February 7, 2017 at 1:38 pm

Dr. Hall-Jones Discusses Her Philosophy for Finding a Fulfilling Career

by Austin Rivers ’17

Recently, Dr. Jenny Hall-Jones was promoted from assistant to senior Dean of Students at Ohio University. Over her career span working as the Dean of Students, Hall-Jones has received numerous awards. Most recently she was awarded the Gerald L. Saddlemire Mentor Award, which recognizes supportive, educational student affairs professionals who have made significant contributions to the ideals of the student affairs profession.

Last week I sat down with her to discuss her new position and the changes it brings. In addition, Hall-Jones gave some significant insights into how she found her dream job working at OHIO, and how every student can do the same.

What exactly is your job?

As the Dean of Students I would say in general I can narrow it down to three things. We advocate for students in all types of ways. So if students feel they are getting trapped in a bureaucracy, if students feel that there is nowhere else to go they come here, and we will help them navigate the university landscape.

So number one advocate. Number two crisis response. So if students are in any type of crisis whether it’s personal, mental crisis, medical crisis, family crisis where they need to step out for a moment from school, we do all the crisis response. The third aspect of what we do in the Dean of Students office is communicate with parents.

I was looking at your bio online and it says you basically oversee a large number campus programs. What is it like to be for responsible and manage such a large amount of integral programs?

That’s the AVP part of my job. So what I described to you in the first part was the Dean of Students job. The AVP part is the management of all of the departments that provide really unique and integrated services to students.

So what is the difference between your former position and your current position now?

Well basically as senior associate vice president I’m going to be doing a little bit more divisional strategic planning framework. What’s happening in the division of student affairs, which is currently 150 employees and about 1,000 student employees, is culinary food services is coming into the division, and we’re doubling the size of student affairs. So we’re adding another 80 employees and another 2,000 student employees. Part of that connection is meeting on the responsibility of the senior associate vice president. It’s helping integrate culinary and move our strategic planning forward.

Sounds like you manage a lot?

Yes it’s a lot!

“I feel people think you always have to be the best, and you always have to get the best job, or the next title, next level, and here I feel like I’ve found my sweet spot.”

How has that transition been from your previous position?

Well it’s just started and the senior-level part of that transitioning is just now happening. I’ve only been in this position since January. Right now it’s just learning and trying to figure out what culinary needs and what we need, and how we are going to integrate together.

I looked at your bio online and it says that you got all of your degrees here [OHIO], starting from your bachelor through your doctorate. What was it about the University and the Athens area that made you stay here for so long?

Yeah that is funny, that’s not normal. In many ways it was because I fell in love with what I was doing, and I felt like I didn’t really need to go anywhere. I came to college originally as a forensics chemistry major. I did that for almost two years. In my first year I wasn’t well-connected on campus. I basically just went to class. I hadn’t really figured out how to be an OHIO student and how to be a college student till much later. So I didn’t have the best first year; I was pretty lonely. I just pretty much studied, and I didn’t have a lot of money.

By my second year I decided to try and be an RA. I thought it sounded like a really good job, and I that I could handle that and going to school at the same time. That is what fundamentally changed me. When I became an RA I was like, “Oh my gosh, I love this work.” I loved everything about it. I was introduced to social justice work for the first time. I started understanding the bigger picture of why I was here, and my baggage and my privileges. Those conversations started as an RA. It was at that moment I started thinking, “I don’t want to be a forensic chemists. I think I want to do something like this.”

So I switched my major to sociology, but I kept my criminology emphasis as I’ve always liked that. Then I got particularly to take the great classes you get to take as sociologists, and where you figure out how the world works, and that impacted my decision to work with college students. I ended up getting a full-time job when I went to grad school here. You know how if you have a full-time job and health insurance you don’t leave that! I was going to the dentist for the first time, it was great! Over the years I just kept working here and my Ph.D. came just as a way to the right education. Because it’s kind of hard not to do that when you live in a college town where you have all this information and education at your fingertips.

What was the career process for becoming the Dean of Students?

Ah well that’s a long story. Basically I thought I wanted to work in the residence halls my whole life. I was taking Ph.D. classes, and I was seeing this great big picture of how I was able to apply what I was learning in class to my work. Basically what happened was the new vice president came to town and he met with everybody. After talking for a bit he offered me to do a practicum with him. He said that he would love to work with a Ph.D. student, and I jumped at that. After six months of working with him, a job popped up working as the assistant to the VP. It was that job that led to being the assistant Dean of Students, and then the Dean of Students.

What is it exactly about your jobs that made you realize it was the right fit for you?

I never really thought I was going to do this. Even when going through the program and getting my Ph.D., I did not have in my head that I was going to be the Dean of Students. Part of it is some flexibility of figuring out your passions and what you’re good at. I thought I was able to do that here which was really great.

I love being able to see the big picture. I love having the institutional vision of this is where we need to go and understanding how my day-to-day tasks connect to that. I like being a generalist. You get to be that as the Dean of Students because you never know what’s going to happen.

