When Cissy Petty was a student affairs official at St. Lawrence University more than a decade ago, she was challenged by one of her former students to move into a residence hall for a week to become better acquainted with students.
Petty said when she accepted the bet at St. Lawrence, she watched “Mean Girls” with students in the middle of the night and ate enough snacks to gain 10 pounds. Those moments made her realize that being in the “hubbub” of campus life was one way she could better connect with students, she said.
She carried that task over to GW when she stepped in as the inaugural dean of the student experience earlier this year. She is the first administrator in recent memory to plan weeklong stays in residence hall rooms and most recently lived in Shenkman Hall last week.
“If you don’t go in the spaces where students are – if I only stay in this office – and I don’t leave this office, then I don’t know much about what you do,” Petty said.
She said the visits, which also included one trip in September to West Hall, help students get to know her and identify what areas of residence hall life can be improved. Her next stop will be Amsterdam Hall, which Petty will move into for a week this spring.
Petty said she plans to stretch her trips past her first year at GW and host brief stays in a new residence hall every year.
In Shenkman, Petty attended nightly events, including handing out “finals treats” with resident advisers Monday in the elevator lobby and cooking pancakes in the building’s lounge Tuesday. She spent Wednesday celebrating Hanukkah with members of GW Hillel, where students gathered in the common room and played dreidel, ate Krispy Kreme doughnuts and lit a menorah for the fourth night of Hanukkah.
Petty wrapped up the week Thursday by opening her door on the 10th floor of Shenkman for students to drop by, meet her two dogs and eat milk and cookies.
Throughout the week, Petty said she spent time looking at pain points in the residence hall, like “sticky” elevators and a lack of common space for students to convene on their respective floors. She discussed her notes throughout the week with students and brought them to University President Thomas LeBlanc Friday, who she said expressed the same concerns.
Petty said she wants the University to purchase couches to place on each floor between hallways and across from the elevator for RAs to host pop-up speaker events or other gatherings. The couches would cost about $40,000 for the entire building, which Petty said is a “great investment.”
“The rooms are nice, the space itself is nice, but I immediately go to ‘how could it be better?’ because that’s just how it works,” she said.
She said she also wants to encourage more faculty and staff to book stays in residence halls, where they can host events about topics like poetry or art.
“Can you imagine if there were pop-ups and your favorite faculty member was there? It’s about community,” she said.
Ife Akinmade, a resident adviser on the sixth floor of Shenkman, said Petty’s visit helped students understand that administrators are open to hearing student concerns because “there’s this notion that GW officials don’t care because they’re higher up, they have other things to worry about.” Akinmade said he attended three events throughout the week.
He said more officials, including LeBlanc, could also plan visits to residence halls so students know that officials are actively trying to gauge student sentiment.
“She’s trying to make sure she interacts with the students and make sure she knows what we want as a student body – not just what she thinks might be best for us,” he said.
Tyler Kusma, a resident adviser on the first floor of West Hall, said Petty lived on the Mount Vernon Campus for a week in late September and attended events hosted on the Vern, like a “bagel Tuesday” and trivia night. He said her visit was important to understand the “advantages and disadvantages” of living on the Vern, like how students on the Vern commute to the Foggy Bottom Campus and eat at a dining hall instead of different restaurants.
“Administrators can talk the talk about living on Mount Vernon, but to all the credit, she came and lived that experience,” he said. “That’s the best way – go live it yourself.”
Sarah Roach and Nia Lartey contributed reporting.