S.9, E.3: “A Place that Wants to Be in Community”

Learning for Life @ Gustavus host Greg Kaster interviews Vice President for Student Life and Dean of Students JoNes VanHecke '88.
Posted on April 20th, 2021 by

Dean of Students and Vice President for Student Life, JoNes VanHecke ’88, reflects on attending Gustavus, embarking on a career in student affairs, the purpose, responsibilities, and rewards of her current position, the qualities that make for a successful dean of students, and the special appeal of her alma mater.

Season 9, Episode 3: “A Place that Wants to Be in Community”

Greg Kaster:

Hello, and welcome to Learning for Life at Gustavus, the podcast about people teaching and learning at Gustavus Adolphus College and the myriad ways that Gustavus liberal arts education provides a lasting foundation for lives of fulfillment and purpose. I’m your host, Greg Kaster, faculty member in the Department of History.

Probably the most famous or rather infamous Dean of Students in U.S. higher education is Dean Vernon Wormer of Faber college. Wormer and Faber are, of course, fictional and known to us through the 1978 college movie comedy, Animal House, in which Wormer is consumed with destroying Faber’s wild Delta fraternity. It also conveys in its own crazy and distorted way something that’s of critical importance of the position and those who hold it on actual campuses. Actus [inaudible 00:01:04] this is demonstrated daily amply and superbly in the person of our own Dean of Students and Vice President for Student Life Dr. JoNes VanHecke.

Dean VanHecke graduated from Gustavus in 1988 with majors in biology and communications. She went on to earn a master’s degree in Higher Education Student Affairs from Indiana University, and then served as the Associate Director of Resident life at Virginia Wesleyan College in Norfolk, Virginia. She returned to her alma mater in 1994 serving three years as the Director of Student Activities, and five years as the Assistant Dean of Students. In 2006. She earned her PhD from the University of Michigan’s Center for the Study of Higher and Post secondary Education, and became Vice President for Student Development and Dean of Student Life at Central College in Pella, Iowa.

Fortunately for us, in 2011 she returned to Gustavus once more to assume her current position, and I’m delighted she could join me today to talk about her story and being Dean of Students both before and during the COVID-19 pandemic. JoNes, welcome to the podcast. It’s great to have you on.

JoNes VanHecke:

It’s great to be with you. Thank you.

Greg Kaster:

Thank you. How are you doing? First of all, where are you? Are you working from home? I can’t even imagine dean of students working from home, but in this extraordinary weird time.

JoNes VanHecke:

Yeah, I can’t imagine that either once you have students on campus. I worked from home a little while this Summer, and then once students got back in the Fall, then I really have been back. I’m in my office right now, actually.

Greg Kaster:

What about your staff are they there as well or are they-

JoNes VanHecke:

It really varies by office. The what we like to lovingly refer to as Team Dean, Charlie Potts, Megan Rubel, Deb Swanberg and myself have been in the office more than not this Fall and Winter. But various offices in the Student Life division kind of have a different answer. Everyone has offices that are staffed and open, but not all of the employees are there at the same time.

Greg Kaster:

Got it. That makes sense. We’ll get into more a bit about it’s like for you as Dean of students and VP for Student Affairs during COVID, but let’s start with your own personal story. Tell us a little bit about where you grew up and how you wound up at Gustavus?

JoNes VanHecke:

I’m a farm kid from Walnut Grove, Minnesota, which of course is best known for a different literature than Animal House, but rather Little House on the Prairie. I grew up on a beef cattle hog, corn, and soybean farm, and I am every bit the farm girl that I was growing up. I live on a little acreage outside of town and fancy myself still connected to the land. I had a really lovely childhood in a small rural community and when I was a junior and a senior in high school … This is just a completely ridiculous story but it’s a Gustavus one.

Greg Kaster:

Perfect.

JoNes VanHecke:

I was involved in a high school student organization that is today called FCCLA, but back in the days when I was a student it was FHA, Future Homemakers of America, and I was a Minnesota State officer in that organization. When I was a junior in high school, Gwen Whipple, who is Gwen Whipple Walz the governor’s wife, was also a state officer in that organization and she grew up in Ivanhoe. And so, when we had state officer obligations that required us to be in the Twin Cities, usually my parents would take us to the cities, drop us off, and then her parents would come up and pick us up several days later and bring us home. Gwen’s dad was a Gustie alum and he loved to do what I always refer to as a high schooler as the glory days drive through of the Gustavus campus.

