Dean of Students April Thompson provides smoothies to students outside the University Union last month.
Photo by Jonathan Cohen
Questions and answers with April ThompsonTweet
Question: You’ve risen through the ranks in student affairs positions at a number of institutions prior to joining us at Binghamton University, so have experienced different institutional cultures. Is Binghamton on the right path?
Answer: I’m still learning every single day, but I frequently write to my friends to brag about some aspect of the Binghamton community. Binghamton has some of the strongest student support systems that I’ve ever seen. For example, the Office of International Student and Scholar Services offers unsurpassed personal service to students, and their support for students in crisis is leaps and bounds above places I have experienced before. Our conduct office is the most student-focused and involved office I’ve ever seen. Students have key roles at so many levels of the work of that office. I’m incredibly impressed and believe that we’re well on the way to developing a top program for students.
That being said, I also see places with tremendous potential for growth. I think students feel somewhat disconnected from administration. Our students need a higher level of involvement. They want to know us as people outside of our offices. I went to a fraternity house off campus for dinner recently and we had great, informal conversation and they want more of that. I am trying to shift to a real student-centered model in all parts of the Dean of Students Office. We should be striving for success in and outside of the classroom, and in the community.
Q: Tell us about how we might continue to improve partnerships between Student Affairs and Academic Affairs.
A: Our student social and residential spaces are really the learning laboratories where students take what they learn in the classroom and put it into action, so we want to partner with faculty so we’re teaching the same lessons and building our community together.
I’ve already had the opportunity to speak to new faculty about classroom management, FERPA and supporting students who have diverse needs, and I met recently with writing instructors about how to connect with the student experience. I’ve been invited to graduate teaching courses to guest lecture on who our students are and how to connect with them. These are just some ways I see us working together. I’m also involved with an academic integrity project with Harpur that demonstrates one way we can connect classroom projects with real-world examples. We received several different poster entries from students and now will partner with faculty and Residential Life to put posters up and engage faculty to actively talk with students about the value of integrity and ethics. This should be a year-round endeavor and we’re looking at partnering with others on the whole issue of integrity — perhaps a lecture series and looking at it from a perspective of combating hazing and alcohol issues or addressing bystander intervention. I hope our faculty would be interested in being speakers.
Q: You recently went on night-time rides with Binghamton Police and with Harpur’s Ferry Student Volunteer Ambulance Service. What did you learn?
A: I learned that the Binghamton Police have a lot more important things to do than patrol our underage drinkers. Like in any city, they have serious crime to deal with. I witnessed a homicide investigation, gang issues and burglaries. Some of these crimes take place just a few blocks away from the downtown area. It gave me a real appreciation for the hard work the local police do to keep our students safe. The city literally shuts down the street to keep students in areas that are well lit and monitored. While students may see this as a version of Mardi Gras every weekend, the reality is that it continues to be a way to manage their safety. I certainly wish students would be more thoughtful about their safety and I will be working to create more educational opportunities on this subject.
On my trip with Harper’s Ferry, I learned that our students are really good about calling for help when they feel it is safe to do so. Binghamton students have high levels of trust in Harpur’s Ferry, and they call for help when they need it. Students here make calls much earlier than what I have seen at other places and I would like to capitalize on that, so that we support students who call before their friends reach dangerous levels of intoxication and we continue to have more early intervention.
Q: One of your first charges has been to work with the Greek organizations to eliminate any hazing, improve the intake process and maintain a safe environment for our students choosing to pledge a Greek organization. Can you give us an update?
Q: What is the best part of your new position?
A: Students. Once students got back for the fall semester, my job became really fun. I go and eat in the dining halls and I’ve gone to student events and spent time with students. Harpur’s Ferry was one of the best experiences I’ve had in my career. Those students are smart, professional and dedicated. They volunteer their time every weekend to keep students safe. If I ever get injured, please call Harpur’s Ferry, no matter where I am. It’s a joy to spend time with students.
Q: And the most difficult?
A: The most difficult and hardest thing is watching when students hurt each other. It’s always challenging to see, particularly when I have so much hope and that’s not what Binghamton is about. These students care so much about each other, that hurting each other doesn’t make sense to me.
Q: Is Binghamton much different than Dartmouth, where you worked most recently?
A: I think Binghamton University is different because Binghamton students are as smart, driven and outstanding as leaders as are students at Dartmouth. But here, in a state school environment, they’re also engaged in public policy and community engagement, so it’s the best of both worlds — the liberal arts in a setting that’s part of a state system.
Q: What goals have you set for yourself and the Dean of Students Office?
A: My focus has been and will be as we develop a vision to remove barriers from students and create opportunities for student success in every way we can. I’m trying to influence the mindset here to be focused on the solution. We should work together and brainstorm solutions and ways to get things done. I’m a very solution-oriented person.
The University Union is a good example of that. We have changed some office space to become a new student hub with free coffee and food for students every day to include this side of the Union as a student space and to let students own it. Faculty and staff can stop by as well. So right now, we’ve seen a need and we’ve taken a temporary measure to create a space for students.
Also, Late Nite has not been a top destination, but we had 1,600 students attend Late Nite the first weekend of the semester and 1,400 the next, with lines out the door. We’ve got great acts, comedians and bands that students are looking for at the times they’re looking for them.
I’m also trying to eliminate barriers from students’ ability to accomplish goals and succeed. I see a lot of paperwork and red tape. Some of it is very necessary, but some needs evaluation. And my office needs to partner better with others in trying to cut down on paperwork, with the SA for example; instead of students having to complete two forms for something, we can trust each other to get it done so the experience is really seamless for students.
Q: So, your days are very busy, and probably far from typical. What are some of the ways you are connecting with students?
A: I went to a great kickball event sponsored by Greeks last month called Kickball for a Kause that raised money for the Boys and Girls Club, I held a “meet the dean” event outside of University Union West where I gave out free smoothies to students, and we’ve been bringing cases of water and cookies to some houses off campus on Friday nights, along with my card so they can call me. I’m trying to build trust and to let them know we’re here.