Campus Life promotes new spaces, student support

By Kimber Williams | Emory Report | Sept. 8, 2016

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With the new academic year underway, Campus Life seeks to help students find common ground — from opening the new event pavilion to supporting new voters in the presidential election. The pavilion provides an informal social space for students and other campus groups.

With Emory students back on campus, Ajay Nair, senior vice president and dean of Campus Life, is in his element — the energy and excitement of their arrival feeds a sense of what is possible, an optimism that sustains him.

Those students find a University ripe with change, from new President Claire E. Sterk to an array of new programs, building projects and strategic initiatives.

Culturally, it feels like a campus that is ready to move forward, Nair says.

In fact, if there is an overriding theme to the coming academic year within Emory Campus Life, it may well be a sense of evolution, he explains.

“In recent years, Campus Life undergone so much change,” Nair says. “We’ve reorganized, added and changed positions, reimagined departments, and created opportunities for greater collaboration and communications among departments to better serve students, staff, faculty, parents, families and alumni.”

“Our foundation in many ways is shored up and strong," he adds. "Now, the opportunity to build on that foundation and evolve as a Campus Life community is what we’re focusing on.”

Initiatives bring growth, transformation

Reflecting upon the work of recent years, Nair is proud of the growth and direction of Campus Life, with new offices, strategic initiatives and programs that reach an ever-widening student audience, affirm identity and intersectionality, and strengthen diversity and inclusivity.

And with ongoing work rising from Emory’s groundbreaking Racial Justice Retreat, held earlier this year, it feels as if the campus is on the cusp of something both important and transformative.

“Across the country, we hear peers talking about what a critical juncture this is for higher education and how, for many colleges, crisis is the new norm,” Nair says.

“While I do believe that what’s happening on our campuses will test the character of our institutions, I’m so proud of Emory’s character in these moments,” he notes. “We are truly exploring the idea of who we are, versus who we say we are — wrestling with that tension every day. That’s a true test of character.”

Key projects

Outlining Campus Life programs and priorities for this academic year, Nair identifies key projects that are evolving to meet the needs of students, including:

• Building new community spaces

Pending approval from the Emory Board of Trustees, planning will advance on the construction of a new Campus Life Center and a temporary dining facility — informally dubbed “the DUC-ling” — to be located between the Dobbs University Center and the Woodruff PE Center.

A new outdoor student pavilion, which took shape this summer across from Chappell Park baseball field on Peavine Creek Drive, is intended to provide an informal social space to accommodate flexible programming for students and other campus groups. It is already in use for student picnics and social functions.

The pavilion was constructed on one of the former sites of the Black Student Alliance (BSA) house, which was located there from 1986 to 2011. In fact, the new facility incorporates architectural elements from the BSA House, as well as a plaque honoring the legacy of BSA House residents. The plaque also commemorates the black students who helped to integrate Emory in 1962-63. Plans call for a memorial to be held at the site to honor those students later in the academic year. 

Use of the facility is free for student organizations; a nominal fee is charged for departments. Reservations may be made up to a year in advance through the Dobbs University Center’s 25Live site.

Among other campus construction, a recent renovation of The Depot features a new, comfortable interior with cozy booths, traditional café seating and large communal tables. Kaldi’s will now operate The Depot, providing coffee and tea along with a variety of new hot and cold menu items.

• Continuing the work of the Racial and Social Justice Initiative

During its first meeting this summer, Emory’s Commission on Racial and Social Justice outlined action steps relating to several campus initiatives, including re-establishing a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics bridge program, called STEM Pathways. Some 140 students of color and first-generation students were invited to participate. A Bias Incident Response Team has also been restructured to reflect broader representation and the incident reporting process has been refined.

The creation of the commission arose from a Racial and Social Justice Retreat held earlier this year in response to demands presented by Black Students at Emory.

“The commission has already added and will continue to add priorities as we make progress,” Nair says. “It’s an ongoing effort to realize our shared community goals — in some ways, the ultimate model for practicing community.”

• Serving marginalized students

As Emory expresses a commitment to serve low-income, first-generation and undocumented students, Campus Life is working to provide the infrastructure to support student success, Nair says.

“That’s a continued priority for us and one we are considering through the work of the Office of Student Success Programs and Services,” he adds.

• Preparing for the presidential election

For many Emory students, this fall’s presidential election will represent an important rite of passage. The campus community has a responsibility to “ensure that those students get the full benefit of that experience,” Nair says.

Campus Life has charged a team with developing a support strategy.

“We see ourselves as educators and protectors of an important moment in their lives, to ensure that students are able to have what we call ‘the impossible conversations,’ discovering new ways of knowing and understanding, and exercising their right to vote through all the challenges of a unique and very different election cycle,” Nair says.

• Examining Greek life

As a member of a fraternity, Nair identifies Greek life as “an important part of my own identity and something that I believe strongly in and want to see flourish at Emory.”

At the same time, he knows that nationally and at Emory, Greek life has “faced some significant challenges around issues of risk and safety and diversity.”

“I think there has been this narrative that Emory wants to get rid of Greek life here, and it couldn’t be further from the truth. There is no agenda or plan to get rid of Greek life and there never has been — it’s too important,” he says.

This fall, Campus Life will work with an independent consultant to help examine the landscape of Greek life at Emory. With that data in hand, “we’ll bring together key stakeholders to develop a strategy to ensure that Emory Greek life both lives up to its organizational values and the University’s values,” Nair says.

• Building upon athletic success

Recognizing Emory's nationally ranked NCAA Division III athletic teams and scholar-athletes that garner academic honors, Nair will work with Athletic Director Mike Vienna to “develop a vision for a highly successful program that becomes a leader in promoting the scholar-athlete not only in Division III athletics, but intercollegiate athletics throughout the nation.”

• Strengthening sexual violence prevention

With findings from Emory’s first comprehensive climate surveys to examine student, faculty and staff experiences with sexual violence and harassment, work continues to forge data-driven strategies around sexual violence prevention and survivor support.

As a result of the survey, the University has also committed additional resources to support sexual violence prevention, advocacy and compliance, including the appointment of a full-time Title IX coordinator.

“That remains a significant priority for us, driven by our values and the importance of viewing sexual violence as an important public health and social justice issue,” Nair says.