I would come home to my own parents and I would say, “Mr. Whipple had to drive through campus again or we would have been home a half an hour earlier.” It would just annoy me, and then I would announce that I would never have anything to do with that college on the hill. But when push came to shove and I actually started looking at colleges, I did a tour of Gustavus and it felt just like the right place to be it. It was that weird, indescribable thing that so many Gusties talk about, that it just felt like home being on campus. And so, before I knew it, I matriculated as a Gustavus student.

Greg Kaster:

There’s one thing I love about doing this podcast, as our regular listeners know, it’s what I learn. I never heard that story from you or from anybody else, so that is fantastic. I love that. And then, again, I admit it, when I first came to Gustavus and I would hear people talk about the special something here, and I [inaudible 00:06:29] that’s true everywhere. No, it’s not true everywhere, and it’s also a uniform response. Even I remember having that when I was staying in the guest house, and I’ve told this story before [inaudible 00:06:45] time.  I remember I was an associate dean, [inaudible 00:06:47] was member of the history department too and he was throwing a party for faculty outside [inaudible 00:06:52], and I thought, “Wow, this feels really good compared to the other schools I’ve been at.” So it’s surreal. But that’s a great story, that’s so funny. Is he still alive, Mr. Whipple? Or does he rub that in your face or your parents vowed never to?

JoNes VanHecke:

My dad teases me regularly about recalling that I was not going to be a Gustie and how much of my professional life … And how wonderful four years of Gustavus I had, he loves to tease me about it.

Greg Kaster:

That’s funny. By the way, my mom grew up on a farm in what we called downstate Illinois. I guess when she was growing up, there were hogs and cattle, she used to tease us by doing her pig call or hog call. And some of the family, my cousin, he’s sort of retired from it, but I think it’s now mostly grain, soybean and corn. So I can relate to that part of your background. My mom went to a two year teacher college, and taught a little bit in a one room schoolhouse, the one she had attended and dropped out of the profession. My dad didn’t go to college, did your parents go to college?

JoNes VanHecke:

My dad did a part of a year at the University of Minnesota in an Ag program that they had, and then I think, honestly, got talked out of it, out of going back for a second year by his mother who just thought it was good that he could stay home and farm. My mom, she grew up in Mapleton, which is south of Mankato. She went to what was then Mankato Teacher’s College but became Mankato State or Minnesota State Mankato, I’ll give all of the titles, apparently, of the university. She was a high school Home Economics teacher and moved to Walnut Grove for her first job after finishing her undergrad degree. Which she did in three years just setting a high standard that my brothers and I never came close to meeting. That’s when she met my and then they stayed in Walnut Grove and my dad farmed the family farm.

Greg Kaster:

That’s neat. Has it been in the family, that farm, for a long time?

JoNes VanHecke:

Yeah, my mother’s farm, actually, the farm she grew up on, her parents were also farmers, was a century farm and had been in her family longer than my dad’s farm. My dad’s dad, my grandpa was the person who bought that farm versus my mom’s grandfather on the JoNes side of the family, but I come from a long line of farm families.

Greg Kaster:

The farm my mom grew up in, just three daughters, no sons. Both my mom’s parents died when I was … I guess my grandfather died when I was really young, my grandmother when I was in high school. But anyway, vivid memories of them in the farm and going there, Newman, Illinois. I don’t know if Illinois has a century farm or if that’s nationwide, it’s got to be at least that going way, way, back. My dad grew up in the city of Chicago so I’m all American that way, got it all, rural and urban. When you came to Gustavus, you were … Tell me if this is true, I read somewhere that you were thinking of being a vet, is that accurate?

JoNes VanHecke:

Yeah, absolutely. I was pre vet med and absolutely convinced that it was the only possible thing that I could do with my life. It took me a long time to get to a place where I could let that go. I still love take my dog to the vet and have my vet come out to look at my horses, that whole field just continues to be really interesting and fascinating to me. I was a junior really before I kind of said, “My chemistry and my math grades are not going to get me into med school, what else is it that I could imagine in my life?” Even junior year I did a J-term with a vet in Mankato, which was an amazing experience, loved every minute of it.

Greg Kaster:

That’s so interesting. First of all, you and I both remember when you had some years ago, it was a while ago, but puppy play up I could stay some of the weekends and we bring our dogs. Sam passed away at around 16, we put him down. What was your dog’s name, I can’t [inaudible 00:11:45].

JoNes VanHecke:

The dog that I had at that point, her name was Cessa, she was a yellow Lab. My dog now is also a yellow Lab and she is Liv.

Greg Kaster:

Oh, nice. We’re Lab people all of us.

JoNes VanHecke:

I really am a Lab person.

Greg Kaster:

That’s true. Same here. We haven’t been able to bring ourselves to get another one, but I think we might be inching close. I didn’t know about the horses, how many horses do you have?

