February 7, 2023
Ithaca, NY | 42°F


Student affairs divides to focus on intersectionality

Since arriving at Ithaca College in October 2017, Rosanna Ferro, vice president of the Division of Student Affairs and Campus Life, has been at work researching and holding conversations with staff, faculty and students about how to best improve the office she now runs.

“I knew some changes were going to be needed, but I didn’t know what they were,” Ferro said. “It’s not really doing away with the great work we were doing, but how to evolve with our students. … Shifting the focus from asking students to adapt to us, so when you get to college we say, ‘be college ready.’ That doesn’t really work. You want college students to come on campus and feel like the college is ready for them.”

In response to the campus climate survey and student success report indicating a desire for there to be more outlets on campus to address intersectionality, the Office of Student Engagement and Multicultural Affairs would become three units, including a newly created Center for Inclusion Diversity Equity And Social Change (IDEAs); the Office of New Student and Transition Programs; and the Office of Student Engagement, Ferro announced via Intercom on May 1. Intersectionality is the theory that addresses the complex, cumulative way in which the effects of multiple forms of discrimination — such as racism, sexism, and classism — combine, overlap, or intersect especially in the experiences of marginalized individuals or groups, according to Merriam Webster. President Shirley M. Collado reestablished the Division of Student Affairs and Campus Life with the appointment of Ferro in September 2017.

Ferro said that by creating three individual offices, the college is provided a way to focus on different aspects of identity in different spaces — including first-generation students, a group that is a main priority for the Office of New Student and Transition Programs. She said that after discussing it with staff in the Office of Student Engagement and Multicultural Affairs, they realized it was not possible to invest and launch the new programming they wanted with the former structure of the office.

Most recently, Collado said at a student-media press conference that her administration prioritized making changes to student affairs because it reflected the desires and needs of students in both of the reports.

The Campus Climate Research Study from 2017, conducted by Rankin & Associates, Consulting, found that “members of several constituent groups indicated that they experienced exclusionary, intimidating, offensive, and/or hostile conduct,” and “several constituent groups indicated that they were less comfortable with the overall campus climate, workplace climate, and classroom climate — specifically referencing women, people of color, people with disabilities and first-generation students.”

Beth Reynolds, controller for the Office of Finance and Administration, said the numerous changes to staff within the Division of Student Affairs and Campus Life were partially funded from the college’s budget surplus. The budget surplus decreased from $20 million to $5 million, which includes $6.7 million being allocated toward salaries and benefits including the new positions within the Division of Student Affairs and Campus Life, Reynolds said.

Changes made to Student Affairs and Campus Life

Ferro said conversations about changing the way OSEMA operated began before she arrived at the college, but her new position created a space to discuss making changes. Similarly, Roger Richardson, associate vice president for Student Affairs and Campus Life, said new leadership presented an opportunity for him and fellow staff members to have a conversation about how to redefine what their roles and goals entailed.

The Center for IDEAs will be led by Sean Eversley Bradwell, director; RahK Lash, associate director; and Luca Maurer, director of the Center for LGBT Education, Outreach and Services.

The Office of Student Engagement includes Michele Lenhart, director; Mary Holland-Bavis, associate director of student involvement; Patti Banfield, student organization business coordinator; Don Austin, assistant director of community service; and Brittany Watros, administrative assistant. Samantha Stafford was formerly the assistant director of leadership programs, but now Courtney Owens fills the position. She began her position Sept. 17 and formerly worked in an organizational leadership program. Stafford now is the assistant director of the Office of Residential Life. 

The former director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs, Malinda Smith, retired May 4. The director of the former Office of First-Year Experience, Erica Shockley, also announced she was leaving the college and left May 31. Currently, Jacqueline Winslow, director for New Student and Transition Programs, and Kevin Perry, associate director for New Student and Transition Programs, are leading the office. Smith and Shockley did not respond to requests for comment.


Rossana Ferro, vice president of the Division of Affairs and Campus Life, organized the recent divisions in the Office of Student Engagement and Multicultural Affairs. The office has now been split into three separate units in an attempt to highlight intersectionality. (Maya Rogers/The Ithacan)


Ferro said part of the rearrangement was due to a lack of resources in some offices. As a result, there have been new staff positions created, she said. For example, the former Office of First-Year Experience is now an office with four positions as opposed to the former two staffers. Ferro said there will be a posting this fall in search of a permanent assistant director.

“I couldn’t in my right conscience ask a two-person office to also take on sophomores, first-generation students and family engagement, which will be a new phase next year,” Ferro said. “So once we started pulling that apart, it was pretty clear that we couldn’t keep the same structure if we wanted to do the work that we needed to.”

Similar to the Office of Student Engagement, Ferro said the Center for IDEAS was created by combining resources from Bradwell’s former Office of Student Success and Outreach and Lash and Smith’s OSEMA.

“When we all started having conversations and sat down, we were like, ‘Well, let’s pull our resources together, and let’s come up with a different office that is more targeted toward our current students that are concerned with intersectionality,’” Ferro said. “When you think about multicultural affairs, that was work that was done in the ’90s and early 2000s, but we have evolved. It’s not like we said, ‘OSEMA isn’t working,’ it’s that certain parts of it weren’t serving our students. We knew that.”

Many colleges are moving away from multicultural affairs because it does not address current needs and concerns with intersectionality and inclusion, Ferro said. For example, formerly the office did not include a major effort to help groups including first-generation students.

The Association of American Colleges and Universities did a study that graphed how colleges have shifted their focus to creating more inclusive environments in response to student needs. Similarly, the organization did another study which found that as college communities become more diverse, institutions have found that to cater to students they must take more intersectional approaches to education and community life.

