Operation Move In

When I showed up as a freshman to get the key to my room in Crawford Hall on the campus of Tennessee Tech University, a couple of student workers welcomed me to college and pointed me to the stair well closest to room 311.

The three-story building didn’t have air conditioning, had one wall phone for each hallway, communal showers in two big, shared bathrooms on each floor and one laundry area in the basement. I had a set of bed linens, too many clothes, an electric typewriter and my textbooks–more stuff than my mother wanted me to take, but almost nothing by today’s standards.

Modest version of today’s student residence

Today, college residence hall nest-making is big business. Retailers from Lowe’s to Wal-Mart to Bed, Bath & Beyond start early in summer trying to sell students on the idea that they aren’t just moving onto campus, they’re making their own, first homes.

And over the three decades since I went away to school, colleges have adapted to changing preferences for more apartment-like and less dorm room-like accommodations.

Universities have also realized the opportunity they have to reach out and make students feel welcome by declaring a “move-in day” and showing up en masse with smiles and helping hands.

Which brings us to UTC’s 2019 “Operation Move In.” It took place on Thursday, Aug. 15, before the Monday that classes began on Aug. 19. The scheduling is to enable parents a weekend, if they need it, to help their new college kids get fully situated in their homes away from home. The weekend also lets students get a feel for campus and its surroundings.

Just a few weeks on the job, I wasn’t able to help at move-in day 2018. The big doin’s are coordinated by campus housing officials, known formally as the Office of Housing and Residence Life. This year, as in all years, that office began recruiting volunteers in June. Hearing the effort was still about 200 helpers short at the first of August, I signed up both Bill and myself.

Almost a dozen student housing complexes are home to about a third of the student body of roughly 12,000. That includes approximately 1,500 freshmen who are required to live on campus if their hometowns are 45 miles or more from UTC.

Among the remaining volunteer locations when I signed us up was Decosimo Apartments. Those mean something to me because that’s where I lived for a month in 2018 before Bill and I got moved from Knoxville to Chattanooga.

Bill’s 2018 move-in stint at Decosimo.
How did I have this much stuff to move in just for a month?
My very un-decorated Decosimo apartment of 2018.

I know my way around the building and the parking area there, so I signed myself up to help students carry in their belongings and for Bill to help direct traffic as parents had 20 minutes to unload cars at building entrances before finding long-term parking. Bill was OK with that assignment, he told me, emphasizing he wanted no part of lugging stuff into the building or up its stairwells.

Nope, no elevators in ‘Dee-co.’

All across campus, hundreds of volunteering employees–and their spouses, in many cases such as mine–made up a well-established system of coordination. Students with even-numbered room assignments were installed in the morning, odd-numbered assignments in the afternoon.

Bill inspects belongings to organize for hauling.

I knew the majority of my fellow employees we volunteered with and, per usual, Bill didn’t meet a stranger. He soon was pointing out the shortcut to this or the easiest way to that, and carrying loads inside despite swearing he wouldn’t be hauling anything.


Linens and clothing were just the start. Flat-screen TVs, cookware, dishes, shelving and every kind of blinged-out decor item went up the stairs that day. Cardboard from all the newly unboxed stuff and all the moving boxes had to be carried outside to a dumpster. Far too much of that flying to toss it into trash chutes. The dumpster outside had to be emptied at least once in the middle of the day.

Even the chancellor helped.

Parents mostly were too busy to get choked up about the milestone moment they were in the midst of, and students mostly were excited about the milestone moment they had long anticipated.

Representatives of student organizations surfed by every residence complex, handing out freebies and invitations to join this or that group.

Even Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke stopped by to greet some of the few thousand of his city’s newest residents.

Mayor Berke welcomes a Nashville couple and their son to campus and the city.

On-campus living bears little residence to the time when I was a student living on a campus, but helping this generation get settled was fun for Bill and me, and it was a great window into what students care about and the people who care about them.

Ten Tips to Take to College

Labor Day: It’s both the unofficial end of summer and beginning of the school year.

Despite the wide-ranging starts of school—whether elementary, high school or college—once we’re past Labor Day, the rhythms of life tend to settle in on the academic calendar.