JoNes VanHecke:

It might be a little bit of a problem for me. I’ll have three right now, and then I’m also boarding a friend’s horse on my property. So I’ve got four horses running around my acreage, three of which are mine.

Greg Kaster:

You don’t ride your horse to campus too?

JoNes VanHecke:

No, I haven’t ridden to campus, but I do ride regularly. I ride at Seven Mile quite a lot and lots of other places as well, it’s just down gravel roads.

Greg Kaster:

Nice. We’ve gone horseback riding now and then, different places, and they’re amazing animals.

JoNes VanHecke:

I grew up with horses, I got my first pony when I was four years old, with the exception of about six months since then, is the only point where I haven’t owned at least one horse.

Greg Kaster:

Again, I just learned something about you I didn’t know, that’s cool. At least I have an image of, what was his name, the Secretary of Interior under Trump, Zinke, riding his horse to his office, you’re Dean of Students. Is that when you moved from biology into communications as well, or were you [inaudible 00:13:23]?

JoNes VanHecke:

To tell you the truth, I worked hard. I’m so proud of my bio major, I worked so hard, that did not come naturally. I love my high school experience, but I was not prepared for college level science classes when I got here and I was running hard to catch up. So I’m so, so, proud of the fact that I graduated with a biology degree, and so much about how I think I make sense of my world, I can see connected to the things that I studied as a bio major.

Greg Kaster:

That’s neat.

JoNes VanHecke:

But the reality was that at some point in the middle of all of that, it dawned on me … When I was originally thinking I was still going to be a vet, the proposed list of classes that you should take included public speaking. And so, I took my public speaking class and it was the easiest … It just came naturally, it made sense to me. It was, I don’t want to say easy because there was an academic component that also was a lot to learn, but it was an easier subject for me than the sciences. And so I just kept taking classes because they were ones that I enjoyed, but also ones that I was getting great grades in, and I needed them to settle down my really poor math grades. Dr. Roberts was my communications professor.

Greg Kaster:

[inaudible 00:15:17].

JoNes VanHecke:

Bill, and then Dr. Anderson was my biology advisor. I would always talk to Dr. Anderson first about what classes I needed to take, and then I would go and I would meet with with Bill Roberts. I would always say, “Well, these two classes overlap and they’re both required for the majors. Could we do something on the communications so that I can take the bio that I need and want, and then can we just figure it out with communications?” Until my senior year, Bill was so great and he’d say like, yeah, I think we could substitute this, or you could take that. My senior year I wanted to take a bio class that I didn’t actually need, and he looked me in the eye and he said, “JoNes, you have two majors, and just once I’m going to need you to prioritize your communications major.”

Greg Kaster:

That’s great. I can picture him saying that.

JoNes VanHecke:

He was so supportive of my transition away from thinking I was going to vet school, and then really deciding at that point that I was interested in student affairs. He was just such as supportive, asking the right questions, influence in my life on that front.

Greg Kaster:

He was one of the greats. He really built a built the Comm … At least by the time Kate and I came, my wife Kate, he had built that department, the Comm … I don’t know if it was called Comm studies then, but Communications studies.

JoNes VanHecke:

When I came back as Vice President, Bill and I would regularly meet for coffee on campus and just a good catch up and a good chat. A couple of years in he said to me, “Do you realize that three of the cabinet members are my advisees?” He goes, “Tim Kennedy and Tom Young and I.” What an amazing thing to say [inaudible 00:17:31].

Greg Kaster:

I didn’t know that about Tom and Tim, that’s both of whom I hope to get for an episode podcast. That’s interesting. You anticipated a question I was going to ask you, which is when did you know? I’m sure you didn’t come to college thinking, oh gee, becoming a Dean of Students is a career option. I don’t even know if I knew what that was until I came to Gustavus as an employee. How did you come to understand that was a possibility? You said you mentioned talking to Bill about it.

JoNes VanHecke:

At the end of my junior year, I really had a crisis of what was it that I was going to do? Like I had said before, it was really clear that I wasn’t probably going to get accepted into a veterinary medicine program with my science grades. I remember having a conversation with my mom, and she also just a phenomenal human being, and she said, “There’s so many paths forward, and you could put this aside,” this meaning the vet school stuff “you could put this aside and you could take a class at a time and and fix your transcript and apply later, or you could try something else for a while and see how you feel about it.” She gave me permission, I think, to really think more broadly.

That set me on the journey of, well, if I didn’t go to vet school, then what was it that I was interested in? I started thinking about the fact, and then this was the summer of my junior year, and I started really thinking about, “Well, what is it that I have loved in the last three years as a college student?” It really dawned on me that what I loved was being a CABI, being a Gustie Greeter. My senior year I was a collegiate fellow, and I was having such an amazing experience with all of those pieces. I loved my communication courses, those were things that I also found that I was good at. And so, I remember thinking, well, who would I ask about that?

