Emory Report
November 16, 2009
Volume 62, Number 11


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November 16, 2009
Why do cookies and milk matter?

Bridget Guernsey Riordan is dean of students.

What do the smell of freshly baked cookies, the warm feel of a puppy dog’s fur, and a dunking tank have in common? Besides being topics in my e-mail inbox, hopefully they provide comfort, a feel of “home,” or just an opportunity for laughter that will allow students to relax and enjoy something outside of the usual college experience. And, in my role as dean of students, each of these has served as a unique way for me to reach out to students.

After an external consultant team recommended that our university needed a “dean of students,” Sr. Vice President and Dean for Campus Life John Ford asked me to assume that role in fall 2006. Because the dean of students is universally understood as the person who helps students and families navigate the complexities of the university, this was a wonderful opportunity.

John and I talked about how I could connect with students and hear what was on their minds. Of course, this is often done by attending meetings or programs, going to residence halls and sitting down with students for a Coke or coffee. However, by appealing to students in unique or non-traditional ways, I sought to gather information from a wide variety of voices so that I could listen, learn, and be an advocate for the needs of all students.

Shortly after being named dean, I volunteered to move in to a residence hall for a three-day stay to understand the current residential hall experience. However, my visit had a little twist. I decided to bring my family so students could engage with a family similar to the experience some of our Faculty-in-Residence families provide at the Clairmont Campus.

With a husband, grade-school daughter and dog, we couldn’t invade the traditional residence hall rooms, but instead stayed in a vacant apartment in Harris Hall. I’ll admit that a lovely two-bedroom apartment is not comparable to bunking with a student or sharing a bathroom with 20 other people. However, we bonded with the students over the trials of navigating the double front doors with boxes and living next to noises associated with the Emory Hospital Emergency Department. (Student advice: Moving in is easier if you have friends to help, and a well-placed pillow muffles the ambulance sirens).

The residential living experience was enlightening and educational. With our dachshund puppy named Jelly Bean, we sponsored “Pet Therapy” and had other Campus Life staff members bring their dogs to join in the fun.

Students got to hold and pet the dogs who showed their appreciation through licks and tail wags. It was a crowded and somewhat chaotic event, but the opportunity to connect with students and hear about their Emory experiences was priceless.

Students commented that they missed their pets at home and it was nice to have the unconditional love a dog provides. They also talked about their lives and how Emory was now their home. It gave me an opportunity to listen and get insights into the lives of Emory students.

Since our first successful hall experience, we have moved on-campus three other times. Each time I learned a new perspective about living on-campus. In addition to staying in university housing and continuing Pet Therapy sessions, I also embarked on one of my favorite hobbies, baking cookies. My thought is, “Who doesn’t love cookies and milk?” So with the opening of the Few Hall Demonstration Kitchen, I saw my opportunity to take advantage of a great kitchen and share the fun with students.

In September I invited a cross-section of students I had met through Orientation, Outdoor Emory, and various student interactions to the kitchen. Since my family and I were staying in the Sorority Village apartment for a week (we left the dog in the apartment), it really felt like home. With my husband (the former college rugby player) talking to a member of the rugby team and my daughter (the talented jewelry designer) comparing jewelry with some students, we had multiple and varied conversations going at once.

I caught up with a freshman I had met at the Roman Catholic Mass during orientation. She filled me in on the many activities she was exploring on campus. I met her roommate who had already spent time in Turman Hall (recovering from the flu). Reaching for a cookie she then reconnected with another Turman Hall resident. I got to hear about the 18th birthday party they held in the “swine flu hall” for a fellow incubated resident.

Some fraternity and sorority members involved with the Emory Wheel and Outdoor Emory connected outside of their usual hangout places. In addition, a few Residence Life staff joined us to meet and interact. The noise level was high and the energy was contagious. Overall, I felt like we had our own Emory rush party in action.

Along with my colleagues in Campus Life, I work with students who are developing and growing in the “Emory bubble,” as many of them like to call it. Their co-curricular experiences are vital as they chart their paths in the Emory community. We challenge and support them as they adapt to new roommates and friends, find new interests and hobbies, and develop new skills. We help them mourn losses and celebrate successes. We laugh with them, cry with them, and encourage their hearts and spirits.

Pet therapy sessions and baking cookies may seem pretty light-hearted, but they show that someone is listening. Whether students need support or encouragement, or just someone to understand their needs, they know they have that person in the dean of students.

Oh, and about that dunk tank…if getting in that means more fun for students, please pass me the snorkel and flippers!