Staff Q&A with Rodney Robinson

Rodney Robinson

Candace diCarlo

While a student at Penn in the mid-1980s, Rodney Robinson missed his Hey Day. But now, as associate director in the Office of Student Affairs, he experiences Hey Day every single year.

While a student at Penn in the mid-1980s, Rodney Robinson missed his Hey Day—the nearly century-old tradition that celebrates the junior class moving up to become seniors—because of an Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity engagement.

But now, as associate director in the Office of Student Affairs, he experiences Hey Day every single year.

A Biological Basis of Behavior Program grad, Robinson says he considered medical school before settling on a different career path.

“I started working as a non-work-study student in the Housing office in 1985, so I had a job there for several years,” he says. “That sort of guided me along my path towards staying at Penn.” He has been a full-time Penn employee since 1990.

Robinson says he was drawn to Student Affairs, where he has worked since the summer of 1998, because it offered an opportunity to get involved with student programming.

The Current sat down with Robinson in Houston Hall to chat about the Office of Student Affairs, Hey Day, and his love for M&Ms.

Q. How did you end up at Penn as a student?
A. I’m originally from Detroit, Michigan. I applied to several colleges and this was the only Ivy League institution I applied to. Actually, I decided I wanted to go to another college in Minnesota, but the weekend I returned from my college visit, I got my acceptance letter from Penn and my mother pretty much decided that I was coming here. So my choice was made at that point. She dropped me off in 1983 in August and I’ve been here ever since.

Q. Obviously you enjoy working here. What has kept you at the University for so long?
A. I think I had such a positive experience with the people who were mentors and advisors to me. When I came from Michigan it was the first time I really left Detroit for any long period of time, so I developed a really strong, positive relationship with a lot of people who were staff members, and also fellow students who are still my friends today. But it was those people that I met through various offices throughout the University that I just felt a real strong connection to. I just felt that second family atmosphere, and that kept me here.

Q. Are any of the mentors or advisors still here?
A. Nancy McCue, who works in Housing Services, is one of those people. She was actually my supervisor at one point when I was in Housing. She’s still here.

Q. What are some of your responsibilities in Student Affairs?
A. Some of my primary responsibilities are to advise the Student Activities Council, which is called SAC. That is the primary funding and recognition board for all the undergraduate student groups on campus. There are about 180 or so funded groups on campus right now. That ranges anywhere from academic pre-professional groups, to community service groups, to performing arts groups, publication groups, cultural groups. Any aspect of student groups that are currently recognized and funded, they receive their funds through the Student Activities Council. We have a general body meeting once a month where one representative from all the groups attends a meeting and we go over general business or whatever relevant information needs to be discussed with them at that time. It’s a lot of fun. The other thing I do is I advise the executive board for each of the class boards. Each class has about 10 elected members that are called the class board and they do programming for their class. Those are the groups that do Senior Week and Hey Day and Feb Club and Econ Scream. ... Hey Day is probably the most famous of them all. It’s usually a day that’s filled with a lot of fun and high energy. There’s a picnic followed by a procession down Locust Walk, which concludes with a small ceremony with Dr. Gutmann on College Green. We’ve also added an aspect of it called the Final Toast, which is primarily for the senior class so they can celebrate in a more constructive way in the Hey Day tradition. Since this is their last hurrah at Penn before they graduate, they toast the junior class as they become seniors. It’s sort of a sendoff or rite of passage.

Q. There’s also Ivy Day.
A. Ivy Day, which is probably one of my favorite days, is for the senior class where they receive class awards. There’s the famous Spoon, Bowl, Cane, and Spade awards, which are given to the top four leaders in the class that are voted on by the class. The class decides on the top four men and the top four women in their class who they consider their best leaders and they receive awards at the Ivy Day ceremony, which is usually the Saturday before graduation. There are also some other awards that are related to community service, and some alumni awards that are related to their commitment to Penn and their involvement in helping to create a stronger Penn affinity. There are academic and leadership awards as well. The Provost and President are there and they present awards, as well as the recipients who received the awards 25 years prior. They’re invited back to present the awards to the current year winners. That’s always a fun time for them, to meet the students who received the awards before them.

Q. Does Hey Day change from year to year or do you try to keep it the same?
A. There are some aspects of it that might change but for the most part it’s the same type of events every year: the picnic, the parade, the ceremony in front of College Hall. It feels new because it’s a new class going through it and they have so much energy, but there is not much that changes around that particular event.
There’s always a new design for a T-shirt and hats and canes and stuff like that, but for the most part everything stays the same. The red T-shirt is always a big deal.

Q. What’s with all the ketchup and mustard?
A. The ketchup and mustard and condiments aren’t part of the original tradition. They unfortunately were a part of a period of time, for about four or five years, where [things] got out of control. That’s when we were having problems with Hey Day. It wasn’t a constructive way of participating, when the seniors were throwing things on the juniors. There were safety concerns. But we’ve been trying to fight that particular aspect of it. In the last two or three years, we’ve finally done enough to change that aspect of it. I think the last two Hey Days have been great, just to see the change in the attitudes of the students in terms of how they approach the tradition, how they are respectful of the tradition. They want to continue to see it happen from year to year so they’ve been very responsible about their actions and very considerate of the fact that if Hey Day doesn’t go right for their class, it can affect the classes that come after them. Hopefully that will continue.

Q. Do you think that because you are a Penn alumnus, you can better understand Penn students?
A. I do. I think I have a strong connection to the Penn students. I really have a desire to help them have a well-rounded experience as undergraduates, both on the academic and co-curricular side. I think coming here and being a student and growing up, in a way, becoming an adult in this environment, I think that is very beneficial in terms of helping to guide the current students through their development.

Q. What has been the biggest change you have seen on campus since you were a student?
A. Besides all the new buildings on campus? I guess every year I feel like students come with a lot more knowledge and a lot more experiences than perhaps I had when I was going through high school. They come here and they’ve accomplished a lot more than probably students have in past years. So it’s how you deal with that ... helping them continue along that path. I think for me it’s always an adjustment realizing that they’ve accomplished so much already, how much more can they do? So many of them come and they’ve been presidents of their [high school] classes, but they’re not all going to be able to be president of their class here, so it’s helping them find a niche that’s comfortable for them. I think that’s always the challenge and that’s one of the best parts of the job, seeing them develop over that course of time.

Q. I understand that you are a big fan of M&Ms.
A. I am somewhat of an M&M buff. I collect a lot of M&M figurines. It started when I came to this office, and it’s only restricted to the office. The worst offender is my mom, who buys me everything she sees that has M&Ms on it. My Christmas gifts, my birthday gifts, it’s all M&M stuff. Students give me presents when they leave and it’s an M&M thing. It’s become a tradition to have things around here that are all M&M stuff.

Originally published on January 19, 2012