And then it dawned on me, well, Ruth Johnson who had been the Director of Student Activities and then became the interim Acting Dean of Students in my senior year. So in the fall of that year, I had a conversation with Ruth and I said, “Well, how could I have your job?” Ruth said, “Well, what you need to do,” and of course she had done her master’s in Indiana. She unabashedly said, “You have to go to Indiana get your master’s degree, and then you should work someplace for a while, and then you can come back and have my job.”

Greg Kaster:

That’s great.

JoNes VanHecke:

That’s exactly what I did. Bill Robert’s son was also an Indiana University student, and so he was familiar … I think if I remember correctly, Bill’s son had been at IUPUI instead of IU Bloomington, which is where I was, and Ruth was. I think Bill was really kind of familiar with that idea of a student affairs program, and so when he and I talked about it, he was really supportive.

Greg Kaster:

That’s so cool. Is part of your portfolio the Career Development Center?

JoNes VanHecke:

It is.

Greg Kaster:

The thing about this and other similar stories from people I’ve interviewed is, and it’s especially cool since you’re the Dean of Students and VP for Student Affairs, is there’s no straight path. You came to Gustavus, you’re going to be a vet, here you are. I love that because I think so many of our students feel they have to [inaudible 00:21:27], they have to have it all figured out. There’s all this anxiety about, oh my God, I have to do this, to do that. No, you don’t. And second, the way you connected, you were essentially doing an informational interview with Ruth Johnson then the way we encourage our students to do now. She was doing informal mentoring of you and we have that program, the mentoring program.

I just think that’s so important for young people, students to understand the importance of the networking, the connections of asking the profs, of asking people who are doing the work. Who knows, what if Ruth hadn’t been there, or you hadn’t you hadn’t majored in communications with Bill helping you? So all those things are really interesting, and cool, and important … I think important lessons. You mentioned cabbie, and I think that’s Campus Activities Board, right?

JoNes VanHecke:

Yeah, that’s right.

Greg Kaster:

I wonder if you have any particular … You’ve mentioned, Bill Roberts, other particular memories good, bad, or ugly about Gustavus? Academic experiences, co curricular experiences, that you you think about when you think back on your career there as an undergrad?

JoNes VanHecke:

Yeah, I think about the leadership experiences that I had in the Campus Activities Board, my senior year I was co president of CAB. The great experiences that I had as a Gustie Greeter, I did that for two years, my sophomore and my junior year. Being a CF my senior year in Sohre Hall was just phenomenal. Seeing Sohre makes me think about the fact that I lived in Sohre as a first year student and then I went back to Sohre as a senior to be a CF. I came home again to the [inaudible 00:23:28], and Steve and Judy just such important people in my life as an undergraduate, and then well beyond as well. So many people at Gustavus that just had such an incredible impact that we’re administrators and faculty.

I think about some of the amazing things that I got to do as a biology student, going with Bob Bellick, on a grand camping tour of Minnesota looking for birds and small mammals in the spring of … I think I was a junior, junior or senior when I did that. That was amazing. I have this really great party trick where I can tell you the binomial nomenclature of most of the Minnesota mammals because of my vertebrate zoology class, we had to memorize them and they just stuck with me. So if you need to know that the moose is Alces alces, or the whitetail deer is [inaudible 00:24:48] Odocoileus virginianus, I can help you out on that front.

Greg Kaster:

That ought to be enough to be a vet, in my book, I think. That’s impressive. Yeah, that’s good. I remember Bob Belick was still … Kate and I came in 1986 and Bob Bellick was there. He’s an amazing guy.

JoNes VanHecke:

Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

So much has changed too. When I think of the biology department and I don’t recall if there was a single woman in that apartment at the time. I know calling Carleen Jack’s eventually … She [inaudible 00:25:22] too, Kate was the only woman among a bunch of guys, myself included. The place has really changed. We’ll come back to that in a bit, what you’ve seen as some of the big changes. Once you finished your master’s degree, I’m curious about what made you go on for the PhD? Was that essential to doing the work you do, or is it just your own intellectual curiosity, drive?

JoNes VanHecke:

Hank [inaudible 00:25:53] who was, of course, the Vice President for Student Life for many years was such a mentor for me as an Assistant Dean of Students. He introduced me to a program called HERS, which is a program that supports women in higher education.

Greg Kaster:

Bryn Mawr College.

