Trading Places

Susan West Engelkemeyer sees walking a day in a student's shoes as part of her continuing education as a college president.

December 21, 2017
 
 
Athletics center weight room at Nichols College

For one day during the academic year, I don’t do my job.

The occasion -- “President for a Day” -- turns over my administrative responsibilities to an undergraduate who has won an essay competition to lead Nichols College. For my part, I walk a day in that student’s shoes.

Trading places with a Nichols student may have started out as a novelty -- I had never been asked before if I owned a backpack or if I wanted to come back to the dorm and play Madden NFL. But over the past three years, this day has become a valuable tradition for me.

This year, as in previous years, both of us took our new jobs seriously. And for me, the time I invested was part of a continuing education that I would recommend to any college administrator who cares about the lives of today’s students.

My replacement -- a bright junior -- led the scheduled President’s Council meeting, followed by meetings on enrollment, marketing, fund-raising and the college’s honors program. She also met with a trustee. In between, the president pro tem called alumni to thank them for creating endowed scholarships. Later, she glowingly blogged about her experience.

In turn, I attended the student’s classes -- Operations Management and Business, Government and Regulations -- had lunch with her friends in the dining hall; worked out with the women’s hockey team (no skating required); and covered her hours working in the dean of students’ office.

Both of my classes featured group collaboration. When I was an undergraduate, we mostly sat and listened to each professor lecture. So it was fun to see and experience the team dynamics and level of ease my fellow students demonstrated. It also showed me they’re a creative lot.

I’ve toured student residence halls over my years and have a good idea of the physical plant here. But until I traded places, I hadn’t seen a dorm room in action for a long time. Gone, of course, are the Jimi Hendrix posters and tie-dye wall hangings of my own college years.

I got more from this visit than a skin-deep recognition of what has and hasn’t changed over almost four decades. What was more enlightening was observing students in a more natural element and their seeing me in a way they had not before. Any opportunity to understand a student’s life is worth it, and most of us who are senior administrators haven’t been 20 years old for a long time.

When I show up in jeans, a T-shirt and sneakers, the conversation changes. Of course, we know who the other is, but for this hour, there is a lot less formality and just a little less distance between us than on other days. It is a chance to realize close up that these young adults have a sense of fun and camaraderie -- and that this hour represented a break from a busy schedule.

The same held true at lunchtime with my undergraduate female friends, one shortened by the reality that they had so much to do. Many students, I learned firsthand, were taking five or six courses, had paying jobs (some more than 20 hours a week), and put in additional daily hours on an athletic team -- not to mention obligations to clubs and student organizations. It’s a routine that leads to many late nights. Between our laughs over a burrito and side salad, I got a better picture of how serious, involved and stressful their college experience has proved at times.

There were more concrete takeaways. As I sweated and huffed through the women’s hockey team’s regimen in the athletic center’s weight room, it dawned on me how much these folks have to do just to get onto the playing field. My thighs were burning for days from what seemed like endless squats.

Now when I hear from students about not being chosen to play in a soccer game, it makes a difference. I realize the effort and commitment it takes to be a student athlete. In conversations with our athletic director and coaches, I want to be sure we effectively balance winning with participation in this Division III environment.

Other Nichols administrators, meanwhile, have asked to spend the same kind of day. Too many -- here and at other institutions -- work in roles where they lack daily interaction with students. Until we walk a mile in a student's shoes (or exert ourselves in the weight room), it’s harder to see college life through their eyes.

As president, I spent today focusing on budgets, accreditation, trustee meetings and alumni giving. I do like the desk in my office, but one of my favorite days of the year remains when I get out from behind it and become a student once more.

Bio

Susan West Engelkemeyer is president of Nichols College in Dudley, Mass.

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