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Barbara Lomonaco and her goat Jonas

“We want students to cultivate all the parts of their personhood, which means attending to their physical, psychological, spiritual, and intellectual selves to find balance in their lives. That’s what a liberal arts education does, to create the whole person.”

Barbara LoMonaco

BY WILLIAM A. BOWDEN

From bringing her goat Jonas to a campus event to having a room in a student residence hall, anthropology professor Barbara LoMonaco has served notice that her uninhibited outlook on her life and career will help inform the search for fresh ideas in her new role as vice president for student affairs and dean of students.

One of her goals was to learn about student life from the inside out, on the theory that the more she knew about the daily lives of students, the better prepared she would be to enhance their out-of-classroom experiences at Transylvania.

She knew these insights would help her implement a number of changes, which are now taking place through an expanded staff that gives more support to virtually every area under her supervision, from residence life to wellness, counseling, community involvement and leadership initiatives, athletics, religious life, and sustainability programs.

Early on, LoMonaco had a somewhat radical notion: she would actually live among the students (at least some of the time) by taking a room in a residence hall that would put her in daily touch with the rhythms and patterns of their lives. When a room became available in Poole Residence Hall, a suite-style building for men and women, she moved right in.

Four months into her first academic year as dean, LoMonaco is finding her experiment in living partly as a student to be a rewarding one. She spends the night only about once a week, usually when she has to be on campus for a late-night event, but she’s in and out of the room for other purposes during the day.

“In anthropology, we talk about being a participant observer,” she said. “Having a room in Poole has been an excellent way to experience the pace of residence life and the culture of our students from an insider’s view.”

Two other innovations—moving her office from Old Morrison on the academic side of campus to the William T. Young Campus Center and going on late-night rounds with student resident assistants (RAs) in the halls—also demonstrate LoMonaco’s desire to be in closer touch with students. Her office location puts her more in the flow of student life, and her visits to the residence halls have opened her eyes to the responsibilities that RAs shoulder.

At first, students were stunned to see the dean coming down the hallway with an RA at midnight—and she does less of that now that she’s well into the job—but that was an important early step in her immersion approach to the job.

“I now have a much greater appreciation for the job our RAs do,” she said. “They are not there just to enforce the rules, but to safeguard students’ well-being and health. They may have a student on their hallway with a high fever in the middle of the night, and they help determine the best course of action.” 

Barbara LoMonaco with parents of Kayla Kidwell Snider

Barbara LoMonaco, vice president for student affairs and dean of students, visits with Kayla Kidwell-Snider ’12 and her parents, Rita and Gordon Kidwell, at commencement 2012.

Students take note

Students have noticed the changes under LoMonaco, especially the RAs who are charged with carrying out many of the policies and goals of residence life.

“I feel that things are more student-oriented now,” said RA Cody Barnett, a junior political science and history double major from Hazard, Ky. “When I’ve been to field hockey games or random events in back circle, Dean LoMonaco’s been there. I enjoy her hands-on approach to things. I feel supported by what she’s doing, as an RA and a student.”

Two residence life policy changes in particular are having a direct effect on students—a liberalizing of the alcohol rules to allow of-age students to have alcohol in most areas of the residence halls (except for public spaces) instead of being confined to their rooms, and a 24/7 visitation policy replacing the former one that ended at 2 a.m. and started again at 10 a.m. (The visitation policy change was approved before LoMonaco became dean, but is being implemented for the first time under her leadership.)

Jordan Rebsch, a senior accounting major from Lexington, feels the changes have both sociological and practical benefits.

“The alcohol policy gives students who are 21 a lot more freedom and treats us as the real world does,” she said. “The 24-hour visitation policy is more adult as well. As an RA, I also appreciate how it helps us with our responsibilities. Formerly, if someone needed assistance in the 2–10 a.m. time frame, they would be reluctant to call for their RA because they were in the room of a member of the opposite sex in violation of the curfew. Now, we can get them the attention they need in a timely fashion.”

Rebsch also supports what LoMonaco has been doing to see student life from the inside out, especially her decision to join RAs in their late-night rounds in the halls.

“I admire Dean LoMonaco because she’s so passionate and strong about everything she does,” she said. “I appreciate her trying to understand what I do on a daily basis.”

