September 5, 2012

Building an Engaged Campus, One Student at a Time

Building an Engaged Campus, One Student at a Time

If you took the sum total of a college student's week - all 168 hours of it - and deducted all the hours spent on studying, attending classes, sleeping, eating, working and other personal activities, you would have left roughly 50 hours of unscheduled time.

Fifty hours. That is the number that shapes Patricia Rissmeyer's work at Emmanuel College.

As Emmanuel's Vice President for Student Affairs, Dr. Rissmeyer knows from experience that how students make use of that time will largely determine their success as undergraduates and throughout their lives after college. The process of engagement for incoming freshmen actually begins before they officially arrive in the fall and continues throughout their four-year career on campus.

During Emmanuel's summer Orientation program, incoming students are exposed to many of the 100-plus clubs and activities that might interest them as they settle into their student routines. They are guided by Orientation Leaders, a select group of sophomore, junior and senior students trained in familiarizing them with all things Emmanuel. When the freshmen and transfer students arrive in the fall, they again meet with their Orientation Leaders and group mates. They take part in Welcome Week activities such as the annual New Student Day of Service, a volunteer assignment off campus to help them expand their experience beyond the physical campus boundaries and to give something of themselves to their new community.

The underlying motivation for student engagement, Dr. Rissmeyer stresses, is not just keeping students busy, but engaging them educationally, developmentally and spiritually. "We all know in our own lives that the more structure you have, the more you get done," she said. "The more engaged someone is on campus, the more they learn and the more they feel involved. They get higher grades and they are happier people. They feel that this is their place and that keeps them from feeling isolated."

The proposition is simple, she says: "Tell us what you are interested in doing and we will help make that happen for you."

That proposition has produced some interesting ideas, including a women's ice hockey club, a swimming club and even a sailing club. The fact that Emmanuel has no hockey rink, swimming pool or a boathouse on the Charles River hasn't dampened the enthusiasm of club members. The current 54 clubs will change again as some clubs are dropped in favor of new ones and often reflect the interests of the day.

At the core of student life is Emmanuel's philosophy that college is also about discovering what is inside you, what inspires you and what gives you a sense of peace and belonging. That philosophy is expressed on the College's website: "We are big-hearted in spirit, global in outlook and small enough to create individual access to whatever opportunities we seek. We are a community with a strong sense of mission, a vibrant, confident faith and a joyful spirit."

For many students, that mission and spirit is expressed through the growing athletics program, which today includes 17 men's and women's varsity teams. For others, it is found through the eclectic club offerings. Many students find their place volunteering their time and energy in the community or organizing events to benefit the myriad nonprofit organizations throughout the city. Eighty-five percent of Emmanuel students participated in a community service activity last year, some of whom gave up their spring break to volunteer for a week as part of Emmanuel's Alternative Spring Break program.

This past spring, students participated in a 12-hour overnight dance marathon and raised $18,400 for Children's Hospital Boston, more than double that raised by any of the other five area schools participating in the event. Assistant Director of Student Activities Kevin Farrell, who served as Emmanuel Dance Marathon's advisor, said that while the money raised was the primary objective for the event, it wasn't the focus for Emmanuel students. "It was about doing something larger than themselves and making a difference in the Boston community. These students did just that."

"I've never walked away from an event feeling like I did walking away from Dance Marathon [that] Sunday morning," said Kim Masse '13, the overall chair of Emmanuel's Dance Marathon. "It was the best thing I have witnessed at Emmanuel. It was really rewarding to see the whole effort pay off and to witness how the entire Emmanuel community came together to help us."

While it isn't always obvious how a certain activity might dovetail with a student's academic pursuits, there are countless examples of how those seemingly unrelated halves of a student's life form a fully integrated life by the time they graduate. The tremendous growth the College has experienced in its student population over the last decade has led Emmanuel's Office of Student Activities and Multicultural Programs to expand its extracurricular offerings and activities in order to fulfill the student affairs staff's commitment to meet students more than halfway.

