STAFF Q&A/Being a College House dean is a full-time job, and then some, but Nathan Smith wouldn’t have it any other way.
“You're at work the minute you step outside your apartment door.”
As house dean of Ware College House, Nathan Smith is part enforcer, part social programmer, part mentor. And since he and his wife, Ivonne Vidal Pizarro, live in an apartment in the house, he’s rarely completely off-duty.
But Smith, who earned his doctorate from Penn’s Graduate School of Education—he still teaches there—and was a GA at Stouffer College House for three years, relishes the intensity and variety of his job. A “health nut” who makes time to work out daily at Pottruck, Smith says he rarely gets ruffled by the behavior of the students in his care since “it’s part of growing up.”
Q. Each College House has its own special character. What’s Ware known for?
A. Ware is a very largely freshman house—I believe this year about 85 percent—and its reputation among students is as a really social place. A lot of our work is geared around that, introducing freshmen to the University and the city.
Q. What’s a typical day for you?
A. My day begins with a few office hours in the morning when the students are asleep. In the afternoon I’ll typically have meetings with campus bodies we’re trying to bring into the house [as well as] groups trying to gain access to this largely freshman population. The campus is full of events every night of the week and reaching students where they live is seen as ideal. … Then there are emergency meetings for students in crisis. In my capacity as advisor and through contact with GAs and RAs we have a close connection to students in trouble. Those meetings occupy some portion of every day. After that, I’m a bit of a health nut so I have to squeeze in an hour and a half at the gym. Then we have events—jazz concerts, trips to the opera, art shows, trips to movies, brownie-baking events, you name it. Some are just your simple food study breaks. The kids tend to get very focused and neglect their general health a bit.
Q. What are some issues you see as students transition to dorm life?
A. We have a good size international population so there are some culture shock issues. Even if you’re from California or somewhere that’s not a large urban area there’s a lot to get over in terms of fear and stereotypes. We also have students who have never had to share a room before so that’s bound to pose certain problems most of which get worked out with compromise and arbitration. For some the absence of parental supervision takes a little adjusting to but most of them figure it out.
Q. Living in the house, how do you keep your boundaries?
A. It’s tough. It ends up you’re at work the minute you step outside your apartment door. I get students who ask me questions about move-out when I’m at the gym. As far as my apartment goes, people knock on my door sometimes in the middle of the night to ask if they can post a flyer. I have to remind them this is my home space. The interruptions aren’t that common. Every week at 8 p.m. on Tuesday night my wife and I ... have 20 or 25 students over and watch “The Gilmore Girls.”
Q. Are you kept awake at night by loud music?
A. Sometimes. Our bedroom window is right over the Junior Balcony. I just come out and say, “You’re right under my bedroom window and I’m too old and I go to bed before two in the morning.” There’s a constant sort of noise level of people coming in and out, and students’ social lives extend into the wee hours of the morning. They’re not tiptoeing. We bought a white noise machine and that covers most of it. The faculty master apartments are located so most of them face outside of the Quad or they’re high enough up Memorial Tower so they’re not quite as susceptible. The mornings are very peaceful, though, and I used to live near the trolley line over at 43rd and Baltimore so at least the floor doesn’t shake here.
Q. Before this, you taught high school. Was that useful?
A. It was an enormous help. Before that I imagined college as this very discrete period in a person’s existence. But incoming freshmen got out of high school just three months before [coming here] and there’s not that much change that can happen in those three months. So the changes begin on day one here and that’s really when we have to dive in and get to know our students and help them right away.
Q. What season do you enjoy most?
A. I really like new student orientation. The house goes from an empty almost creepy silence to being full of life and activity. It’s warm and sunny and I feel good when I look out there and see kids having a great time playing Frisbee or whatever. That’s so much of what’s great about college life and to be able to create an environment, set a tone to enjoy college life in a million different ways, and watching the halls form as communities and watching the students figure out who they are and what they want to do, it’s immensely rewarding. Ironically it’s as exhausting as or more so than Spring Fling since it’s a week of morning, noon and night events. But it’s focusing on the stuff I like the most—leading discussions with them, going on trips with them. There’s a lot of that all year but participation ebbs after the first months when students realize they do need to study.
Originally published on April 27, 2006