After months of planning, Chestnut Hill College hosted its first annual Student Life Symposium at SugarLoaf in October. The conference theme, Collaborative Conversations, was designed to invite colleagues and student life professionals from the Philadelphia region to share concepts, ideas and strategies on how to make the most of their work with students.
“We’ve all been to conferences and for most of us, the most valuable time we got out of them were when there was the chance to just sit down with colleagues and discuss the challenges and opportunities for growth in higher education,” says Chelsea Farren, assistant to the vice president for student life.
The desire to see these conversations continue in a broader context encouraged the Student Life staff to create the symposium with a strong focus on collaboration, something that Lynn Ortale, Ph.D., vice president for student life, sees practiced at the College and with her staff every day.
“Collaborative conversations. It’s not just a theme, it’s who we are,” says Ortale. “It made sense to do a conference around collaboration and to invite other student life professionals to witness our model and hopefully learn from it as we learn from our colleagues at other colleges and universities.”
More than 80 participants attended, ranging from undergraduates, who wrote essays expressing their interest in working in student life, to senior vice presidents who have been in the field for years. More than 20 institutions were represented including Drexel, the University of Pennsylvania, Rutgers, Neumann, Holy Family and a large cohort from West Chester’s graduate program.
For some, this was their first time at the College. It was important then to Ortale and her staff to make sure they received a warm welcome and clear picture of what the Chestnut Hill collaborative leadership model is all about.
“We do a lot at CHC that’s innovative, that’s collaborative, that’s intentional,” says Krista Bailey Murphy, Ph.D., dean of student life. “Being able to show what we do and show our hospitality is something we can be proud of. A lot of people left really impressed.”
“Not a lot of colleges collaborate the way we do,” adds Nancy Dachille, director of career development. “It was nice to share our picture and get to see how other schools work as well. It was definitely a worthwhile experience for all.”
In addition to presentations made by CHC faculty and staff, including Scott Browning, Ph.D., ABPP, professor of psychology, and Janice Kuklick, chair of the physical education department and Lisa Johnson Psy.D. ’92, therapist in the counseling center, the conference welcomed a renowned leader in the field of higher education, Jan Walbert, Ed.D., as the keynote speaker. Additionally, CHC alum Fran Boshell ’09, representing Cedar Crest College, and colleagues from Holy Family University gave presentations, further supporting the event’s collaborative nature.
“The day was about building relationships grounded in the SSJ commitment to ministry of presence, being together in a thoughtful way, as an underlying theme of the day,” Ortale says. “It was about inviting people to our home for a conversation and I think that is exactly what happened.”
“We all brought people who we knew in student life from various other jobs,” adds Farren. “Being able to introduce everyone to each other created this great environment and really opened up the door to more conversations, more collaboration.”
Plans are being made for another conference with the same theme for next year. There has also been talk of creating a Collaborative Leadership Award to be given to a specific program, initiative or group of individuals among the conference attendees that best embodies the theme.
“I think the plan next year is just more,” says Kerry Rusak, associate director of residence life. “Adding more sessions, expanding what we can cover, adding more roundtable discussions and of course, making sure collaborative conversations remain a part of everything we do throughout the day.”
— Marilee Gallagher ’14