Aside from having more students on campus, Emmanuel now attracts many more students from outside of New England. The effect of that change is that more students remain on campus during the weekends than ever before and the demand for on-campus activities during the weekend is also the highest it has ever been. In the last academic year, there were 110 weekend programs or activities offered.

In the summer of 2001, as the College prepared to welcome its first coed class to campus, Emmanuel hired Associate Dean Dan Darcy to lead its Student Activities department. Enthralled by the energy of the student body and the longstanding tradition of student engagement, Darcy embraced his new responsibilities.

"When I met with students who hadn't signed up for an activity or a club, I told them 'my role here is to get you involved in one activity,'" said Darcy.

Darcy recalled convincing four of those students who had yet to find something of interest to run for seats in the Student Government Association (SGA). All four lost those bids, but each went on to become campus leaders and some of the most engaged students on campus.

His work is shared with Kelly Dunn '05, Emmanuel's Director of First-Year Experience, whose job is to assist incoming students with the transition into college life. She oversees the College's Orientation programming and a mentor program, Student Adjustment Guided Effectively (S.A.G.E.), offered to all first-year and transfer students interested in maximizing their first semester on campus. Participants are paired with returning Emmanuel students who are trained to help them navigate the many academic, co-curricular and social opportunities available.

Dunn's efforts have one goal: Helping students get connected as soon as possible in order to start college off on the right foot.

"We're honest with them," she said of incoming students. "We tell them, 'This is going to be great, you are going to love it here, but it is going to be hard at first and these are the challenges you are going to face.'"

Dunn was part of that first coeducational class at Emmanuel, after transferring in during her sophomore year. The difference in the campus in less than a decade is noticeable, she said. "There is even more activity now than when I was here as a student, which is amazing given all the opportunities I had to be involved."

Dr. Rissmeyer relates a story about a trip to Washington, D.C. offered last year that speaks to the Emmanuel way of making things happen for students. When Associate Professor of Art Cynthia Fowler approached her about financing travel expenses for a class trip to the Capitol to visit the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, at first it appeared there simply weren't enough students to justify the expense of hiring a bus. Yet the indefatigable Rissmeyer told her, "Let me see what I can do." She remembered that the Black Student Union had expressed a desire to visit the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial. She called on Associate Director of Student Activities and Director of Multicultural Programs Damita Davis, who immediately took the lead coordinating the joint trip. Vice President of Academic Affairs Joyce De Leo and the Executive Board of the Student Government Association jumped on board to split the expenses with the Office of Student Affairs and the trip was advertised as a weekend program open to all students.

It turned out to be a memorable and far richer trip than anyone had expected. The group was invited to a reception at the home of MaryEva Candon '72 and had the opportunity to meet additional Emmanuel alumni. After the weekend's events, one student characterized the entire experience as a turning point in her relationship with Emmanuel, as she was moved by the efforts of the faculty, staff and administration to make such a trip possible, and by the inspirational words of the alumni at Candon's home.

"It is wonderful to see members of the Emmanuel College community working together for the greater good of our students," said President Sister Janet Eisner, SND. "It speaks volumes about the experience we provide that they are so responsive to their needs. Ultimately, these are the events in their lives that really matter and we try to make them happen."

Catherine "Cat" DesRoche '05 recalls that upon her arrival at Emmanuel she was still feeling burned out from being involved in too many activities in high school and wanted to wade in slowly at Emmanuel. "I wasn't involved in one thing," she said of her high school years. "I was involved in everything."

Yet by her second semester, she was fully onboard. She helped organize the celebration for the Chinese and Vietnamese New Year, won a Leadership Award, was the secretary of the Programming Board, joined the Education Club, the Residence Hall Council, and became a Resident Advisor in both her junior and senior years. Her bid to remain uninvolved, she now laughs, "was an epic failure."