“It makes sense that students 10 years ago had different needs than students today,” Ferro said.

Austin said he wants students to know that his office — the Office of Student Engagement — serves individuals of all identities.

“We want all students to know that getting involved in student organizations, taking on leadership development opportunities, being part of service programs, is available to every student at Ithaca College,” Austin said. “This office is not for a particular group. It is for everybody.”

Bonnie Prunty started her newly created position as dean of students June 1. Her position charges her with managing the Offices of Residential Life, Judicial Affairs and Case Management.

Prunty said she wants to focus this semester on getting herself oriented with the student body.

“I think my most immediate goal is to spend as much time during the fall to get lots and lots of contact with different students because I have a clear portfolio of responsibilities,” Prunty said.

Student Affairs and Campus Life also hired Hierald Edgardo Osorto for the newly created position of director of Religious and Spiritual Life in response to issues that have been occurring among religious communities. The position came as a result of a proposal created by Richardson and members of religious communities ranging from the Protestant community to the Muslim community on campus.

Ferro also implemented an external review of the health and wellness of the college over the summer based on the campus climate survey, the student success report and the Middle States review, which indicated that the college is failing to address students’ mental and physical well-being.

“I have a sense of responsibility that some changes need to be made,” Ferro said. “That’s why, even with the process of the external review of health and wellness, I knew that had to happen this summer. I couldn’t wait another year.”

Ferro said she is expecting to get those results soon in order to implement necessary changes. Open information discussion sessions for the external review were held from 4 to 5 p.m. on July 30 in Klingenstein Lounge. Since her tenure, Collado created two new counseling positions and a case manager position at the Center for Counseling and Psychological Services in September 2017.

Ferro also said she urges the community to be patient as the offices are still in their developmental stages.

“I think we are moving in the right direction,” Ferro said. “There is a logic to it. We spent a lot of time thinking about these things.”

She said she encourages all students to attend the All-Student Gathering on Oct. 1 to discuss thoughts about the current campus climate.

Mixed reactions from students and staff

While many staff and students were excited about having conversations with Ferro surrounding change, others were more apprehensive about OSEMA’s division.

Senior Anna Gardner, a president’s fellow for Student Affairs and Campus Life, said she thinks the changes will benefit the college, but she attended the open session in Spring 2018 and knows some students are concerned.

One of those students, senior Rowan Larkin, said they were worried that the OSEMA split would divide students, something they expressed at the open session. They have a long history working with and being employed by OSEMA. For three semesters, they were a diversity peer educator for OSEMA. They are also a part of the community campus affairs committee for the Student Governance Council with Gardner, attended the cross-cultural retreat through OSEMA and are on the executive board of the Asian-American club.

“I guess what my worry was, and what some of my friends’ worries were, is we all want to talk about intersectionality, and we all have different identities, and it was a lot easier to address those, in our opinion, in the way that we were operating when [the offices] were all in one place,” Larkin said.

They said they were particularly worried that students of color would have to choose one particular part of their identity over another because the offices split up first-year experiences from student organizations.

They said they felt like Ferro and other senior leaders took their thoughts into consideration at the open session. The leadership team told Larkin their experience is not the dominant student experience concerning their opinions about how the Division of Student Affairs and Campus Life was formerly equipped to help students talk about and address all intersections of their identities.

“For me, I left the meeting like, ‘Wow, they really do want to help us and support us,’ but I was confused if these changes would do that,” Larkin said.

Junior Hannah Sarnie, a second-year student leadership consultant for the Office of Student Engagement, said she is worried the changes will cause divisions and prevent collaborations among offices.

“I think that it will be a good change in the sense that now every department can focus on their work and use their resources to really improve and develop what they do,” Sarnie said. “I think one of the nice things about OSEMA was that everybody was really connected, and I worry now that there may be a divide in students, but I hope that’s not the case.”

She said she was also caught off guard when she received the email to the community from Ferro about the division in Spring 2018. She also said she felt it took a while for a lot of her questions to be answered.

“Speaking for myself, I was definitely frustrated because it was very unexpected,” Sarnie said. “Obviously, our boss [Lenhart] told us when she could, and she told us all the information she knew, but there was a lot of information that I wanted to know, but we just didn’t have answers to or access to knowing until the summer, which is overwhelming, especially, I can’t even imagine, for the staff members working in the Office of Student Engagement and the other ones [offices].”

Ferro said she knows some were apprehensive about the changes and said she is open to conversation.

“I was getting very similar questions like ‘why?’ For me, I feel comfortable about the ‘why’ because there isn’t some ulterior motive,” Ferro said. “Everything that I have done and everything that my team has worked on has really been grounded on what all of you have been telling us.”

Ferro said she does acknowledge experiences of those like Larkin’s but said she does not have the “luxury of ignoring” the needs of the majority because all the reports indicated that changes need to occur within the office.

She said, as a former first-generation student herself, she takes the mission of Student Affairs and Campus Life very seriously.

“I know on the surface, it looks like decisions are being made without talking to everyone,” Ferro said. “These are not easy decisions, but I’d rather be penalized for doing something that positively impacts students than ignoring it and seeing it happen and continue to have our retention rate not go up and student satisfaction continue to go down. That is not why I signed up to do this work. I believe in it.”


Correction: There were 7 positions originally reported incorrect because they have been updated. All of the positions are now reported accurately. 

Falyn Stempler can be reached at fstempler@ithaca.edu or via Twitter: @falstempler