This Labor Day weekend is the first I’m spending as a member of administration at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, and I’ve had a new perspective as students returned to campus. Prior to June 2018, I’d been with UT System Administration since 2005, and directly interacting with students wasn’t our purview. I’m really enjoying the opportunity in my new job to be more engaged with students—to say nothing of a couple of upcoming communication classes I’m scheduled to visit.

Once we get past this weekend, which also opened football season on most campuses, college students can settle into the groove until the holidays and the end of the semester. Which got me thinking back to my time as a new college freshman, what I learned from that, and what others have told me of the life lessons they learned in college—besides the classroom lessons.

Tenn Tech Freshman: 18 and Permed.

With that in mind, here are my top 10 tips and/or things I wish I’d known as a freshman. I’m no expert, but since I offer these thoughts at no charge, you can’t beat the price.

No. 1: Go to class. 

If you live on campus, it may be the first time you’ve ever lived without mom, dad or a similar adult under the same roof, so it may be the first time you’re solely responsible for getting yourself where you’re supposed to be. Now that you’re in college, that’s how it works. Get yourself to class. On time. Every time. 

 No. 2: Take notes in class.

See tip No. 1 again. Go to class, take notes, and keep up with them. Attendance—even punctuality—is often part of a course grade. Then there are quizzes—the pop kind and others. Taking notes is a good habit to develop so that you’re prepared for quizzes, mid-terms, finals, the requirements for the course project…and for life. To this day, I never go into a meeting—with one person or 20—without a pad and a pen so that I can take notes.

No. 3: Practice self-discipline in studying.

I didn’t know “how to study” when I started college. I made good grades before then, but the academic rigor and time demands weren’t the same. Nobody but me was going to make sure I studied in college, and making sure I did so adequately was a practice I got better at with maturity. You also need to be realistic about when and where you can really study. In your dorm or apartment with your roommates or friends—when they are not studying—is not likely to produce much study. There are libraries and other quiet spaces around campus where you can make the most of your studying time.

No. 4: Keep a calendar.

This not only helps you keep track of what you have to do when, it’s another one of those good self-discipline, time-management habits. College will offer lots to do besides going to class and, if you have a part-time job and a social life, you’ll be amazed at how much help it can be to keep track of everything on a calendar. Lots of web-based ones make it easy to check your calendar wherever you are. Your smart phone surely has a built-in calendar. Again, you’re responsible for you now. Showing up when and where you’re supposed to is another part of adulting.

No. 5: Pace yourself.

See tip No. 4 above—you’ll have lots to do, lots of new experiences to try, the opportunity for a jam-packed social life, and plenty of new friends to make. It’s OK to set limits on how much you want to take on at one time. It’s recommended, in fact. You don’t have to do everything all at once, and most of what you put off until later will still be there later. Even if it’s not, that’s OK. Focus on doing what you have to—going to class, studying when you should be, working a job if you have one—and don’t let FOMO (fear of missing out) cause you to spread yourself too thin. 

No. 6: Have an open mind.

One of the great gifts of college is the exposure you’ll have to all kinds of people, perspectives, viewpoints and new knowledge. Embrace it. Being open-minded, tolerant, respectful and willing to listen will serve you well. Higher education brings awareness of the world’s great variety of people and viewpoints that may have been previously unknown to you. That does a lot to give you perspective on life’s complicated issues and the value of context.

No. 7: Be true to yourself.

In situations—social situations, for instance—that your instincts tell you aren’t right for you, follow your instincts. Exposure to new things doesn’t mean all of them are meant for you. Your people are out there and you’ll know when you’re among them.

No. 8: Find and serve in good internships.

Internships are good opportunities to develop professional skills and professional connections. Treat them as extended job tryouts—be punctual, professional, reliable and do your best. Every day. Graduating with at least two good internships will give you a real advantage as you enter career world.

No. 9: If graduate school is in your future, think about it now.

As a college freshman, it’s asking a lot of you to think about whether and how soon you might go to graduate school. All I can tell you from personal experience is, it’s really tough to go to graduate school when you also have a full-time job. I had no choice because, by the time I chose to go to grad school, I had a mortgage and bills to pay, so I couldn’t afford not to go to work full-time. Grad school is extremely time-consuming. If or when you decide to pursue a graduate degree depends on your unique circumstances, but if you go to grad school before you have to work full-time, you might still have free time as a grad student.