After graduating in 2005, she went to Suffolk University to get her master's in higher education with a focus on administration and by the age of 22 she was essentially running the student life program at the New England Conservatory. She returned to Emmanuel College in 2007 to work with Darcy, whom she calls her mentor, before leaving in 2009 to teach elementary school. She currently teaches third grade in Milton, Mass.

Meanwhile, the roster of new clubs on campus was growing quickly. The rules were simple: If you can get organized and find other students to share your passion, start your own club.

When Sam Hopperstad '11 arrived at Emmanuel College in the fall of 2007, he was in search of people like himself who were passionate about playing music. A drummer in high school, he arrived on campus with a set of bongos and began playing while sitting around his room in St. Ann Hall. Before long, he was joined by other percussionists who were also searching for an outlet for their musical talents. Soon, the percussion group Ill Beatz was born, comprised of a core group of 10 musicians who spent their formative years at Emmanuel developing their music and building a following.

"The club and everything that the club created was my whole social and campus life," said Hopperstad. Among the founders of Ill Beatz were Byron Glaus '10, Mike Craig '12, Alex Silba '11, Ryan Milliken '11, Joe Aube '11 and Hopperstad. By junior year, Ill Beatz was playing in clubs around Boston and in the fall of 2010 performed what Hopperstad says was the largest concert ever staged at Emmanuel College with more than 500 people in attendance.

But what Ill Beatz created was more important than music and underscores the student affairs staff's philosophy that college isn't about one or two things. It is about everything. The group created lifelong friendships, performing talents and even the necessary band-related skills in finance, marketing and public relations.

Those bonds and skills are hard at work today as Hopperstad's post-Emmanuel band Simple Syrup plays on. Three of the four members of Simple Syrup - which is now recording its first demo - are Emmanuel grads, including Hopperstad, Glaus and Craig. Aube also serves as the band's manager, handling the band's finances, public relations and marketing.

"We are all very intertwined," said Hopperstad, who also works professionally as a graphic designer.

Emmanuel faculty and administrators are so good at plugging students into extracurricular opportunities that students seem surprised and maybe even bemused when they are suddenly recruited for something they had never even thought about.

Joe Horgan '13 is one of those students. When Horgan arrived at Emmanuel, his goal was to prepare for a career teaching history while also taking advantage of nearby Mass College of Art and Design where he planned to take classes in film, his other interest. Somewhere along the way, though, Assistant Professor of English Lisa Falvey issued a challenge to her class, of which Horgan was a part: Whoever came up with the best plan to take to a new level the Emmanuel College radio station (began by alumnus David Phillipo '05) would get an A for the assignment.

What Dr. Falvey didn't mention to Horgan was that the person who came up with that plan was probably the same person who would implement it in the role of station leader, which proved to be a true learning experience for Horgan.

"I didn't know what I was doing when I came in, but I learned a lot quickly and I think I made more good decisions than bad decisions and we got a lot of other people involved," he said.

The station quickly rose in popularity around campus. Faculty members happily volunteered to anchor the microphone, play their own brands of music and comment on current events. Horgan created a live music café, dubbed Emma Café, in the basement of St. Joseph Hall next to the station that routinely attracted 50-60 students. He began featuring unknown bands, many of them on their way up, giving them exposure well beyond the campus as the station broadcasts across the Internet. He even blended his love for history and politics with the station by showing up in New Hampshire during the winter presidential primary where he interviewed former New Hampshire Governor John Sununu for broadcast. The station has also been invited to both the Democratic National Convention and the Republican National Convention this summer.

"When people see me around campus now they say, 'hey, you're the radio guy.'"

It is stories like Horgan's that exemplify the philosophy of Emmanuel today; a college focused on making opportunities available to it students and being the best fit possible.

"It certainly speaks to the possibilities that exist within our campus," said Sr. Janet. "With an open mind and a willingness to get involved, a passion can be sparked at any corner. It is one of the things that truly makes Emmanuel the special place that it is."