Updated: Nov. 22, 2021 at 1:52 p.m.
When her lease was set to expire earlier during the COVID-19 pandemic, Dean of Students Cissy Petty realized it was time to find a new living arrangement. Now, with the University reopened, Petty has found her new neighbors on the first floor of District House.
Petty, who also serves as the vice president for student affairs, moved into District in October along with her 15-year-old dog, Jazz, and will continue her stay through the rest of the academic year, an initiative to better connect with the student body and the GW community.
“I don’t have to drive home and drive back,” Petty said in an interview. “I can just decide, ‘Alright, doing seven events in a day or something, I can get everywhere I want to get’ because sometimes me just showing up, which I think is kind of crazy, is important. It says you matter.”
Now that she can spend her days and nights on campus instead of commuting to and from work, Petty said she’s been able to attend events like basketball games and student organization events to break down the “administrative barrier” and better connect with the student body. She said connecting with more students has helped her gain a better understanding of students’ needs on campus.
“The informality of being on campus and bumping into people, you have those informal connections that turn into sometimes lifetime friendships,” she said.
Petty said as part of her increased campus involvement, she meets with the Multicultural Student Services Center for Friday lunches, attends Student Association meetings and chats with students who stop by outside her door. She said she hosted a trick-or-treating event on Halloween night, where she handed out candy to about 100 students, and attended an induction ceremony earlier this month for the National Residence Hall Honorary, a student organization of residential students seeking to lead with “recognition and service.”
Petty said she has sought to ease the University’s transition into the “neighborhood model” that officials implemented this fall. The move reorganizes residential buildings into five residence hall “hubs” staffed by Campus Living and Residential Education staff after GW eliminated the resident adviser program in February.
Officials rolled out a line of new student employment positions and assigned one residential staff member, also known as the community coordinator, to each residence hall to substitute the previous responsibilities of RAs.
Students have said they’ve lost a sense of community with the elimination of the RA position and the hiring of new community coordinators, but officials said the new system would support and foster residential life. Petty said she has hosted three neighborhood meetings at District, which serves as the North Village Neighborhood Hub, and has started meeting with community coordinators this fall to help them form relationships and open communication with students.
“We will be successful as much as the community coordinators engage with our students and feel a connection to GW and start to love it,” she said. “We will not be successful if they think that this is just a job and not a connection point. And so part of it is for me to imprint how important those moments are. They’re everywhere. The connection moments are everywhere.”
She said her stay in District has helped her focus on the responsibilities of an administrator that she enjoys the most – forging connections with students at events and informal meetings.
“You’re finding your joy of what means something to you, and you’ll find that it’s not a job,” she said. “You can quit a job, but you can’t quit a calling. Because that’s part of your vocation, that’s who you are, so that’s how I found my way into this work.”
She said she moved into District to provide proximity and support to help students feel safe and connected after a year and a half spent in isolation during the pandemic.
“The pandemic is important,” she said. “It’s one of those things in my lifetime – nothing as significant will happen, likely.”
Following her interview with The Hatchet, Petty said she planned to grab lunch with a security guard and a custodial staff member in District’s lobby outside Peet’s Coffee, an opportunity made possible by her new living arrangement. She said the lunch could also demonstrate the need for students to recognize staff members around campus.
“Those are connections that I think are important for students to see that people are people,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what position you have, it’s just about making a connection.”
Liam Searcy, the president of the Residence Hall Association, said Petty’s move to District will bring more attention to residents’ needs and create a more “conducive” space for living and learning. He said RHA is planning a series of events with Petty, including separate meetings between her and the general student body, the RHA’s District House council and community coordinators who can speak about their experience living and working on campus as staff members.
“I think it’s a great thing that she’s immersing herself within the residential student experience, so she’s getting that full lens of how our college works, how our University looks as a student body on campus and then also just the activities that everyone’s allowed to go to,” he said in an interview.
Grace Eickel, a junior and District House resident, said students are “lucky” to have an administrator like Petty with a commitment to the GW community living in their residence hall.
“It’s such a huge thing to literally move your whole life into a building and have a new home and to have new neighbors if to just fully immerse yourself here, and now that she did that. We’re really lucky,” she said.
Eickel said she appreciates the support system that Petty offers living in District, and her arrival has made her more “accessible” to students on campus. She said Petty’s move has also been reassuring for students to understand students in need can always use another available avenue of support.
“It’s very comforting and knowing that we really do have people here to help if we ever need it, and she’s really in this building,” she said. “It’s a very secure feeling.”
Elaine Ly, a freshman and commuter student, said Petty will have more opportunities to interact with student organizations and the student body at large and learn about their needs now that she lives in District.
Ly said although she commutes to and from campus, she was more inclined to meet with Petty since hearing the news that she moved into District because she felt Petty’s move was a gesture to reach out to all students. As a member of the Commuter Student Association, which connects commuter students at GW, Ly said her organization has coordinated with Petty via email in hopes of scheduling a meeting to discuss topics related to the association’s priorities.
“It’s just very important for her to get connected to the community because most administrators, you would get the impression that they’re kind of detached from student life,” she said. “And now, this is a step forward and getting to know the residents of District House, getting involved with the student community.”
Lauren Sforza and Jarrod Wardwell contributed reporting.
This post has been updated to correct the following:
The Hatchet incorrectly reported that Ly met with Petty to discuss topics related to the priorities of the Commuter Student Association. Ly has coordinated with Petty via email to schedule a meeting, which has not taken place yet. We regret this error.