JoNes VanHecke:

I was going to say then they do a summer institute that’s based at Bryn Mawr. Hank turned me on to it and suggested that maybe it was something that I would like to do, so I did that. I did the HERS Bryn Mawr Institute, I spent several weeks at Bryn Mawr and really interacting with women in higher education who had an interest in being senior administrators. I came away from that really understanding that if I was serious about wanting to be the Dean of Students, the VP for Student Affairs, that I really needed to do my PhD. And then it was shortly after that I applied to Michigan. For me, Michigan was about that if I was going to stop what I was doing, which I loved, that I wanted to go to the best possible program that I could go to, and Michigan higher ed program was ranked very well at that point, and still is. And so, I applied to Michigan and was accepted.

And then, that was just an amazing experience. To have these four years where I just got to be a student again, and I think came to it with a perspective of having worked for the years in between that made me just delight in it even more than I did when I was an undergrad or a master’s degree student. To live in that rarefied air of taking classes, and reading things, and thinking about higher education and studying higher education. It was just an amazing experience. Then I also had a chance to get involved in a research study that Pat King and Ernie Pasteurella were leading, and Marcia Baxter Magolda, and those are huge, huge, names in higher education Student Affairs research. And so to have a chance to work for multiple years as a grad student on their research study, which was a study of liberal arts education, was just an amazing experience. My Michigan years are dear to me, and Ann Arbor is such a fun place to live.

Greg Kaster:

Took the words out of my mouth. I have been there once, and oh my gosh. I was accepted into their history program way back the but then chose … I’d fallen in love with Boston so went to Boston University. It’s such an amazing place. You answered my question, I assumed it was … I thought you were there in person, not while you were sort of working full time. Yeah, that’s a great experience. It occurs to me too, the other thing about that is then you’re really one of us, so to speak. Maybe that helps you as the Dean of Students understand faculty better, and what faculty do, since [inaudible 00:29:39] through that PhD process.

JoNes VanHecke:

I definitely got the hard sell while I was at Michigan about going into the faculty and looking at faculty positions in higher ed. In fact, some of my Michigan faculty, I think, still shake their heads at the fact that I went back to being a practitioner, but my real passion is undergraduate students. As much as I love the study of higher education, it’s the students that I find so compelling. I have so much gratitude about an opportunity to get paid to do something that’s so meaningful, and that’s working with undergraduates.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, we’re lucky. I was telling [inaudible 00:30:34]. I still remember when Kate and I came to Gustavus, as part of the event informal mentoring faculty Will said something like, “I get paid to play.” That’s right, to do something you just love doing with lots of autonomy, at least for maybe more than [inaudible 00:30:54].  This is a great segue to the sort of the heart of the conversation here, which is I’d like to ask you about, first, just what you do? If people have watched Anna Miles and a few other movies I can think of where Dean’s of Students haven’t fared that well in popular culture. They tend to come across as they’re the ones enforcing the rules and trying to kick out students or whatever. Your job, and I don’t mean just you, but we’re talking about you at Gustavus, but the Dean of Student job is just so immense, I think it’s incredible. Tell us a little bit first just about what your portfolio encompasses at Gustavus?

JoNes VanHecke:

The Student Life Division is made up of a wide variety of offices that have responsibility for student life outside of the classroom. And so, everything from campus safety and health service to campus activities, and the Center for Inclusive Excellence, the Career Center, Center for Community Engagement, The GustieWELL. I’m missing some, but we’re deep and wide in how we help support student learning outside the classroom.

Greg Kaster:

That’s true, deep and wide I think is a good way to phrase that. I know it’s hard to generalize, but if you think of a kind of a typical day or week, how much of your time is in meetings with other staff, other administrators? How much are you as Dean of Students interacting directly with the students?

JoNes VanHecke:

The thing that I have learned about becoming a senior administrative is that I spend less and less time doing the thing that I was the most passionate about. I do, I spend more of my day in senior leadership, cabinet level kinds of issues than I do the joy of meeting with students. But I feel like it’s the peace of connecting with students that is the most important and the most meaningful. The other way that I really think about my work is representing the importance and the centricity of students at that institutional level is an important part of what I see my responsibility and my work as. I don’t want us at the cabinet, and not that this cabinet really would, but I don’t want us to have conversations about the college without remembering that students are the heart of it. I really see that as the piece that I consistently and importantly need to bring to the table at the cabinet.

I do get to do work with individual students. In the Dean of Students Office, we’ve tried to divide up the student body by having a class Dean model, and I’m the senior class Dean. If there’s a senior who’s having … It can just fall into any potential category, maybe it’s a mental health or medical issue, maybe it’s an academic challenge, maybe the wheels are just falling off the bus for some reason, then I have the privilege of being the person who reaches out to those students and connects and tries to help them utilize all the resources of the institution to kind of get back on track. That’s work that’s really important to me even though I don’t get to do all of it all day long, it’s work that brings meaning to me professionally.