More on- and off-campus recreational opportunities are also a hallmark of the new look to student life. These have included a very successful roller-skating party in the campus center gym in which LoMonaco took part and an outing to Natural Bridge State Park. There are also late-night food trucks that appear in back circle on weekends, giving students an on-campus alternative to going out into the city for midnight snacks.

Food truck in back circle

A weekend late-night truck attracts students in back circle.

An integrated program

LoMonaco wants to integrate student affairs programs with virtually every other area of campus life, including academics.

“We want students to cultivate all the parts of their personhood, which means attending to their physical, psychological, spiritual, and intellectual selves to find balance in their lives,” she said. “That’s what a liberal arts education does, to create the whole person.”

LoMonaco came into her new job with an impressive résumé of student affairs experience already under her belt as a faculty member. This included her membership on the Alcohol Task Force, Judicial Council (chair), Selection Committee for Student Orientation Leaders, Transylvania Scholarship Committee (chair), Sexual Grievances Judicial Board, and Delta Delta Delta First-Year Woman Award Selection Committee.

She joined Transylvania in 1996 after earning a B.A. in philosophy and M.A. and Ph.D. degrees, both in cultural anthropology, from Southern Methodist University. During her tenure at Transylvania, an anthropology major has been added to the curriculum. As dean, she continues her tenured faculty position and will teach occasional courses.

Giving students opportunities to become leaders can be an important part of students’ overall maturation process, one that Robert Brown, associate dean for student affairs, feels the staff is now much better prepared to handle. A new Center for Student Involvement and Leadership has been created in the campus center in a former recreation room, whose equipment has been moved to other locations.

“With an expanded staff, we can now make our leadership development programs more holistic,” he said. “We can step back and look at the whole picture of how we would like to see a student progress in their leadership abilities during their Transylvania years instead of going more year-by-year. And we can teach those ideas so that they translate into life after graduation.” 

When student affairs programs are running effectively, they have a positive effect on retention, which falls under the supervision of Michael Covert ’91, associate vice president for retention and associate dean of students. Transylvania’s retention rate for first-year students from the 2010–11 to 2011–12 academic years was 88.4 percent, the highest in the past five years and well above the national average of 79 percent at colleges similar to Transylvania.

While noting that retention is something that virtually everyone at Transylvania plays a role in, Covert pointed to the expanded staff as being crucial to the effort.

“With more staffing in residence life and health services, we’re getting more eyes and ears on the ground to notice students who are struggling, and then to offer them the professional staff assistance they need to succeed,” Covert said. “With most students, it’s usually a combination of factors—maybe academics, social life, or athletics—that causes them to consider leaving. If you can figure out one of those things you can help them with, that’s often enough to help them stay.”

Covert said that August term, the innovative new three-week term for all incoming first-year students, has great potential to increase the retention rate. During that term, students take the seminar course First Engagements: Enculturation into a Scholarly Community and engage in a variety of orientation events, all without the pressure of the entire student body being present and having to take a full course load.

“The feedback from August term so far from students and others is that the first-year students went into the beginning of fall term much more confident, more comfortable, with a much better sense of who they were and where they were going,” Covert said.

In the end, student affairs programs work to make the out-of-classroom experience the best it can possibly be, recognizing that time spent away from the classroom can be every bit as important as academics in shaping a successful person.

That idea became manifest for Barnett last year in his role as an RA when he had the opportunity to help a classmate get back on the right track.

“I had a student come up to me and say how stressed out he was, that he felt like he wasn’t getting anything done, and that he really needed to talk to someone,” Barnett said. “We talked for quite a while, and then he asked me about counseling services. I referred him to a counselor, where he went for several sessions. Now he’s become a leader on campus and is managing his life very well. I was glad I was able to help make a difference in his life.”

That’s the kind of outcome that makes everyone in student affairs feel good about their work, and that LoMonaco is passionate about cultivating.

“Through good programming and conscientious work by our staff and all the students involved in this area, we can provide an increasing number of opportunities for students to engage in a process of self-discovery that lets them actually live out the values inherent in a liberal arts education,” she said. “That’s the ultimate goal of all that we do in student affairs.”

Click here for information about Barbara LoMonaco's collaboration with photographer Angela Baldridge '04, and their recent show at the Morlan Gallery, Ink in the Cage: The Stories Behind MMA Fighter Tattoos, and about LoMonaco's research with Dickinson College psychology professor Marie Helweg-Larson on social norms among U2 fans waiting in line at concert venues.


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