Conversations with Leaders: Elizabeth "Betsy" Joseph
Elizabeth “Betsy” Joseph, director of Auxiliary Services & University Housing, is wrapping up her 40-year career in higher education, the last six of which have been at Governors State University (GSU).
She recently took a break from the hectic year-end crunch to reflect on her team’s ground-breaking work to create a GSU’s first-ever residential housing program, meal plan, and ID program for the university.
Joseph brought to the task more than 35 years of experience in student housing at schools as large as Kent State University, where 6,000 students live in 25 campus residence halls. By comparison, GSU has one residence hall, Prairie Place, for 300 students.
The long-term goal, in 2011, was to have 1,200 students living in four residential buildings supported by a revamped full-scale state-of-the art dining facility. Those plans have been delayed by the two-year budget crisis.
Though the vision has not fully materialized yet, what Joseph and her team of nine has created in Prairie Place inspires her. “For me, that building truly represents the diversity of who our student body is, and I think that’s something special.’’
Formerly an upper division institution that primarily enrolled students whose average age was 33 and who attended school part time in the evening, GSU was undergoing a transformation to bring in 17 and 18 year olds who would live on campus.
It was a critical shift that required extensive experience to pull off. Joseph had led robust housing programs on three campuses from Virginia to Pennsylvania to Ohio and was excited to bring 30-plus years of experience and industry knowledge of best practices to bear as she designed Prairie Place and the auxiliary programs in her areas of responsibility, which also include the book store, myONECARD, and Campus Dining (GSU Café and Prairie Place Convenience Store).
What resulted is a unique facility housing intergenerational, international, and interdisciplinary interests under one roof. Where most institutions group students by academic year, major, or even lifestyle, Prairie Place residents co-exist in one three-story building.
The hall offers two- and four-bedroom fully furnished apartments, as well as suites, and a robust array of activities to engage students. A living and learning community, Prairie Place also offers student residents access to full-time onsite faculty members as part of the Faculty-in-Residence program that integrates learning inside and outside of the classroom. "The program provides students with an opportunity to get to know a faculty member who can serve as a resource person and assist with issues the students might have."
Having faculty in the residence hall around-the-clock is central to the larger vision of successful students, Joseph, said, pointing to research that shows students who live on campus are more likely to graduate. “It gives students an opportunity to become more self-reliant and independent.”
Because Prairie Place is the only residence hall on the campus, it meant students had to be grouped somehow by age. The older students are on the top floor where it’s quieter and the younger students are on the first two floors.
Still, there have been challenges.
There were the expected personality clashes between roommates living away from home for the first time, and flare-ups as students learn what it means to live in a residential community. “That was all normal,’’ said the unflappable Joseph.
What Joseph was not expecting was the effect of her older residents– one student was in her 50s – on traditional younger students. “There were complaints about the freshmen being loud and rambunctious, which we anticipated, but having the older students there actually brought a calming influence.”
Each passing year, the growing pains have lessened as Joseph’s team has tweaked policies and programs to meet residents where they are. And, the students have also learned to live and work together.
“One of things I learned was if I was going to be successful at GSU, I couldn’t just take a program that I created somewhere else and expect it to work here without tweaking it to meet the needs of the GSU community.”
Flexibility was the key.
Joseph had to bend more on the terms of housing contracts and student disciplinary matters – both of which were non-negotiable in other universities. Instead of removing one young woman from the hall for disciplinary infractions, Joseph found herself mentoring the student.
Even with six fully engaged resident assistants, Joseph still personally emails, texts, and calls students with reminders about deadlines, academic support, and personal issues.
“Like everyone else here, I do what it takes for students to succeed, and I’m excited that I have helped create a campus culture where we give GSU students every opportunity to graduate, and that includes living on campus.”
As she prepares to retire in May, Joseph said she is proud to have been part of a community that looks at each individual’s circumstances. She thinks back to the one troubled student who she worked with as a freshman in Prairie Place. “I was really worried about her. She had so many challenges here and at home, but she is graduating next month. It's a real GSU success story.”