Sounds like you have a lot of very different things you have to do?

Yes! And I love that! I love not having my day planned from day-to-day. I like the unpredictability of the crisis. Sounds weird, but I love it!

Is that a challenge for you? I mean what daily challenges do you face in this job?

I think the daily challenge is because you can get so wrapped up in the many crisis and the day-to-day work you can forget about the big picture, and you can’t move ahead in other ways.

There is so much work and so many things happening every day that I literally just could be doing that and if I’m not focused on — like we call it “navigating the whitewater” in student affairs…. You always feel like you’re in the “whitewater,” but you still need to be moving in the same direction. So the question is how do you navigate the crisis and still get the good quality work done that can change your programs and make them more great and effective for students.

I also want to add something else, because you asked “why,” and I think this is sociology. People would think that you could never get a sociology degree and be the Dean of Students, but I feel like a lot of the social justice foundations that I learned in sociology I apply them every day.

“When you see someone who’s been battling leukemia and he’s been on and off for six years, but he earned a degree and to be able to have that moment with him and celebrate his degree even though we knew he wasn’t going to live very much longer, those are the special moments. Those are what I am most proud of.”

You know I agree I notice that in my sociology degree you learn a lot of different skills and information about the world and people that can be applied into a lot of different areas. But what have been the most rewarding experiences as your time working in the Dean of Students’ office?

You know is really interesting because I think there are big picture things and I think we’ve done really well and accomplished with. For example, I was a part of making the old career services, and then we had a leadership office, putting that together and making it career and leadership, and focusing on the professional development of students, and not just focus on getting a job. I was a part of the planning on creating that office and I’m really proud of that, along with the Student Survivor Advocacy program. So when I think about structurally what I’ve done I think about those things.

But when I think of what was my proudest moment there have been two times where I helped students graduate. Once was two days before a student himself passed away. He had leukemia and he was dying, and we went to his house where he was on hospice, and we had a graduation celebration for him.

The other time was when a mom was dying of cancer and she wasn’t going to be able to make it to see her son walk, and we went to her hospice and we had her son walk there. Even though they are incredibly sad, this is what we do. We confer degrees. And when you see someone who’s been battling leukemia, and he’s been on and off for six years, but he earned a degree and to be able to have that moment with him and celebrate his degree even though we knew he wasn’t going to live very much longer, those are the special moments. Those are what I am most proud of.

Wow! Those do sound like incredibly special moments. This seems like a very hands-on job. You just don’t seem to do administrative work but a little of everything.

Yes! My job includes doing all sorts of stuff that you wouldn’t to imagine the Dean of Students doing.

So my next question is where do you see yourself in five years or so? Do you see yourself still doing this job?

I do. Last year I was interim vice president. Ryan Lombardi was our previous vice president, and I was in my office as the AVP Dean of Students. He leaves and I get asked to be vice president for the year. So last year I was vice president for student affairs. And people were like, “Why didn’t you apply? Don’t you want to be the vice president?” And I thought, “No.” So I was vice president of the school last year, one of the five or six vice presidents that they have, and I was the one in charge of student affairs. People were like, “Jenny you should do it,” and especially because of my background people were like, “Glass-ceiling Jenny, you need to do this, you would be our first female vice president in about 50 years” — from student affairs, we have other [female] vice presidents.

But really when I spent time with the job I didn’t like it. I didn’t like the politics. Way more budget heavy. I don’t really like the budget, I rather hang out with the people. I rather hang out at a student protest any day then be at the budget meeting. It’s just not how I’m wired. I will do it if I have to, but I prefer not to. So having that experience was really great for me, because sometimes I feel people think you always have to be the best, and you always have to get the best job, or the next title, next level, and here I feel like I’ve found my sweet spot. I am not the vice president so the buck doesn’t stop with me which I appreciate, but I still get to influence policy. I still get to influence the direction of where we’re going as his [Jason Pina] number two. As his senior AVP I’m the number two in his division, but I like the day-to-day. I like calling the students in the hospital.

That’s good that you found such fulfillment in your career, which relates to my last question: What advice do you have for students and seniors who are trying to find such career fulfillment for themselves?

I think it’s really hard at your age.  I feel like it’s harder for you all than it ever was for me.

“So I guess my advice would be following your passion, and not what you think you’re supposed to be doing.”

I feel like that too. I feel like the great trial of our generation is that we’ve been given so many options that it’s not as clear-cut. Because you know our parents and even our grandparents, especially our grandparents, the option of what you wanted to do there was less of them. But now with us they tell us the sky’s the limit.

That’s right. And you have all these options, but you also have this incredible pressure. You have to be better and make more money than your parents did before then, and I think there is this incredible pressure for college students right now to get a job. Like go out there and get a job! And it’s about preparing for your job. As I felt like when I went to college that I was preparing for my life.

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