13985251282_acbfc3e2be_oNo. 10: Soak it all up.

Years after you graduate, the four interminable years you think are ahead of you now will seem to have passed in the blink of an eye. College is like no other time in your life, and it can be some of the best time of your life. Don’t get too caught up in what’s next and miss what’s now. Walk every inch of the campus. Learn the traditions. Go to the pep rally. Cheer at the game. Sing the fight song. Listen to the bell tower. Keep a journal if you can. It’ll be fun to look back on how you progressed over the years.

I offer these observations–especially No. 10–not only as one who completed college, but as the first in my family to graduate from college. It’s a time in life like no other and, even though it wasn’t easy, I would do every bit of it again. Especially if I could take along my 10 tips from the start.

Best of luck to the incoming freshmen of 2018—work hard and have a blast!

–Gina Stafford

Helping Tennessee Achieve

I want to be the person I would have wanted to mentor me.

IMG_9244That’s how I approach volunteering to mentor Tennessee high school students making the jump to college.

Waaay back when I was a first-generation college student, there was no program of mentoring on the sometimes-complex path toward pursuing a degree.

My ACT composite score was very average (weak by today’s average); I got to skip freshman English but had to take remedial algebra; I transferred colleges a couple of times and lost credits; I changed my major and lost credits; I had to leave school to earn money a couple of times; and nowhere did I have someone helping me avoid the pitfalls. Let’s just say I had above-average determination—stubbornness, maybe?—that kept me going.

No graduate of Tennessee Tech University was ever happier than I was on May 9, 1992, when I hugged President Angelo Volpe and picked up the diploma that signified I had earned a bachelor’s degree.

Today, I’m proud to say, the state of Tennessee is a national innovator in policy and programs to incentivize and support college completion. In 2005, the same year I went to work for the University of Tennessee, the first class of incoming freshmen Tennessee Lottery Scholarship recipients arrived on campus.

That program made such a difference, financially, that even the most-competitive high school graduates with out-of-state scholarship options began staying in Tennessee for college. Year after year, the freshman class at UT Knoxville broke high school GPA and ACT score records. Other Tennessee public colleges also welcomed more better-performing students.

Meanwhile, in 2010, Tennessee elected Bill Haslam governor, and he said we had to do still better: “In 2012 it became clear to leaders across Tennessee that conversations about economic development were becoming conversations about education.”

That was the rationale in 2014 for launching “Drive to 55,” a push to take Tennessee’s percentage of state residents with a post-secondary credential—some completed education after high school—from about 33 percent to 55 percent by 2025. Along with that came “Tennessee Promise,” the first-in-the-nation program of tuition-free community or technical college and mentorship to high school graduates.

A couple years in, I heard so many good things from friends who had volunteered as mentors, I committed to finding the time to mentor, too. But you know what? I found out that mentoring doesn’t really take much time at all.

A mentor’s job is to understand a few basic eligibility requirements the Tennessee Promise recipients have, to attend a group meeting with them and their fellow high school classmates and mentors, and then to get in touch periodically to remind them of deadlines and steps for remaining eligible. Tennessee Achieves requires and sets deadlines for students to complete the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) form, apply to the in-state college of their choice, and complete eight hours of community service prior to each college semester.

To me, it’s special because mentoring is to overwhelmingly first-generation, first-time college students. It’s a chance to be the mentor I wish I could have had.

IMG_9246Last week brought the meeting I attended at Karns High School in Knoxville to meet the seven college-bound seniors I get to mentor. I learned their identities a few weeks earlier and had been corresponding via email to remind them of the upcoming meeting. Per usual, I didn’t hear back from all of them.

I received nice messages back from two, and both were at Karns with their moms. I met two others I hadn’t heard back from, and three others weren’t at the meeting—which is not all that unusual. Though eligibility rules require the students to attend or to provide an acceptable excuse within 72 hours. Which is how I got to meet an Oak Ridge High School student who was there because of missing her meeting a couple of days earlier.

