords. “We’d go into the longest hallway we could find, lay out the cords, and make sure they were coiled correctly, with no kinks,” he says. The purpose: to make sure the microphones were ready for the next person to use them.
Coiling microphone cords wasn’t exactly what Jones had imagined when he thought about the practical skills he’d obtain in college, but that task turned out to be part of a larger lesson passed on by his supervisor, Dave Reynolds, who schooled Jones in a blend of technical know-how and interpersonal workplace skills. “He didn’t just teach me how to use equipment, but how to maintain and respect it,” says Jones, now a Minnesota Public Radio producer. “He was teaching skills that would be valuable down the road. I understand how microphones work because of Dave, but I also understand that other people are using this equipment. Those are basic job skills I learned at Mac.”
Each year more than 1,400 Macalester students hold campus jobs, from washing dishes in Café Mac to tutoring peers. They work about 10 hours a week, and for many it’s their first real job. “There’s no course that teaches you how to operate in an office,” says Diego Ruiz ’12, who spent four years working in Admissions. “It’s complementary to what you’re learning in the classroom.”
And those early lessons are formative ones. Working on the Campus Center’s set-up crew, Joel Goldstein ’87 absorbed management skills from supervisor Tony Bol that he still draws on today as a professor at Strayer University. In the Career Development Center, surrounded by four women she considered role models, Marcia Nation ’85—now a project manager at Arizona State University—learned how to conduct herself professionally.
“You learn how to work by watching other people’s work ethics,” says registrar Jayne Niemi ’79, who while a student became part of a close-knit Admissions group. “Those folks worked like the dickens, but they also brought you food and made sure you had everything you needed.” (They even took care of Niemi’s terrarium when she studied abroad.)
Many supervisors strike a similar balance—and it makes an impact. Remembering her CDC supervisors, Nation described a supportive environment where “if you were having a hard time and needed a hug, you could get one.”
Ruiz’s Admissions Department supervisors, Lucy Bauer and Anne Walsh ’80, were “always willing to go the extra mile for us,” he says. “They wanted to help us balance everything, to make sure we were having the best college and work experience possible. They had fantastic empathy that I try to emulate in my role now” as a staffer for the education nonprofit College Possible.
Beyond serving as work-study supervisors, staff members also act as sounding boards and resources for young people still figuring out what they’re passionate about and what they want to pursue at Macalester. In those discussions, says Eily Marlow ’97, a more mature adult’s perspective can be invaluable. “One of the hardest things about college is that the conversation is not often intergenerational,” she says. Programs such as Bonner Scholars and Lives of Commitment, a first-year program Marlow coordinates that’s focused on service and reflection, intentionally provide lots of staff interaction to offer that perspective. “We share, and we swap notes,” McClure says of those conversations. “They get to see an adult wrestle with parts of life they don’t see in a classroom setting. When I sit down and talk with people half my age, I get a glimpse into their world and they get a glimpse into mine, and that’s where transformation comes in—because of the perspective each person brings.”
Religious studies major Abbie Shain ’14 joined Lives of Commitment as a first-year student, then became a sophomore leader and later a program coordinator. Throughout those years, Marlow mentored Shain and pushed her to think about the big questions. “The common thread of my college experience is having someone ask me why I’m doing what I’m doing,” Shain says. “The whole point is to be in this place of figuring things out. People like Eily don’t just tell you what to do—they empower you as a person and tell you that they believe in you, the world is ready for you, and you have to go out and do it.”
By asking questions and listening, staff can provide students with important direction. During his first semester on campus, Ryan Abbe ’01 was homesick, so his mom suggested he find a way to get involved. He went into the Community Service Office (now the Civic Engagement Center) and started talking with staff members Betsy Hearn, Paul Schadewald, and Karin Trail-Johnson. Together they realized that his interests matched up with their plans to revive a tutoring program at a St. Paul elementary school.
Abbe went on to help run that program for four years, discovering a passion for civic engagement along the way, and found in the CSO the niche he’d been seeking. Those first conversations were memorable, he says, because staff took the time to listen to him and help him find a meaningful place for himself. “People come to Mac because they want to get involved,” he says. “Karin, Betsy, and Paul helped enable my desire to make an impact. It gave me the confidence that I could go out and do something.”
Those key student-staff relationships tie into Macalester’s broader mission, says Hamre: educating students as people, not just as intellectuals. Regardless of whether that mentoring fits into a staff member’s job description, many are drawn to work at small colleges like Macalester because of the opportunity to work closely with students, says Hamre. “For many staff, this isn’t just a job,” she says. “Everyone contributes to a student’s development.”
Sometimes the most important contribution a staff member can make concerns neither career paths nor big life questions, but instead pure caring support. For students living on their own for the first time and grappling with college’s challenges and transitions, staff members can provide such a safe space. “There’s going to be a point in every Macalester student’s life when he or she needs to be nurtured,” says Marlow. That might mean being given an office nickname, finding a staff member who acts somewhat parental, or, as Dean of Students Jim Hoppe puts it, “just having the chance to be in somebody’s living room.”
When Jemma Brown ’11 arrived in the history department, coordinator Herta Pitman began inviting her to the regular potlucks she hosted in her home for student employees. Brown was initially reluctant to go because she didn’t know many people attending, “but Herta was so insistent that it lost all awkwardness,” Brown says of the gatherings, for which Pitman organizes carpools and brings out board games. “She knows everyone is away from home, and she wants to bring everyone together.” (Pitman also took Brown to buy a bike and later taught the Manhattan native how to drive.)
Sometimes staff members truly help students navigate college. When Broderick Grubb ’73 arrived at Macalester from southeast Texas in 1969, four staff mentors—Earl W. Bowman Jr. ’50, Dr. John Warfield, Thad Wilderson, and James Bennett ’69—helped him figure out how to survive and succeed in a place geographically and culturally different from anything he’d known before. These staff members of color took the time to instruct arriving students of color on how to register for classes, use the library, live and interact with other people, budget time, and seek out resources. “Some of my classmates and friends would not be here today if these men had not been on campus,” Grubb says. “When you come from Philadelphia or Texas, you can’t just go home at night when things aren’t going right. I always felt like there was someone to go to if I needed to talk.”
That extra effort, unsurprisingly, results in staff members sometimes being compared to family. “I moved halfway across the country to go to Macalester, and the Admissions support staff were like parental figures for me,” Ruiz says. “It’s one of those places on campus that felt like home.”
Many of these student-staff connections continue beyond graduation. Grubb’s mentors were so formative that 40 years after graduation he traveled to the Mac Reunion from his New Orleans home, in part to see Bennett accept an alumni award.
Ruiz’s admissions supervisors helped guide him to his current work at College Possible. Abbe consulted staffer Hearn when he was apprehensive about staying in Minnesota for his first job. “I felt trepidation about recreating my whole social network, and talked to Betsy about carving out a life in Minnesota away from Macalester,” Abbe says. “My department faculty helped me get the job; people like Betsy helped me survive the transition.”
Staff members often enjoy the continued connections with former students as much as alumni do. Jayne Niemi ’79 began working in the Registrar’s Office three days after she graduated, and over the last 35 years has maintained a comprehensive list of her work-study employees. She sees them around the neighborhood, visits them while traveling, and has even attended some of their weddings.
Many alumni who as students talked through big life questions with Marlow still check in with her for perspective on decisions they’re facing. “The Mac community extends beyond these walls,” Marlow says. “When you continue conversations with students past graduation, it’s such a gift.”