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Corlisse Thomas, Shaping the Leaders of Tomorrow through Student Life

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Corlisse Thomas wants every student to call Rutgers University-Newark (RU-N) home, whether they are part-time, full-time, commuters, or on-campus residents.

As vice chancellor for student affairs, a new position for RU-N, Dr. Thomas oversees Student Life, the Paul Robeson Campus Center, the Office of Housing and Residence Life, the Office of International Student and Scholar Services, Health Services, the Counseling Center, the Career Development Center, and the Department of Athletics and Recreation – all departments tasked with developing and enhancing the student experience from acceptance to graduation. She is hoping that the deliberate integration of all these areas will help prepare RU-N students for their lives beyond college.

Executive Vice Chancellor and Chief Operating Officer Shirley Collado, who oversees Thomas and helped bring her on board, is enthusiastic about what this means for RU-N’s students. “There are many assumptions made by outsiders about institutions like ours that commit to commuter populations. When we thought about this role, it was really about that commitment to the whole student no matter how much time they spend on this campus. We’re deeply committed to the students having a sense of place here, even if part of their sense of place is a handful of hours per week in the Paul Robeson Campus Center (PRCC) while they’re going to classes.”

While campus residents might already feel at home, how can RU-N foster the same among commuters? Instead of expecting everyone to join in the more traditional student life events and experiences, Thomas’s team will begin to look at meeting students where they already are and redefining what “student life” means. It could mean looking at traffic patterns to identify the locations frequented by students, and placing important notices and information in those spaces, or providing services and opportunities that closely meet commuter needs, or perhaps offering free coffee hours at selected times.  These are ideas she introduced at a previous institution, generating a lot of attention and goodwill among commuter students. Thomas is currently looking at places like the PRCC and Dana Library that are popular student hangouts, and working with others to explore options that might better meet the needs of the students already using these spaces.

But for Thomas, “student life” means more than simply fostering school pride or filling students’ calendars with activities. She is charged with creating tomorrow’s leaders. “When people think about leadership development, they think very classically about student organizations, and many students who are older, who are parents, who are employed are not necessarily heavily involved in student organizations,” says Thomas. “How do we develop our students’ leadership skills in other ways?”

Although she says it’s still early, Thomas has some creative ideas about leadership development, whether that means helping students prepare for their future careers or participate in service to the community in something like Community Engagement Day, where 100 students partnered with 10 Newark organizations to plant green space and support literacy. “It was very powerful to hear the students tell me ‘This is our community and we’re changing it into a new place and we so appreciate and want you to be a part of doing that with us.’”

One important initiative that is at the top of the list for Thomas is providing a safety net for RU-N students with the newly created CARE Team. The CARE Team is a network of Student Affairs staff that responds to student behavior that is disruptive or harmful and provides support that a student may need, including academic, health, or other resources depending on the nature of the concern. The team’s goal is to raise awareness so that the university community recognizes when a student needs help and to respond to the concern ensuring the safety of the whole community and providing maximum support for the student.   

Also on Thomas’s agenda is leveraging the incredible diversity of RU-N students in more meaningful ways. Thomas is working with the newly formed Commission on Diversity and Transformation on how to create more solidarity across groups and more intercultural engagement, including the possible creation of an intercultural center or an intergroup dialogue series.

But perhaps the biggest change ahead is a more fully integrated academic and student life. Thomas and her team are reviewing everything from the curriculum, to the community and RU-N’s role as an anchor institution, to spaces used regularly by commuters and residents alike for ideas on how to create more endeavors that effectively bring student and academic affairs together. Perhaps the best example of this integration is the new Honors Living-Learning Community.

While this may be a new role at RU-N, Thomas is no stranger to integrating student life into every student’s college experience. She has been student affairs leader at several institutions, including Columbia University, Stevens Institute of Technology, and CUNY. Her experience ranges from institutions that are private, Ivy League, and STEM, as well as large, diverse, public institutions in the heart of a city. “Most institutions don’t deliberately integrate student life and academic life.” says Collado, “but Corlisse comes from a very strong background in doing just this.”

Ultimately, Thomas wants students to leave RU-N feeling as if they are ready to become the world’s future leaders. “I’d like the students to feel like they were in relationship with RU-N and consequently, they are making their mark on the world; that their experience here has directly influenced and developed them into who they will be after they leave.”