When Mary-Beth Cooper joined Rochester Institute of Technology as its new Vice President for Student Affairs, I was asked to write a profile piece on her for the RIT University Magazine. This piece ran in the winter 2002 issue.
Mary-Beth Cooper: studying students
As RIT's primary student advocate, Mary-Beth Cooper exemplifies her theme for this year: “Students Matter.”
Cooper, the new vice president for student affairs, will take a close look at programs of the Division of Student Affairs, assessing how well they meet student needs and whether they remain relevant for an ever-evolving student population.
To stay current with what students are thinking and where they find roadblocks on the journey to academic success, Cooper takes classes.
She's been a student at almost every school where she's worked. At Michigan State University, where she earned a Ph.D. in college and university administration, she was a residential director. At the University of Georgia, while working in residential life, she earned a master's in education. Most recently, while dean of students at the University of Rochester, she picked up an MBA. The only exception was when she was dean of students and chief of student affairs at St. John Fisher College in Rochester.
“Taking classes with students helps me understand what it's like to be a student on a campus at that particular time in the institution's history. Simple things like registering for class to trying to get a cup of coffee after class gets me closer to what students are experiencing,” she says. “If we are not careful, administrators can become isolated from the student experience.”
At RIT, Cooper is enrolled in the deaf studies certificate program at NTID. The six-course program is an ideal foray into student life, she says. Cooper is discovering that understanding deaf students is a lot more than just learning sign language. Knowledge of deaf culture and history is as important as language.
Class time is one way to interact with students. She also connects with students through monthly dinners at her home and Thursday drop-in office hours. Increasing student representation on university committees is another way to get feedback on how RIT can better meet their needs.
Also on Cooper's agenda for the coming year is a close look at programs designed to ease first-year students' transition to college life. But first-year students aren't her only concern.
“I want to understand the RIT student experience all the way from orientation to commencement,” she says. “How can we make that experience more satisfying and stimulating?”
By going out of her way to maintain student contact and communication, she's become more than just an administrator.
“Dr. Cooper is my friend,” says Student Government President Erick Littleford. “In the sea of faces, acquaintances, colleagues, and peers, she comes across as a loyal and supportive friend.”