July 26-Aug. 1, 2002
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Flow of student life passes through dean’s office
Art museum expands membership benefits
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Hot Links -- Vice President and Provost
Sam Abell: The Photographic Life
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Flow of student life passes through dean’s office

Penny Rue
Photo by Jenny Gerow
Dean of Students Penny Rue

By Elizabeth Kiem

The Office of the Dean of Students, located on the top floor of Peabody Hall, had a steady influx of students in late April. Mostly, they hoped to come out with cash – either treasurers of student groups seeking reimbursement for a semester’s worth of activities, or individuals looking for a last-minute honor loan to tide them over until graduation.

But it is the needy student who doesn’t come to the office who is the daily concern of Dean of Students Penny Rue and her nine assistant deans. Whether in reaction to an immediate campus crisis or to difficulties common to U.Va. and American colleges generally, the top dean for non-academic matters is committed to the emotional support of the student body at large.

“We’re always trying to use the information we get from being in relationships with students. We work with students in so many different ways, we can bring that to bear on any situation and use our judgment [to help the entire student body],” said Rue, who has held the post since July 1999.

Last Sept. 11, as the scope of the calamity that befell the nation became clear, Rue and her colleagues resolved to do everything possible to facilitate a candlelight vigil on the Lawn. Even considering security concerns, Rue felt the pulse of the students and concluded that a moment of solidarity and mourning was the most needed response.

On an individual basis, Rue said, the most common problems confronting students are alcohol, accidents and illnesses, and stress. These problems are endemic on any campus, and the office works to prevent, as well as respond to, their impact.
For serious interventions or response to crimes, campus disturbances, assaults or natural disasters, there is a dean on 24-hour call. But for many in the office, every day is an on-call day.

Photo by Jenny Gerow
Rue (fourth from left) participates in a leadership-building exercise with students who are orientation leaders at U.Va. this summer.

“Many of us are here because we really care about students. And students don’t operate on our clock at all,” said intern Kelli Palmer. She works in the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life, created as part of the Dean of Students’ office less than a year ago.

With branches in Peabody Hall, Newcomb Hall, Residence Life Office, Center for Alcohol and Substance Education, and the Office of Orientation, the ODOS offers services and advice that enhance students’ intellectual, social and ethical development.

Rue calls these services “the work that we go at,” as opposed to “the work that comes at us.

“The stuff that we go at really falls into the notion of community creation. My hope is that every student at this University is able to find a niche, so that they’re able to own and feel that this is their university,” she said.

Because there are more than 400 student groups on campus, Rue and her associates are careful not to step on toes as they attempt to integrate and coalesce various interest groups.

“I do a lot of ‘we support you’ kind of events,” said assistant dean Ajay Nair. As the youngest and only Asian-American dean, Nair finds many groups and individuals seek him out personally.

“They want us to be a part of it, and we want to embrace it. But we have to be careful,” he said of not commandeering student programs.

In fact, Rue says U.Va.’s tradition of allowing student groups broad authority to conduct themselves autonomously is a blessing for her office. “We see ourselves as colleagues to students who are trying to get things done.”

ODOS-coordinated programs focus on leadership development, peer mentoring and community service. Shamim Sisson, senior associate dean of students, initiated the Women’s Leadership Development Program, one of the oldest of the ODOS programs. While Sisson delegated the operations of the group to a colleague not long ago, the group chose to formally memorialize her work by naming the final dinner of the academic year in her honor.
After 14 years at ODOS, Sisson has grown attuned to the rhyth

s of this intensely student-oriented office as it passes through the academic year.
“Often it’s this period at the end of the semester, even when you go into exams and you think it would be quieter because you don’t have so much partying …,” Rue finished her thought, saying “you have, instead, tension and roommates having their fill.” Sisson nodded knowingly. “It’s a roller-coaster,” she said.

But for every sudden crisis, said Tabitha Gray, assistant dean for residence life, there is a welcome one. She recalled a student who recently dropped by her office in search of relationship advice. While matters of the heart are not specifically in her jurisdiction, Gray was touched that the student had come to her on the advice of another student.

“When a student refers another student to you because of the way you worked with that student, that always makes me feel really good.”


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of the University of Virginia

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