Greg Kaster:

When I think of your job and you in particular, but again, probably any Dean of Students, that a lot of the job is just what you described, I would think. That, whatever you want to call it, helping, troubleshooting. That’s not the whole of your interaction with students, I wonder about maybe we lose sight of what other interactions do you have with students where it’s not about their [inaudible 00:35:45] family, or whatever it is. Those are all real, God knows, and they consume a lot of your time, I know. But maybe talk a little bit about some other kinds of interactions that aren’t-

JoNes VanHecke:

Absolutely. One of the things I try really hard, and of course, this is in part also a student choice, but I try to when possible keep closely connected through maybe a club or organization. For a long time as the Dean of Students, I advised to the Student Senate. And then just a couple of years ago, we did a little transitioning so that I could experience what it was like after three years to not have Monday nights at Student Senate tied up. But right now I’m just starting to be the advisor for the Equestrian Club, I’m excited about that and tickled that the students asked me to join them in that endeavor. And so that really quintessential student involvement, getting to serve as an advisor to a club or organization, I love it.

When I was Assistant Dean of Students, I advised Epsilon Pi Alpha, which is a fraternity. I think I got to be the first woman to advise a men’s fraternity in the college’s history, and I just cherished … That makes me the exact opposite of the fictional Dean, I loved the ways that I got to work with the men of AEPi and support them in their experience as college students.

Greg Kaster:

I’m sorry, I lost you just for a second, you loved what? Say that again, you loved? Whoops, about the fraternity you were saying you loved working with them, the men-

JoNes VanHecke:

Yeah, it was really meaningful and I learned a lot in advising the AEPi’s. I learned a lot about the incredible ways that fraternities can build positive and meaningful relationships among men and provide leadership opportunities. When I was working at Virginia Wesleyan College, I advised a sorority while I was there. Advising gets to be this add on to the work that you do as a faculty member also. But it also brings you a connection to students that you wouldn’t necessarily have as a part of your day in, day out, work. All of the clubs and organizations over the years that I’ve been able to have a really more involved … play a more involved role with as an advisor have been really important to me. It gives me an opportunity to know some students that I maybe otherwise wouldn’t get to connect to.

Greg Kaster:

Right. First of all, I think you probably know our students better than anyone overall, and more of them just by virtue of your position. You meet some of them at moments of trouble or crisis, but then you also see them in these other venues that are just so inspiring. I guess the moments of crisis can be inspiring in the way students work through them, but you get such a range.

JoNes VanHecke:

I think range is exactly the right thing. When you work as a student affairs person, and I think to a certain degree higher education in general, but I think especially in student affairs, you get to see students at their absolute most amazing articulate best selves. And then you also get to see students at those moments in their life where things are not going well, whether that’s the decisions they’re making or just through nothing that they’re doing, their complex lives and moments that they find themselves in. You really do, you work a very wide range of experiences.

The stereotypical Dean is all about discipline and conduct, but all of my professional life I have really had an appreciation for what a good conduct system can do, which is provide students with a teachable moment. Ask them to reflect on decisions that they’ve made and hold them accountable for decisions that they’ve made, but hopefully always more with an eye toward education than towards something that’s punitive. I really believe in that philosophically. How do we help our students learn from their decision making, by holding them accountable?

Greg Kaster:

Thank you for much for saying that. That literally answered a question I was just about to pose to you which is how you manage? Because you do have to be the enforcer at some point, that’s not the best word but … I feel the exact same way if a student has [plagiarized 00:41:18], and so often it’s in [inaudible 00:41:20]. But to make it not punitive, to be serious about it but to also offer some grace and hope for … As a Carleton professor once said when he invited me to his class and before I started he was handing back all of their D and F papers and said, “There is the possibility of redemption.” That important.

The other thing I want to ask you about, of course, is what is it like amid this God awful pandemic which no one in higher education, no one anywhere wanted, and it’s impact on higher education is just sort of mind boggling? What have you learned about yourself, about our students throughout the college? It’s not the first crisis Gustavus has ever been through. Were you there in 98′ for the tornado?

JoNes VanHecke:

I was, I was Assistant Dean during the tornado. It was my first year as Assistant Dean, in fact.

Greg Kaster:

That came and went as awful as it was. I’ve asked some other people, I asked Provost Brenda Kelly about this, what you’ve learned about yourself, and also the place, the position, and all of the above, the students, in the face of this extraordinary challenge with COVID-19?

