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The Unexpected Neighbor

In a quest to connect with students, Ursuline College President Sister Diana Stano moved into a newly built dorm on campus. Her journal gives a glimpse into the way students experience dorms today.
University Business, Sep 2006

In a quest to connect with students, Ursuline College President Sister Diana Stano moved into a newly built dorm on campus. Her journal gives a glimpse into the way students experience dorms today.

When students moved into the new residence hall this winter 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 has given 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 will share her thoughts about dorm living--on everything from hall meetings to how much students work. This month, she covers her initial expectations and observations, and finds that even a college president can relate to students (having a bowl full of candy to offer student visitors doesn't hurt, either).

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 this 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 those things for students. That means not telling them how to act or behave; I need to walk my talk.

Before I can really do this right, I must gain a personal 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.

Before the students move in, I place fresh-cut flowers in each suite along with a personal note. Two students move in early because they had obligations the next day. I give them a tour of my suite, which has a bedroom, bathroom, living room, and kitchen area. I want them to feel comfortable in my space.

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.

The media blitz unfolds, with numerous calls for interviews from local television stations, radio stations, Cleveland's daily newspaper, The Plain Dealer, and smaller weekly suburban papers including Sun Newspapers, Chagrin Valley Times, and Catholic Universe Bulletin.

A reporter from The Associated Press is interested in running a story regionally throughout the weekend. Dozens and dozens of small, rural newspapers pick up the story as well as radio stations including National Public Radio. I'm shocked that so many people are interested in my relocation.

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 at 3 p.m. followed by a reception in my suite. That evening after everyone leaves, three students visit my suite. 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. Another student comes by to tell me how happy she is in her new home.

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.

Students like the fact 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 still 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 the TV show Lost. I have not seen the show before and have to admit to feeling lost just trying to follow the story line. The students bring me up to date on previous episodes.

As if this is not enough, I'm invited to watch Grey's Anatomy with another group of students. This show is easier to follow. I am becoming more familiar with contemporary media.

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 ear plugs and stays for a visit. These students are not only dear but extremely thoughtful.

The first meeting was held without me. The group discussed general information and issues related to the new building as well as hall standards.

The second meeting has a number of people absent because of classes or other commitments. The general sentiment is not to have a lot of programming for this residence hall but to continue regular hall meetings.

After the meeting, we play a game of Jeopardy in which the topic is and I find it very interesting to hear about the positives and negatives of information on the web.

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

When I use the computer room, I often find students in the room, some doing homework and others just surfing the web.

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.

This is just my first month in the dorm, but a few things have already made impressions on me. Here are some thoughts:

It appears as though the students are still young at heart, as evidenced by the stuffed animals, bright decor, and heartthrob posters they put in their rooms.

Students seem to enjoy organizing and cleaning their suites.

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

The hall is very quiet. I don't necessarily see people from other suites on a regular basis.

Most students work and are absent on weekends as well as evenings. Athletes too are not around much. Nursing students tend to go to bed early, since they have to get up early for clinical rotations at area hospitals.

Dorm life still feels a little lonely. I continue to invite students into my suite on occasion for snacks. It helps to make a list of all their favorites.

I continue to work on balancing my private time and space with openness to student interaction.

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