With more than 100 student organizations at Portland State, the advisers in the Office of Student Development are already gearing up for fall term.
Advisers serve specific student organizations grouped by similar theme. Their emphasis always is on encouraging students to run their own organizations, with mentoring help from the adviser.
A nationwide search and extensive interviews on campus have added three new advisers to the staff. All were at PSU last week, getting acquainted with their assigned groups and undergoing training. Michele Toppe of the Office of Student Development was chair of the three search committees, which included students, faculty and staff. The new advisers are Mercedes Benton, Alex Accetta and John Eckman.
Benton will advise multicultural organizations and Queers and Allies. Accetta will serve recreational student organizations, including those who work at Peter Stott Center. Eckman will be advising the fine and performing arts organizations. Both Eckman and Accetta have masters degrees. Benton has completed work for her masters.
“The advisers work with the various student organizations under the Office of Student Development,” Toppe explained. “They are clustered in themes and each of the advisers is assigned to a particular theme.”
They are assigned to themes because there is a lot of interplay among groups. The office tries to put groups together that have shared resources or interests. Advisers respond to and support the needs of these student organizations, assisting students in getting to the agendas they want done.”Results are driven by the students,” Toppe said. “Advisers support the students to achieve what they’re hoping to achieve with their organization.” Toppe compared advising to holding the flashlight on what the organization wants to do, rather than making decisions for the organization or deciding the organization’s agenda. She said there may be other jobs that pay more money but, “I believe people do this work because it’s meaningful to them.”
Accetta came to Portland State from New York where he has been assistant director of student activities at Marist College. He saw considerable contrast between what he was doing at Marist and what he will be doing here.
“It’s a completely different model,” he said. “This is completely student-driven whereas students there were acting as para-professionals. There, we made more decisions. Here, it’s a really unique model. You don’t see it in a lot of places. You don’t see students really leading organizations. For instance, the outdoor program here is totally student led. Normally, that’s a professional position in higher education, the same as intramural. Club sports generally fall under the athletic department. Here, it’s a different model entirely.” He sees his role here as much less administering.
“This is probably why many of us got into it,” he said. At this stage in his career the model here appeals to him more, which he described as “helping students find their way.” People in college often have experience that really changes them, he said, and he wants to make a positive contribution to those changes. He sees this job as a step in his own professional development.To rise to positions of responsibility in the education system, he believes, “You really have to be a student advocate.”
Accetta lived on the Portland State campus one summer and spent two years in Monmouth, where his wife graduated from Western Oregon University. He worked in admissions at Willamette University almost two years.
“We made a very conscious decision to move back to Oregon,” he said. He has been a professional runner and has been a coach in cross country and track. But his athletic career has been injury-prone. “You can’t do everything,” he said, and he not only has a wife but a new baby girl to occupy his attention.
“I’m so new to really say if I have any goals,” he said. “It’s really about teaching students how to be better human beings.” He saw sports as a good medium for communicating with people about life.”The students here are on the ball,” he said. “They’re very effective.”
John Eckman has been the assistant director of student activities at Southern Oregon University at Ashland for the last nine months. He advised all 74 students organizations. He managed a nightclub at the university and put together a number of entertainment programs.
Before that, he worked for a number of years in housing at New York University and University of Connecticut. He came originally from Yreka, Cal., was an undergraduate at University of Oregon and received a masters in education and college personnel administration at Indiana University.Eckman connected with Portland State originally by being accepted into the doctorate program here in educational leadership. Once accepted, he looked for a job he could combine with school.”This fit perfectly with my school and my interests,” he said. He has many friends here from his connection with the University of Oregon. “So, this is a very comfortable place for me to come to.” He searched out this job on the Internet. This was the only job he applied for. He considers his path here smooth because he already understands the Oregon University System and the computer systems.
“I also really enjoyed when I was in New York working on the urban campus, so I’m really excited to be in an urban school,” Eckman said. “This is a job that’s really easy for me to get excited about.”The field of fine and performing arts he finds attractive because, he said, the students he has worked with in the past in this area are really passionate about what they’ve done.
“I think art is really easy to become passionate about.” He comes from a family of artists and musicians. In Ashland, he supervised a world music festival about six times a year. He also worked with the student radio station there and found the radio staff very passionate.
“One of the main jobs I have here is, when people who are organizing these groups get really excited their project, I’ll do anything I can to help it go more smoothly and work within the systems that are set up here. I hope no project is ever stopped because of a disappointment with the system, so my job will be to help those things go real smoothly.”
He’ll spend the next couple of months reconnecting with old friends and family in the area. When school starts, studies and the job will pretty much consume his time. He enjoys camping and hiking.His end goal is to continue to work in student affairs and to one day become a dean of students.
“Throughout all of this, the goal I keep in mind is to be a strong advocate for students within the university and make sure their needs are communicated to the rest of the university.”Mercedes Benton was born in Portland, attended Grant high school and graduated with a bachelors degree in history in 1999 from Oregon State University. She has just completed her work for a masters at Colorado State.
Following OSU, “I didn’t want to teach,” she said, “so I was encouraged to look at graduate programs in student affairs.” Colorado State had a program ranked in the top five, a program which provided a lot of practical experience in student affairs through internships and assistantships.Her masters paper raised the question, “Should African American students have separate support services at predominantly white institutions?” Essentially, she looked at a multicultural model.
“I think in the ideal world we want to have a university that has multiculturalism infused into every aspect. Unfortunately, we don’t live in the ideal world.” She saw one of the immediately attainable goals is to have support services that cater specifically to the black student population. She believes in the long run it would be advantageous to have such specific support services tailored to each minority group.
“When I started my graduate program, I had no intentions of coming back to Portland,” Benton said. “I was going to go to the East Coast.” But she found there were some good opportunities in Oregon and she decided she wanted to be close to her family.
“I liked the position the way it was set up because one of my passions and interests is working with minorities and it was a good fit for me.” Still, she feels qualified to advise Queers and Allies, even though it is not an ethnic minority.
“I’ve trained on racism, sexism, ageism, anything with an ‘ism’ in it,” she said.
As for her vision, “I want to definitely put myself in a position where I’m a student advocate. Where I support student initiative. I want to be in a position where I provide and cultivate leadership development with the students that I work with.”
She also wants to create an atmosphere where students feel free and comfortable to discuss issues within the organization. “Kind of an open-door policy.”
She likes music and basketball and good food. Her dad works for Sarah Lee in sales so she gets his opinions about which restaurants are good.
“I look forward to working with students and I’m excited about being back in Portland. I think Portland State will be good for me professionally.” She sees herself in five or six years in student affairs administration or at any rate working with students at some capacity.