Allowing for potential traffic, I gave myself extra time to get to the meeting and was early. I watched kids, some with parents or other adults, arriving. They’re just like we all remember being in high school: some quiet, some loud, some cut-ups and some hipsters.

When you check in, you’re given the number of a cafeteria table where you’ll sit. I headed for No. 26 to wait for my mentees. It was about 10 minutes before start time, but already there was my mentee, Cole, a quiet young man with glasses and a ready smile. He was polite, extended his hand to shake mine, then reached in a brown paper bag to offer me one of the fried cheese sticks he was eating for dinner. Cole plans to enroll at a local community college and, long-term, is thinking about possibly going to medical school. I asked him if he’s comfortable with math and science, and he nodded.

img_9241.jpgThen came Brooke and her mom, who has a non-medical job in a local hospital. Mom knows firsthand the range and demand for work in healthcare, and Brooke is considering a medical imaging concentration at an area community college. Mom had a few more questions than Brooke, who struck me as independent and determined to figure out as much as she could for herself.

Two other students, Kailey and Abbey, soon arrived with their moms, and we’d all been in touch via email before the meeting. I knew Kailey plans to go to UT Knoxville and Abbey plans to go to my alma mater, Tennessee Tech. Kailey is a personable, outgoing girl who hasn’t decided on her major yet. Abbey is friendly but reserved, still trying to decide in which area of engineering she will major.

IMG_9237On my way out after the meeting, I realized both of their names are on a plaque of honor for graduating seniors who achieved higher than a 30 on their composite ACT scores. For reference, mine was 18.

Zoe is the sweet Oak Ridge High student who came to Karns to make up for missing her local meeting. I think she randomly chose my table, and I had the chance to learn she is a violinist, a soccer player, and that she’s interested in attending Maryville College. I helped her with a form the students had to complete. It includes blanks for filling in the name and contact information for the student’s mentor, and Zoe said, “I don’t think I have one because I haven’t heard from anybody, so can I put you down?”

See? Small demands. Big rewards.

Now I get to stay in touch with Zoe. Along with Cole, Brooke, Kailey and Abbey. And I’ve emailed the three who were absent last week to remind them to notify the program with an acceptable excuse so their eligibility continues.

As one of the program officials said to the students last week, “This is the tough love part of the program. We give you requirements. Your mentors remind you of them. These are hard and fast deadlines. You’re learning that requirements and deadlines are a part of adult life, and you’re learning responsibility for them.”

IMG_9242According to Tennessee Achieves, its founders “understood that students, particularly at-risk students, need more than funding to complete college.” That’s the reason for “a holistic approach to student access and success by providing wrap-around supports.”

Sounds good, but for me, it’s just an opportunity to put my experience with obstacles to use in helping the next generation overcome some of their obstacles. Then maybe they pay that forward to the generation that follows them.IMG_9238

That’s the kind of mentor I would have wanted.

The Communicators Go to Washington

I recently spent half a week in Washington, D.C.

For this student of history, consumer of headlines, and higher ed mouthpiece, it was like summer camp for grownups.

IMG_8889I was in town to attend the annual conference for senior communication professionals of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. I’ve been to Washington a few times, but this was my first AASCU conference, and I really enjoyed getting to know some of my colleagues from public universities across the country.

People who don’t work in higher ed may be unaware of the social, political and funding concerns universities face. Those of us who communicate and manage crises for universities are all too aware of the seemingly endless concerns. That’s the best part of gathering to share ideas with peers and experts. Who doesn’t love talking shop with people they’ve just met, yet who are so familiar with their unique challenges that conversation can go straight to shorthand, right from the beginning?

We shared stories of campus free speech concerns, sexual assault controversies, slashed budgets and university mergers–and that was just Tuesday. The next day began with a look at what current and future generations of college students think about the cost and necessity of higher ed. The insight came from one of the most highly regarded public opinion experts in the country, John Zogby of Zogby Research. If you recognize the name, it’s probably from hearing national network news anchors cite his company’s polling data.

