This July, the Office of Student Engagement underwent changes to its staffing. Kristen Tapscott, after overseeing the office for nearly eight years, was promoted to Assistant Vice President for Campus Life. The Colleges subsequently hired Matthew Roche to replace her as Associate Dean of Student Engagement.
Graduating from Vermont Law School in 2016, Roche’s life goal was to be a politician yet he quickly discovered that was not the right career path. “I enjoy the policy side of things… but not necessarily the legal backing behind it, and so I had to pivot,” he explained. During an ‘externship’ his first semester of law school, Roche had the opportunity to work at Thomas Moore University and quickly fell in love with working in higher education.
“I had always loved being a student,” said Roche, “to me, a college campus is almost like a small city. It has everything included in one small area – all the services you need like the dining options, housing, and everything!”
With his background in policy and love for the college experience, Roche has worked at several institutions, in a variety of offices and positions. He has worked as a Title IX Coordinator, rebuilt residential programming, and help to create an Office of Diversity Equity Inclusion.
To Roche, “it was a good foray for me to kind of learn how to help and restructure departments, which has kind of become what my career has been.” and these positions helped him learn the ins-and-outs of how a college functions and observe how the different departments interplay.
Roche brings this same energy with him to HWS as he wants to help build ‘the small city’ that is campus. So, from his first day at the Colleges, his goal was to figure out what the students want and streamline the policies and processes to make those wants happen.
Currently, Roche’s job consists of overseeing Student Government and Greek life; advising thirteen clubs; sitting on several committees such as the Incident Report Committee and Employee Engagement Committee; and managing residential education and student activities. But he explains that his role is more than just those duties.
Roche said that “Student Engagement helps create the vibrance of a campus… if a student isn’t engaged or having fun or liking where they live on campus, that’s how schools lose students,” and he is making a lot of changes to “bring the fun back to Student Engagement” while also “trying to be a resource for everybody.”
The first substantial change that Roche made was to the internal structure of the Office of Student Engagement. The office has been reorganized from a division between housing and student activities, to a division between internal operations and programming. Roche also hopes to refocus how resources and funding are allocated, and said that he is trying to use funds for programming that is accessible to a larger number of students rather than a niche population. He has helped with the expansion of programming, such increasing the number of attendees that could take part in the Road Trip Series as well as working on programming for students over the age of 21 that have alcoholic drinks available.
Roche said that, “We’ve had some misses on programs, but that’s always going to happen. And my job is to learn from those misses, and figure out what we can pivot to next and try to find that balance of not just having quantity but now having to match the quality [of events].”
When asked how his first few months on the job compared to his expectations, he stated, “the kind of message I heard [when first starting] is that Student Engagement is almost like dead on campus, has low attendance numbers at events, and it’s really hard to get student leaders on campus.”
Roche observed that while there was some apathy from certain groups on campus, he felt that there were structures in place that hindered students from taking on leadership roles, and hopes “this is an area that I really want to make a lot of in-roads.”
So far, he has worked with and advised the Budget Allocation Committee (BAC), helping them to take more student-led ownership over organizations and helping to simplify the funding process for both BAC and student club leaders. Specifically, BAC loosened its proposal documentation guidelines so that club leaders do not need to budget for specific items.
“I think what we did with the basic guidelines was loosened a lot of the past barriers,” Roche said, “such as having to have a picture of every item that you’re going to be buying throughout the entire semester, because realistically, that’s not something we’re going to do on a budget proposal. And so, I think that created a big hindrance of like, I have to plan everything out, like to a detail… [those barriers] won’t be happening anymore, now it’s more, what was the intent of what we were buying? Does the intent match? That’s what I prefer.”
Currently, clubs do not receive their funding allocations until the fifth week of the semester and cannot host any of their own events in the meantime. This is due in part to the fact that the student activities fee is not collected until the 14th day of the semester (the end of the add/drop period for students) yet is further delayed by barriers currently in place with BAC. Roche believes that this process can and should be further refined.
“We don’t want a lag of five weeks without programing from clubs. We want the clubs to do the bulk of the programing because they have student members, they have that pulse of the students,” Roche continued.
He suggested that club budget requests be submitted at the end of the previous semester. Some clubs may find this to be burdensome, but Roche explained that with the loosened requirements, the new guidelines for proposal documentation allows student leaders more flexibility with planning for their clubs. He also advocated that clubs should present their own proposals in front of BAC, so that there can be increased dialogue and ensure that clubs are able to defend their budget requests.
