Cultivating a Culture of Care with the Catholic University of America’s Dean of Students

By Mantra Team

Posted: March 01, 2023

Higher education wasn’t a common pursuit in the community where Jonathan Sawyer, Associate Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students at the Catholic University of America, grew up. In his graduating class of approximately 200 students, fewer than ten went on to pursue a four-year degree and he was one of them. 

He wanted to follow in his brother’s footsteps and pursue a career in engineering, but Sawyer had a hard time adjusting to campus life at Virginia Tech. He had little social interaction with his peers, didn’t connect with professors, and was in a challenging living situation. At the end of his freshmen year, he went to the housing office to request a change – and ended up with a job in housing services, where he helped new students with the transition to campus. 

This experience strengthened Sawyer’s relationship to the university and led to other opportunities, more enjoyment, and greater academic success. He hopes that, regardless of what college a student chooses to attend, they will find that same degree of connection, support, and engagement that Sawyer found at Virginia Tech.

Turning the Dean’s Office into a Hub for Students

After earning a master’s degree in Higher Education and Student Affairs from Virginia Tech, Sawyer took a job as the Residence Hall Director at Ball State University in 1995, then moved to Catholic University in 1998 where he first worked in Residential Life and Student Conduct and later as the Dean of Students, a role he has held for 19 of his 25 years at the university.

Sawyer has been in the trenches with the students, helping them work through challenges, and he’s managed a staff that has faced an ever-increasing volume of student issues. Since the pandemic, Sawyer has found himself engaging more and more with students. The caseload has almost quadrupled in his office, although there are few undergraduate students enrolled at the university.

From his vantage point, Sawyer believes that virtual engagement during COVID has impacted a great number of students’ ability to develop coping skills needed to overcome obstacles, leading to an increase in engagement between students and staff. “Students are also more comfortable articulating certain issues and we’ve created a framework here to engage with students. We encourage them to come forward when they need help,” says Sawyer. Students will go to the dean’s office to discuss their academic challenges, or personal hardships. “They learn pretty quickly that this isn’t a place that gets you in trouble. We help the students.”

At larger state schools, students might not interact with the Dean of Students, but at a small, private Catholic university, it’s different. “Everybody should know you,” Sawyer explains, which is why he has deliberately created a culture of openness within the department and encouraged students, parents, and other community members to come to his office with any questions or concerns, which he then filters out to his staff. This has allowed the dean’s office to become a centralized place for students to access guidance and support.

Sawyer wants students to “learn how to cope, how to be resilient, and how to recognize that life is full of setbacks and, at times, failure.” He wants students to develop key skills, like communication, negotiation, self-reliance, so they can overcome these obstacles and make a broader impact on the community around them. The challenge, however, is maintaining a strong relationship with the students and building the proper support systems to care for them across all four years. This starts with the parents, with the months leading up to college, and freshmen orientation, but must continue through the duration of that student’s time on campus. 

Maintaining Balance in a High-Stress Environment 

Now more than ever, students are talking about their mental health and seeking out counseling services, which has dramatically increased the service utilization rates. At the same, we’ve witnessed more suicides, deaths, disturbances, and shootings at campuses across the country, which has turned the counseling center into a triage center.

Staff, from counseling services to student affairs, are overworked, and often overwhelmed with the rising demand. To mitigate these problems, Sawyer treats the dean’s office like a hub, where initial intakes can be conducted. Maybe a student does need counseling support, or maybe they simply need coaching. By establishing the dean’s office as the go-to place on campus, Sawyer has managed to reach anywhere from 35-45% of the entire undergraduate population on an annual basis. 

Maintaining this structure is challenging, however, with students graduating every year, and as the university aims to double its enrollment over the next decade. But Sawyer and his staff have been working for the university for many, many years, long before COVID. They’ve weathered many storms and they know how to cope with the changes and roll up their sleeves and get to work. They also understand that the chaos will rise and fall across the academic year, but when limits are reached staff are reminded to take pause before resuming. 

“We can’t get overwhelmed by the reality of what today is, because tomorrow is going to bring something different,” says Sawyer. At the same time, “we can’t keep pushing through because it will pile up and that’s not healthy either.”

Sawyer aims to maintain the balance, but knows that it’s a year-round rollercoaster, and rest needs to be taken during breaks and in the summer months. This downtime also gives Sawyer and his staff time to rethink procedures and processes of the year and consider what worked, what didn’t, and what approach should be taken for the next academic year. 

Keeping the Focus on the Student Experience 

“The work is ever-changing. There’s never a dull moment,” Sawyer says. He describes the experience of supporting students across the four-year journey as akin to having children, of which he has three of his own. “You get to see these students change and grow, just like you do your own family.” 

Often, he’ll tell students of the many times he went fishing in college. The river near his undergraduate campus was winding and in order to find the right place, he had to test out different spots, push his limits, sometimes wading into the water, and always adjusting his position based on the weather or time of year. Sawyer compares this experience to college, in which there are obstacles that need to be overcome – and in which students have the opportunity to develop their own sense of independence. 

“It's about loving yourself and self-sufficiency,” Sawyer says. Far too often students are encouraged to go to college, find their spouse, get a job, but what they should be focused on is their own self-identity and finding the things that bring them joy. “What we do isn’t rocket science, but it’s really hard work. It’s stressful. And we don’t know what the future holds, but hopefully good things.”

Photo copyright: Ed Pfueller | The Catholic University of America

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