JoNes VanHecke:

That is such a great question. The first thing that I have seen over and over again is even … I saw the college rise to the occasion during the tornado, and I thought at that point in my life that would be a one on one experience of that, and that I would never be in that kind of situation again. Even though the pandemic is really different, the similarity is that I have watched the college, once again, rise to the challenge. There’s a lot left yet to be written about where we’ll come from with a pandemic, but I have been so impressed with our students. There were so many, I think, people watching higher education and thinking, “Oh, that’s not going to work at all. Those college students as a general group aren’t going to be able to manage this.”

I don’t know that I ever really believed it, in part, because I have the privilege of working with Gustavus students and I experienced them as people who really appreciate and want to be in community. Because of that, I think that they have just done an amazing job of following the behavioral expectations that are asking so much of them, so much of them. I just over and over again when I reflect on pandemic, I think about how much our students have given in exchange for being able to be an active physical part of this campus. And then the other thing that I think a lot about is not just the pandemic, but the year that we’ve had the since it all started.

Greg Kaster:

Oh, yes. Good. Perfect.

JoNes VanHecke:

Kevin Kruger who’s the president of one of my professional organizations, NASPA, made this point and I think it’s just spot on. He talks about how student affairs professionals are designed by the work that we do to manage crisis, but what we’re not really ever experiencing until now is ongoing, unending crisis, crisis after crisis. You think about the pandemic, and on the front end all of the uncertainty that we were in the middle of last March, and then you think about the death of George Floyd and the awakening that came, yet another awakening around race and anti racism in our country.

And then you think about the election that we came through and the challenges that were associated with that, and then you think about January 6th and what happened at our State Capitol. It just keeps coming and there hasn’t been a break, and the pandemic continues to be in the middle of all of it. I think it’s really something that at least, the best of my knowledge, my profession has not watched that many things in that long of a time period that would meet a threshold of crisis that we’ve had to endure.

Greg Kaster:

Yes. You don’t have to answer this, but one of my questions was how do you sleep?

JoNes VanHecke:

There’s some nights I don’t, to just be really honest. And more in the last year than probably any other point of my professional life, where I toss and turn and I worry about our students, I worry about our institution. Those are things that keep me up at night. I think it helps that I’m at the end of the day, my father’s daughter, and that I’m an incredible optimist. I think you can’t maybe be a farmer without being an optimist, my dad is one through and through. I think that I have that orientation to my world from him where I really do believe in my heart that things will get better and things will … That we’ll find ways to support each other and to manage through.

Greg Kaster:

The Greek me on my dad’s side, I don’t know if that’s the optimism or the pessimism, but I have that same sense. I sometimes say it’s the historian in me, history [inaudible 00:48:23] and there’s a lot of sobering lessons in history, but there’s also the grounds for hope. You think about 1918, well, that was followed by the roaring 20s. Actually a former alum I interviewed her and [inaudible 00:48:35] Hicks was her name, [inaudible 00:48:36] a great woman in education out of Washington State around Native American issues in particular. She then texted me after we recorded, maybe we can look forward to the roaring 2020s or something [inaudible 00:48:47].

Let’s go back to something you said earlier about, it was what people were saying. There’re lots of articles about college students, and it’s true some college students have not followed the protocols, but I couldn’t agree more with what you said about our students not to be Pollyannasy. But I’m amazed, even I had my doubts too all along. I really, really, wanted us to stay open, I wanted students to be able to return. Like we all did, students included. I had my doubts, but it’s really been quite remarkable, I think, and maybe it is that emphasis on community that you’ve mentioned. But it’s definitely real, we’ve done well, we’ve fared well. We’re not COVID free, but we’ve done so much better, I think, than maybe we could have anticipated under the circumstances with the college.

The other thing I think you’re saying that’s important is that, again, contrary to what I’ve read as a professor, or sometimes by other professors about students and how awful the pandemic ended, and oh my God. It is, of course, all those things. But honestly, I never taught online before, never. Started in March and, of course, we were so lucky the way Gustavus allowed us to transition slowly. Some schools they had to do it overnight, professors had no time to change. But honestly, I don’t feel that what I’m experiencing with most students, let’s say, 95% of them in terms of their engagement with learning, in terms of their responsibility, all that good stuff, I don’t think it’s any different except that there’s a screen between us.

That makes me so proud of our students. I know other faculty feel this, sometimes I just almost I have to fight back the tears. It’s just at the end of a class when they’re all there, they’ve been engaged and they’re waving goodbye. I kind of hope that tradition continues, that wave goodbye. There’s a lot of doom and gloom, and a lot of real learning is occurring and real commitment on the part of our students. And so, hopefully, we can continue that after the pandemic. You’re a successful Dean of Students and VP of Student Affairs, no question about that. What does it take, do you think, if you had to write the job description, what does it take to be successful in your position?

