Robby Crain

Assistant Operational
Services Coordinator

Robby Crain's office in the basement of the Mathematical Sciences Building contains a curious item: A polished wooden box that, when opened, reveals white kitchen utensils covered in elegant Mandarin calligraphy.

Robby Crain

As Crain explains it, one of the Chinese students she supervises in her role as coordinator of ITaP's student lab assistants brought the box from his homeland this summer. The student's grandfather works for the Chinese government, which commissioned the items specifically so they could be gifted to foreigners. Although it has little to do with Crain's job duties, the thoughtful gift reflects the profound ways Crain connects with the more than 120 students she oversees.

What is the scope of your role on campus, and what are your student workers' duties?

I supervise between 120 and 125 student lab assistants and senior lab assistants, and they work in the approximately 40 computer labs ITaP provides across campus. Our student employees are customer service representatives — they answer any questions lab users might have, they troubleshoot software and hardware, they fill our printers with toner and paper, and they complete similar tasks. We employ three levels of workers: lab assistants, senior lab assistants — who supervise several labs instead of one — and Hicks senior lab assistants, who help evaluate applications and train workers.

How are these students hired?

At the beginning of each semester, I probably hire between 30 and 35 students to cover whatever turnover we've experienced. Each semester, about 1,000 students apply for those spots. Because we have such interest in our positions, we tend to hire some of the highest-achieving and most responsible students on campus.

We often hire students as freshmen and keep them as employees until they graduate. We see this job as a steppingstone — maybe for our students to obtain other jobs or internships on campus, or for them to land permanent jobs in ITaP after they graduate. Some of our former workers have landed post-graduation jobs at incredible, diverse places — everywhere from the financial industry to the airline industry to manufacturing and even government agencies such as the FBI and CIA. Every year, I write a lot of referral letters.

Are there any unintended benefits to these student jobs?

Throughout the course of their work, students often become well-known on campus as people who can help with computer problems. Oftentimes, I hear about students whose professors will ask for their help during class, or students who are stopped elsewhere because they're wearing their ITaP credentials and someone needs help. These are good experiences, because they allow students to really take pride in the fact that they've become experts in troubleshooting.

How did you end up in this position?

I've worked for ITaP since May 2006 — when this position became available in 2008, I immediately knew that I wanted it. I was excited to work with a diverse group of students, particularly those who come from other parts of the world.

Throughout the course of their time with us, at some point our student employees go from being students to being adults. They grow and mature, and to watch that process is a very special thing. For me, it's important to treat the students as co-workers — as equals. It's been a very successful strategy.

For example, one Chinese student was homesick and considering leaving Purdue to return to China. However, after she started working with us and we got to know her, she decided to stay, and she said she made that decision because we showed her such kindness.

Every day, when I check up on students working in their labs, I ask them how they're doing. I ask them what's going on in their lives, because I've learned that making those personal connections makes students into better employees. When they know that someone cares for them, they call in sick less and are more invested in their jobs. They're quicker to tell me about their problems and concerns, and that helps me help them.

In the future, what are some things you might introduce into the students' work program?

I'd like to think of some more ways for our employees to interact outside of work. Maybe a student-run Facebook page would be a good way to make all the workers feel more connected. I'd also like to look into having periodic get-togethers for all the workers, and I'd like to continue explore ways for our jobs to serve as steppingstones. Once a student has become a lab assistant, I want the sky to be the limit.

For me, watching students grow and succeed is really rewarding, as is building friendships with them. Those things, plus a whole host of others, are why I really love my job.

Writer: Amanda Hamon, 49-61325, ahamon@purdue.edu