Among his fascinating insights: Many of the country’s most-familiar establishments, institutions and agencies that have provided security, comfort and familiarity are undergoing a process of devaluation. Institutions once counted on to nurture our opportunities may be falling short and devalued to the point they’re no longer seen as requirements but impediments to growth.

He had a great example to illustrate perception gaps:

“To my generation, Mickey Mantle was the greatest. To my kids, he was a drunk.”

I can relate. As long as we’re talking baseball, my husband and I have an equally wide gap in our perceptions of Pete Rose. My husband is a fan, by the way, and I’ll leave it at that.

What’s important–if not alarming–is whether those of us in higher ed, along with churches, governmental and non-governmental institutions can maintain relevance as the social sands shift beneath our feet. As Zogby said, millennials have grown up in a world they can hold in their hands, accessible 24/7 via smart phones and connectivity. The challenge for higher ed and other longstanding, bureaucratic institutions is “running to catch up with empowered individuals.”

Later that day, we heard from Scott Jaschik, a founder and the editor of Inside Higher Ed, and Jennifer Ruark, an editor with The Chronicle of Higher Education, on how to succeed at submitting an opinion piece to their publications. News flash–your piece must express an opinion, not merely extol your university’s virtues. They represent the two most-prestigious national publications devoted strictly to higher ed. And for useful editorials, both suggested a few of the kinds of topics about which anyone in higher ed administration would have an opinion but could–very likely–be reluctant to express in public. Examples: Do gen ed and liberal arts survive at regional universities? Or, how college deepens inequality.

See? Life’s not easy up in The Ivory Tower. Probably because the Tower is under threat on multiple fronts. As Zogby also said, “Today’s elite is tomorrow’s irrelevant.”

I enjoyed meeting Jaschik on a visit to Inside Higher Ed during a 2007 conference, so between a visit there or to The Chronicle that AASCU set up for us as our last activity before leaving town, I opted to stop by The Chronicle.

Liz McMillen, center, editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education.

It was great finally meeting Eric Kelderman, a reporter I’ve worked with a few times, along with reporter Fernanda Zamudio-Suaréz, and editor Liz McMillen, who made time out of what I’m sure is none. They invited the 10 of us from universities across the country to share “what keeps you up at night.” No one had to think too long to come up with a list.

It also was great walking through an actual, staffed newsroom, and seeing evidence of a process of designing, approving and printing actual pages on paper.

But it wasn’t all work and no play to make Gina a dull girl.

I made the most of a few fleeting moments the afternoon I got to town and in the evenings after our conference adjourned for the day. AASCU hosted the conference in its offices, about three blocks from my hotel, and both are in the heart of Washington. I walk a few miles every day, anyway, and it was great to have all of walkable, “monumental” Washington at my doorstep for three days.

img_88591.jpgAnyone who’s ever spent time there knows it’s impossible not to know you’re in the seat of our national government. Every kind of interest group–including AASCU–has a full-time presence.

Picketers, demonstrators and advocators are everywhere. Which I find kind of invigorating.


In the space of three blocks, I passed AFL-CIO headquarters, the offices of the National Postal Workers Union, encountered a couple of panhandlers, was invited to join Amnesty International, and asked if I could contribute money to help Syrian refugees.

I took long walks from my hotel and back to see the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, the relatively new World War II Memorial and the old, abiding national treasures that are the Smithsonian museums.

The Washington Post was on my block and the White House was only a half-mile away.

On past visits, I’ve been to the National Gallery of Art and the Smithsonian Museum of American History.

This time, I wanted to see the Hope Diamond. It’s in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.

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I also took the first chance I had to see the recently completed portrait of former President Barack Obama–and all of his predecessors, in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery.

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Quite by accident, I ended up in an extremely posh neighborhood on my way home one evening.

Full of “if you have to ask, you can’t afford it” retail such as Dior, Gucci and Prada–even a Tesla dealership in the heart of the city. I snapped my photos and hoped there wouldn’t somehow be a charge for that.

For my money, Washington’s best treasures are the national kind–the ones behind glass, or a velvet rope, for which the only cost to experience them is your time. I made the most of mine this trip, including time with AASCU member colleagues I look forward to keeping in touch with. It was fun doing both in a city that has so many interesting things to see, there are always more and new ones for next time.

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