Student Engagement has also implemented new requirements for clubs and student leaders that Roche stated, “make sure that clubs are active and being a visible part of campus… with a set of standards for accountability” – even extending these new requirements to Greek organizations, and Roche reported that, much to his surprise, there has been little resistance from the fraternities to oblige by these new criteria.
Roche also commented that he is working closely with national fraternity organizations and working to re-imagine the visibility of these organizations on campus. He thinks that helping these organizations have more positive visibility on campus will help encourage Greek Life to grow more organically.
In addition to restructuring personnel duties, increasing programming, and working closely with students on changing policies, Roche also spoke about his long-term strategic ideas for the Office of Student Engagement. He wants to improve the value of the office on campus and for students. Roche explained that, “we use Engage for a lot of stuff here and it’s a great software that allows us to track what students are involved with.” This is important so that he and his staff can further fine-tune programming, and also provides a unique added value to students. Roche wants to develop a “co-curricular transcript” that students can use to better market their experiences. “And so you can create certificates off of [Engage], where if we categorize certain events as leadership activities or if we categorize events as service based then we can have the certificates that students can, almost like a LinkedIn badge, … so they got this credential.”
Roche also stressed the importance of community on campus and the role that the Office of Student Engagement plays in creating community. He said that when “I first met with President Gearan, the two charges that he wanted me to work on were our neighborhood identity and our class identity.”
The last big change that Roche has implemented thus far is requirements for Community Assistants and Theme House managers. These changes were meant to increase neighborhood identity and connect with other students. CA’s and house managers are required to coordinate a set number of events for their residents, and are given incentives for events that collaborate with other clubs or departments on campus, organize service-based events, and other specific types of programming.
“I know, for instance, the community development model we’ve launched on the housing side was designed to give a lot more flexibility to the CA’s in their programing, but also create some intentionality. So, they’re building those relationships with the residents and creating that sense of community instead of just having spontaneous type programs.” But Roche has received feedback that these requirements are making the jobs of CA’s harder and are not achieving these goals. This is the first semester that both CA’s and house managers have more accountability and greater expectations to create their own events.
“It has not gone over as expected. So, it was really a model that kind of was developed to create that sense of community on the floor, both through physical needs such as door decorations and bulletin boards needed to learn about resources and services, but also to give each floor some independence and creating a programing model that fits what their students need… But we also know sometimes that’s what students want to do. What it took away is a lot of the freedom for events that were just spontaneous, like, I want to get together, have a snowball fight, and that’s programing, but it’s not necessarily intentional programing that builds community. It’s good to have that, but we are hoping to create a little more intentionality.” Now Roche is working to adapt these programming requirements so that CA’s have the opportunity for more organic interactions and respond to the feedback.
Roche also emphasized the relationship-rich environment on campus. He appreciates that students “want to push back against certain things and they have a voice and they’re involved, but it’s still a very supportive community.”
“The amount of outreach that staff are doing to students is something I’m not used to, and I think it’s a very positive experience and should be something that is celebrated.” He explained that there is now staff coverage at all evening events, “so one new thing that we’ve launched is that our staff and student engagement, there’s coverage for all the nighttime events. So, our office has a presence in order to (A) make sure everything operates well, and (B) to make sure that it’s a program that we should be running, like we’re there to kind of assess what’s happening… But I like us being on the front lines, so like I’m in that rotation, I’m in the on-call rotation, and I like those types of opportunities where we’re having that face to face.”
And even though Roche is frequently stuck in meetings, he said that interacting with students is the most important part of his job. He does not want to be viewed as inaccessible or that students must go through a hierarchy to talk to him. “The biggest surprise to me is that, I don’t know if it’s a hierarchical model or because I came in and brought a lot of change quickly, but students haven’t been coming to my office yet, and that’s the one thing that I hope does change at some point.”
Roche hopes that the changes he is making to the Office of Student Engagement encourages students to get more involved. He invites everyone to stop by and meet his office dog, Wanda. He is also still getting used to campus himself and trying to navigate the culture at HWS. He is cognizant of the challenges that being a new staff presents, acknowledging that:
“And change is hard. And that’s one thing that I would like to kind of reiterate over and over. Change is hard. Even if we’re doing exciting things, there’s always going to be pushback. There’s always going to be some that liked how things were done or that didn’t want anything to change, whether it is tradition or something else. So I think it’s being mindful of making change that makes sense while listening to students and what they’re hoping for, but also while honoring tradition.”