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Workshops Help Dean of the College Staff Improve Student Support

Throughout his 30 years at Vassar, Edward Pittman ’82 has spent the bulk of his time interacting with students, learning about their triumphs and challenges, and helping them find the resources they need to achieve success. In his new role as Senior Associate Dean of the College for Professional Development, Pittman is using these decades of experience to help staff and administrators find ways to better relate to Vassar students and to their coworkers. “Our goal,” Pittman said, “is to help foster values that enhance our work and build capacity as we support students and each other.”

Top Row: Andrew Meade, Assistant Dean/Director of International Services; Sam Speers, Associate Dean/Director of Religious and Spiritual Life and Contemplative Practices; Michelle Ransom, Director of Student Activities; Elizabeth Aeschlimann, Rachlin Director for Jewish Student Life and Assistant Director of Religious and Spiritual Life and Contemplative Practices; Matthew Mueller, Morehead Academic Coach, Office of Accessibility and Educational Opportunity; Capria Berry, Director of Transitions Program; William Rush, Assistant Director of Campus Activities, Edward Pittman, Senior Associate Dean of the College for Professional Development. Bottom Row: Michael Drucker, Director of Residential Education; Nora Zaki, Advisor for Muslim Student Life; Nicole Wong, Director, Support, Advocacy, and Violence Prevention; Kaitlin Leach, Associate Director of Athletics for Compliance and Student-Athlete Welfare, Kevin Collins, Director of the ALANA Center. Not pictured: Andrea Pesavento, Director of Health Promotion and Education; Constanca Vescio, Staff Therapist in Counseling Services; Michelle Walsh, Director of Athletics and Physical Education; MaryJo Cavanaugh, Moorhead Learning Specialist and Director, Office for Accessibility and Educational Opportunity; Erin Boss, Coordinator, Support, Advocacy and Violence Prevention., and Danushi Fernando, Director of LGBTQ and Gender Resources.Photo: Karl Rabe

Over the past year and a half, Pittman and colleagues have developed a series of workshops designed to help the staff of the Dean of the College Division accomplish these goals. The workshops, some led by Vassar administrators and others facilitated by consultants in various fields, cover such topics as implicit bias and diversity awareness, accessibility, gender-inclusive language, challenges facing first-generation and low-income students, self-care, the experiences of student-athletes, and emotional intelligence.  Approximately 200 division employees have taken at least one of the workshops, and many have taken two or three.

Pittman said the genesis for the workshops stemmed from conversations then-incoming President Elizabeth Bradley had with students and others when she first arrived on campus in 2017. “Students voiced some concerns (to Bradley) about their campus experiences relating to student support, and we saw an opportunity to strengthen our work engaging around sometimes sensitive and tough conversations,” he said. Bradley also asked the Office of Human Resources to coordinate similar professional development opportunities for other employees.

Dean of the College Carlos Alamo-Pastrana said he has been pleased with what he has learned so far from staff and administrators who have attended the workshops. “All of us at the college see the importance of having a universal language and a set of best practices for student engagement, and that is the goal of this initiative,” Alamo-Pastrana said.

The workshops also serve another desirable purpose, the dean noted. Just by meeting each other in the workshops, staff and administrators learn more about each other’s jobs, enabling them to provide better assistance to students seeking help and advice. “In the past,” Alamo-Pastrana said, “students were telling us they were being referred to a resource too quickly without being informed about how that resource could help them. Thanks to these workshops, people in the Office of Residential Life, for example, are better informed about what our Transitions program is about, so when students ask about Transitions, they receive more helpful information.”

Bianca Keesler, an administrative assistant in the Residential Life office, has taken three of the workshops and says they have helped her do her job better. “They all expanded my comfort level about my job,” Keesler said. “Just gaining insight into the functions of other offices on campus enhances my job skills. I engage with students all the time, and my level of expertise about the college’s resources is much higher now.”

Keesler said all of the workshops she attended were conducted in an informal manner that put her and her fellow participants at ease. “I’m a rather shy person by nature,” she said, “but the facilitators made it easy for all of us to speak up.”

One of those facilitators, Nicole Wong ’15, Director of Support, Advocacy and Violence Prevention, co-led a workshop with SAVP Program Coordinator Erin Boss ’16 about the issues she and her staff are engaged in. She said the experience reinforced her belief that Vassar administrators and staff care deeply about the work they are doing. “It was truly a wonderful experience going through scenarios and tabletop exercises where participants described how they would respond to a student who has experienced harm and violence, and being able to see the care and deep thought they put into the exercise,” Wong said. “It’s always reassuring to know that the colleagues you work with on a regular basis are so committed to their students, their work, and their professional growth.” 

While Pittman describes the initiative as a work in progress, he says he’s encouraged by the feedback he’s received from students and from those who have participated in the workshops. “The first thing I learned was that a lot of employees here are interested and committed to this kind of training and development,” he said. “They enjoy learning in a diverse atmosphere where administrators and staff from many different offices are in the same room. The buy-in curve has been steep; given what I know about people at Vassar, I didn’t expect any resistance to this initiative, and I haven’t encountered any.” Although the workshops are focused on employees in the Dean of the College division, several spaces are reserved for those outside the division, Pittman said.

For a list of upcoming workshops and other information about the Dean of the College Office Professional Development initiative, go to https://pages.vassar.edu/professional-development/