JoNes VanHecke:

That’s a great question. I think you have to genuinely care about college student and student development. I think you have to be willing to walk the line between the great stuff and the hard stuff and understand that both are important. I think you have to be willing sometimes to be the bad guy. I think you have to master the challenge of when is it right, and just to be consistent. And when does an individual need an exemption or an exception to something? I think that’s a hard skill to develop, but I think it’s an important skill for Dean of Students. I think you have to be willing to open your ears and listen to the lived experiences of the students that you’re working with. I’m so cognizant of the fact that I continue to learn every single day from Gusties about who they are and what’s important to them. And how do I then represent that to my colleagues across campus to help them also benefit from hearing student’s lived experiences? Now I’m just meandering around that question.

Greg Kaster:

I’m sitting here thinking literally that’s a fabulous answer, and I just made two notes. One is, if I can read my handwriting, one is the point you made about knowing when to be consistent and when to make the exception. Obviously, so many professors struggle with that, I still struggle with that, but I think that’s a really important point. You’re right, that’s something you just, I don’t know, you just have to learn, and I guess maybe it’s on a case by case basis. Of course, departments sometimes wrestle with that as well. The other point you just made, which, man, I couldn’t agree more with is to be tuned into the lived experience of students.

The way I learned this, it’s funny, I will never forget. I was at Boston University doing my PhD, and I was a graduate teaching assistant, teaching fellow, we called it, for a great historian professor named Sam Bass Warner, Jr, great urban historian. I remember him saying, I don’t know if it was to me alone or to the group of teaching fellows, he was talking about a student who had mentioned to him, I’m sorry, Professor, I couldn’t do this work or that work because I had this happening, then my mother and this. He just said to us, “Life, students have lives.” It was a really, really, important point that has stuck with me ever since. It’s sort of what you’re saying, I really try … I know I’m not always good at that, but I try to remember that, these students, they have lives.

JoNes VanHecke:

Complex lives.

Greg Kaster:

Complicated lives, things that made me realize that I, honestly, I sometimes think if I had 1/10th of what some of our students are dealing with. Not all bad, but some of it really challenging, I don’t know how I would have been able to concentrate. So yeah, that’s a really, really, important lesson, I think, or quality. All well said. I want to end with your … In a way you’ve touched on this already in so many of your remarks here, but just your pitch for Gustavus? If you’re meeting with a prospective student, why Gustavus?

JoNes VanHecke:

To me it always comes back to community, Greg. I think that this is a place that wants to be in community, and wants to know people as the individuals that they are in the place that they’re at at the time that they join us. For our students, to help them learn, and grow, and reach the potential that they have, and to do that together as a community.

Greg Kaster:

Yes. I think I’m just thinking here too how … It’s not just because I’m speaking with you, [inaudible 00:56:38] it’s really true. Any good person in your position, we professors, we couldn’t do our job without you, there’s no way. And the extent to which you are involved in the students education in such important ways, including your free time. You mentioned the January 6th insurrection when you organized basically a teaching about that, which was fantastic. I hope Gustavus continues to … You’re going to be there a while, anyway, I hope … We’ve been lucky, we’ve been fortunate, at least in my time, to have really wonderful Deans of Students. Hopefully, if you ever retire one day, that continues. But thank you so much, this has been an absolute pleasure. As always, I’ve learned something. I now cannot get out of my head the image of you riding to your office on a horse.

JoNes VanHecke:

I just need to build a little curare back.

Greg Kaster:

Exactly. You can at least do it at graduation, that would be great. Take good care, I do hope you get some rest. Your job is honestly … I’m so grateful you’re doing it, I’m not envious, but I’m so grateful you’re doing it [inaudible 00:57:53] complicated and the emotional ups and downs. But thank you so much, this has been great. Take good care. See you on screen or, hopefully, back on campus soon.

JoNes VanHecke:

Yeah, that sounds great. Thanks for inviting me again. Greg.

Greg Kaster:

My pleasure.

JoNes VanHecke:

It’s been fun to talk.

Greg Kaster:

Likewise. Take care JoNes. Bye-bye.

JoNes VanHecke:

Bye.

Greg Kaster:

Learning for Life at Gustavus is produced by JJ Akin and Matthew Dobosenski of the Gustavus Office of Marketing, Gustavus graduate Will Clark, Class of ‘20, who also provides technical expertise to the podcast, and me. The views expressed in this podcast are not necessarily those of Gustavus Adolphus College.

###

Media Contact: Director of Media Relations and Internal Communication JJ Akin
jakin@gustavus.edu
507-933-7510

 

Comments are closed.