Deputy Dean of Students Monique Burgdorf wears several hats. Currently, she serves at the Center for Student Success as a liaison primarily with low income and first generation students at the College. She also works as a consultant for the Student Aid and Resource Exchange program. Burgdorf’s work has become particularly important during COVID-19, when students experience increased stress, as well as high administrative turnover within the Division of Student Life. We sat down with Burgdorf to discuss how her role has changed over the past few months and the advice she has for students and faculty during this time.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What is your job as Assistant Dean of Students?
Well, I do a lot of things. I am a SHARE advisor. I am working on affordability with low income first generation children to try to figure out how to help them meet their basic needs. I am a college counselor. I also recommend the Sexual Information Center. I try to continue the good work that has been done for mental health initiatives on campus. I also teach an adult course, LEAD 185, Adulting in the New Normal; a habits class, LEAD 180, Building habits for success; and an Oberlin F1RST class, LEAD 110, which is a class for Brenda Grier-Miller Fellows, who are first-generation, low-income students. It is a course that helps build community and a sense of belonging for these students. I convene a group of faculty members who are part of the extended first generation community. I myself am the first generation [and] low income. I work with many students with disabilities to try to help them figure out how to set up documentation, how to connect with a therapist, how to connect to financial support, but also emotional support. I don’t know how you really define that in a title; I feel like I’m a bit of a jack of all trades. My father used to say: “Handyman, master of nothing”. So I guess that’s who I am.
How has COVID-19 and the three-semester plan affected the way you help students?
In some ways, I think it just made these glaring disparities between privileged students and students who are not privileged clear enough for people other than me. These disparities have always existed, but one thing is certain: I am still very focused on basic needs – food, water, shelter. Also things like, “Do you feel safe in your space? Do you go to the bathroom in a place that matches your identity? Do you feel secure in your own skin?
For the students, a laptop was something that was becoming very, very important, as was access to the Internet. Fortunately, before COVID-19, I had already partnered with the Center for Information Technology and the library to create a long-term laptop loan program for college students because – after listening to many student stories at the over the years – they will come to campus with a computer, but it’s a very cheap computer that often breaks down while they’re here. These students do not have $ 1,200 or $ 2,000 to replace him.
Would you say you’ve seen an increase in requests for help during the COVID-19 pandemic and after your return with the three-semester plan?
Definitely, we have seen an increase in requests. But when the students returned to campus in the fall of 2020 – you need to understand that for students who may be food insecure at home or [might] sleeping on a couch – for these students, a dormitory is very nice. And they know where their meals come from, even if they don’t necessarily like food.
I would say the effects of the three semester plan were more broadly on mental health. I think it was difficult for everyone, quite frankly, to do all of this, “Carry on, carry on, carry on!” ” thing.
There is an increased sense of burnout among teachers and students this semester. Do you have any recommendations for dealing with mental health issues related to schooling in the event of a pandemic?
I’m trying to model the balance with the students, but I understand that we have different perspectives. I also understand that I have different options. I go home and eat whatever I want. I sleep in a bed that I want to sleep in. I have my animals at home. I mean, there are lots and lots of privileges that we as faculty and staff don’t take into account that students just don’t have. Students cannot separate from each other. Let’s say you have a breakup with a friend or something and you have to see that person like you all the time, everywhere, and you have to deal with it on a regular basis. While staff and faculty can hopefully get away from that person in our department that we might not like.
I try to empathetically connect with what a student is actually going through, and that helps me reduce the rigor. I have to be reasonable about everyone’s ability at this time. My classes are very “applied”, as opposed to theoretical. It’s life skill stuff, so it would be weird if I didn’t take the human being into consideration, but I think we should all take each other’s humanity a little more into consideration right now.
It’s weird, because I think sometimes people can say, “Oh yeah, I’m exhausted and I know the students are exhausted”. But sometimes that doesn’t translate into an actionable task. And that’s where we struggle a bit, and that’s why I think it’s important to talk to other colleagues and for students to talk to other students about what works for them.
How difficult has it been in recent months with so many vacancies in the student life division?
On our end, at the Center for Student Success, we’re just made to rotate – we just rotate, rotate, rotate, rotate. The most important thing is that we spend time with the students, we help the students to solve the problems. So it changed, but it didn’t really change much for me; I mean, there was more work, but I’ve been here for 21 years. I’ve always done student-oriented work, so that work didn’t really change, and it wasn’t really more or less difficult for me personally. What became more difficult were the things these people were managing, like budgets and more administrative things. I’m not going to say it was a walk in the park, but I think after COVID-19 our center became very, very agile. We were just going to move with him and with whoever was left. We just take what we need to do and keep moving forward and supporting the students.
It was difficult in terms of, “Oh my God, is another person gone?” We come in, and every week there’s a new announcement – it was difficult. But in terms of actual work, we just keep going.
Is there something you hope to see newly appointed Vice President and Dean of Students Karen Goff do in the coming year?
She said she wanted to listen to people, and I think if she’s able to do it – if we give her the time to do it – I think it will be really great. I have the impression that students don’t feel like they are being heard, staff don’t always feel like they are being heard. I feel like Oberlin is doing a really good job of saying, “We have to keep going.” We continue. We are very resilient in this regard. We are still continuing. So I think I have someone who listens and has the grace to be able to do this work, I think that will be important.