Why Work with Students for 20-Plus Years?

September/October 2005

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Why Work with Students for 20-Plus Years?

Photo: Linda A. Cicero

When Gwyn Dukes came to the Farm in 1964, fresh from a graduate program in student personnel administration, her first stop was Old Union. But she wasn’t paying her bills there, and she didn’t work in an office in the building.

“It was a women’s dorm, and I was the director of the residence hall,” she recalls. “This was before there were resident faculty.”

That’s only one of many campus changes Dukes, an adviser to families at the Bechtel International Center for the past 39 years, can offer up. One in particular makes her smile. The International Center “used to produce a brochure titled ‘101 Things You Can Do While Your Husband is Studying,’” she says. “Now we see husbands as the accompanying ones.”

In conversations with “20-Year Club” members—staffers who have been under the Dean of Student Affairs umbrella for more than two decades—there are recurring themes and plenty of “in the old days” tales. That stretch of land along Bowdoin Street, where the Rains Houses were built in 1988? Turns out it used to be a community garden. “In the spring we’d get a farmer to come with a tractor and plow on a Saturday morning,” says Christine Griffith, associate dean of student affairs and director of the Graduate Life Office. “Then we’d take strings and stake out our gardens.”

Griffith sees the 25 years she has spent working with graduate students as a kind of longitudinal study. “The longer you’re here, the more possibility you have of seeing how societal norms change and what that means for the makeup of the community,” she says. “In the early 1980s we had close to 700 student families with children in Escondido Village, and today we have about half that number. People are marrying later, and more women are pursuing graduate degrees and their own academic careers.”

For Griffith, today’s relatively formal orientation programs for graduate students are like pedal-pushers: “Who would have thought they’d come back?” She recalls the days of grand barbecues and convocations in Dinkelspiel Auditorium, and points to the annual reception the University president now hosts in his home, and the growing information fairs. “We’re beginning to see a University-wide orientation for graduate students,” she says. “Over the last seven years there has been sustained advocacy for graduate student needs—there’s a Graduate Student Council and elected representation as part of the ASSU.”

Griffith and Olivia Torbett, director for operations and systems at the Haas Center for Public Service, both arrived in 1980 and worked in Escondido Village, in the days before ubiquitous computers. “We managed 1,300 apartments with pencil and lined paper in a binder,” Torbett says. She would write down the date an apartment was supposed to be available, then erase that entry when it was ready. “Considering the methods we used, our efficiency was quite good and we didn’t double-book very often.”

Nanci Howe, associate dean of students and director of student activities, snagged one of the first e-mail accounts on campus a few years after she arrived in 1981. At first she thought she’d miss the personal interaction with students, but in the intervening years she’s come to appreciate virtual communication. “The bad piece is that students have access to us 24/7,” she says. “But that’s also the positive side. Sometimes students will e-mail me at 11 p.m. with some urgent issue, and if I’m on the computer I can write them back in real time. It’s not a face-to-face interaction, but it is personal in the sense that you can sometimes resolve issues quickly, in the moment.”

Physician John Dorman remembers the middle-of-the-night calls he used to get when he was on call. He could make it to campus from his home in Menlo Park, sew up a laceration or treat an asthma attack, and be back in bed in about 45 minutes. That was in 1973, when the University’s health service was run by the Palo Alto Medical Clinic and nurses staffed an overnight infirmary. Some 32 years later, he still gets occasional midnight calls—but they’re from students seeking advice about whether they need to go to the emergency room.

Dorman says the other sea change in campus health care has been the switch from paper to computerized records. “We’ve been making the transition since last year, going from paper charts to electronic medical records, and starting this fall, incoming students will no longer have hard-copy charts.”

Upstairs at Vaden Health Center, physical therapist Tim Bowman has seen the flip side of the computerized revolution. He’s been treating students’ sports-induced injuries since 1984—“when I was 12,” he jokes—but in recent years the number of students turning up with repetitive stress injuries has skyrocketed. “They sit at their computers 25 hours a day, they don’t move anything but their fingers and eyes, their nutrition is terrible, and they’re not getting enough sleep,” he says.

But Bowman has stayed in his job 21 years because students also “are motivated to get well, and really listen.” The care he provides is part massage and part high-fives. “It’s a nice patient population to work with,” he says.

Other 20-Year Club members concur. Torbett says the chance to interact with students was the reason she came to Stanford. “And it’s absolutely why I stick around here,” she adds. “I could go do administration anywhere.”

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