By Tanya J. Tyler
When the new school year began at Transylvania University, Barbara LoMonaco, new vice president for student affairs and dean of students, thought of the perfect way to get to know the young people on campus.
She moved into a dorm.
“I’m not there all the time, but I am there every week,” she said. She also has a 12-acre farm in Scott County.
LoMonaco has been teaching anthropology at Transy for 16 years and became dean of students this past summer. A cultural anthropologist by training, she said one of the main methods of understanding a new culture is to be a participant-observant. She believed she could learn more about the students’ hopes, fears and opinions by moving into the dorm with them and interacting with them in that setting.
“I felt that one of the ways to get closer to the culture was to actually live that culture in part,” she said.
LoMonaco ran the idea past Transy President R. Owen Williams.
“He thought it would promote really good relationships with students and firsthand understanding of their lives,” she said.
It also made practical sense because when there is an emergency on campus, LoMonaco is one of the first people called. It makes it easier for her to accompany resident assistants on their weekend rounds. And she has the opportunity to view Transy from two different perspectives.
“I get to alternate between worlds – the very fine-grained, close-to-the-ground view and then the 30,000-foot view,” she said.
Understandably, the students were initially leery when they learned the dean would be living among them. One girl to whom LoMonaco spoke was at first excited to discover the dean would be in her dorm – until she found out they would be next-door neighbors.
LoMonaco assures students she didn’t move into the dorm to spy on them. She says she is not there to discipline the students unless she sees someone endangering themselves or others or a blatant violation of rules.
“I am really there to be able to observe firsthand what it’s like to live on our campus,” she said. “It’s really one of the best ways to gain an insider’s perspective. I get a whole new outlook on things. It gives me a more genuine understanding of what student life is about.”
To help the students feel more at ease with the idea of an administrative figure and professor living with them, LoMonaco had a “decorate the dean’s dorm room” party.
“The students got to bring memorabilia from their organizations or something about themselves,” she said. “For instance, field hockey bought me a field hockey stick. I have basketball jerseys; I have sorority and fraternity letters. And two students who were my first judicial cases as dean of students – my first disciplinary cases – brought me a framed photograph of themselves.”
Things have certainly changed since she lived in a dorm, LoMonaco admitted.
“When I lived in the residence halls, we used our land line in the room,” she said. “Now, of course, people don’t need to use their dorm phones at all.”
Despite the technological changes – and the big difference in cafeteria food (“They have edamame on the salad bar and soy milk,” LoMonaco said) – many things remain the same on campus.
“Life is still quite the same,” she said. “People still decorate their rooms in similar ways. The rooms look pretty much the way they did when I was in college. And there’s still a real spirit of community in the residence halls that I really enjoy. It’s a vibrant culture.”
LoMonaco has become a fixture in the dorm, participating in ping pong tournaments, going through rush at the students’ invitation, joining in early morning pizza parties and impromptu gatherings in the common areas. She says those are the times when she connects most with the students.
“It is in the informal interactions with students that you really learn what’s going on in their lives,” she said. “Students will come to your office and make an appointment to talk about difficult times, but it’s the informal conversations in which they decide to share something with you. That has been incredibly rewarding and incredibly important.”
“I took this job because I really do enjoy our students,” she added. “It’s a privilege to be part of their lives and to be able to help mentor them through these four years.”
The “Deanstress,” as LoMonaco has been dubbed, highly recommends other college administrators do something similar on their campuses.
“It’s a great way to really understand the students’ point of view,” she said.
By now, with the semester well under way, the students are getting accustomed to living with their dean. Still, she wants to assure them of one important thing.
“I have my own bathroom in the room, so it’s not like I’m padding down the hall in my robe freaking the students out,” she said.
You might also be interested in reading Varied interests, connection with students give Transy’s LoMonaco edge in classroom.