July 9, 2024

Staff Excellence: Office of the Dean of Students

The daily efforts of thousands of Purdue University employees revolve around student success and well-being, and that couldn’t ring truer for Office of the Dean of Students (ODOS) staff, who strive to ensure that each and every Boilermaker feels supported and empowered on their journey toward success.

“Students are the core of everything we do,” says Katie Sermersheim, Purdue’s senior associate vice provost and dean of students. “I would put this Office of the Dean of Students team up against any other dean of students office in the country because of the caring, compassionate work that is done.”

Sermersheim’s team of trained professionals works closely with the eight units the office oversees, along with the Purdue University Police Department and other campus units, to offer students a variety of resources and services that can help them overcome any challenge they may face.

Student outreach begins from a variety of different outlets, including Student of Concern Reports, which can be submitted by family, friends or any member of the campus community. When a report is received, ODOS team members step in to provide advocacy and support as they determine what type and level of assistance is needed.

Concerns that require elevated attention are passed along to the office’s Behavior Intervention Team, which reviews the concern, performs an assessment risk, and develops a support plan to resolve the issue and promote student well-being. They’re sincere advocates for student success, but that doesn’t mean they don’t feel the weight of challenges that students face. 

“Students are coming in to share their challenges, so it can weigh heavy on the heart and soul,” Sermersheim says. “Compassion fatigue can definitely set in, but you have to be good colleagues, support each another and understand that you’re making a difference, even though you might not see that immediately.”

Though they may not notice an immediate impact, the importance of their work cannot be understated. Through its emergency loan program, ODOS provides students financial support for educational expenses when unforeseen circumstances arise. Its Critical Need Fund offers essential relief when students face crisis situations like the death of a parent or a flood or fire in their off-campus home. And a wide variety of absence policies offer protection to students for bereavement, medical complications, military training and more.

ODOS staff members’ commitment to the campus community has supported countless Boilermakers through some of their toughest challenges, allowing them to come back from the situation with fewer worries. 

“We just try to relieve some of that extra stress and challenges that are confronting our students so they can get back to the business at hand — being a student, pursuing their coursework and focusing on the academic nature of things in front of them,” Sermersheim says.

ODOS also oversees a separate crisis intervention team that responds to emergency situations 24/7, 365 days a year. That includes serious hospital transportations, the death of a student or crisis situations involving students on or off campus. To better support the campus community through these situations, the office recently added a new resource on its website called “When Traumatic Incidents Occur,” which offers faculty and staff guidance on working with students experiencing distress and grief.

No matter the task at hand, ODOS staff members approach every single conversation with empathy and compassion — traits that allow these professionals to focus on the unique nature of each situation. No two cases are the same, but each outcome provides the opportunity to broaden their impact

“We achieve excellence at scale by focusing on the individual Boilermaker in front of us at that given moment and figuring out how we can help them be successful,” Sermersheim says. “When we do that work well, it has a positive snowball effect. If we help this individual through their challenge, then they’re going to go on, help others and direct them to us for support.”

Their role on campus is critical in providing the programs, services and resources necessary to support every student through any challenge they’re working to overcome. But sometimes, these staff also need a helping hand — one that often reaches out from within the team itself. The support they offer each other is crucial in maintaining the outstanding and unwavering level of care and compassion they provide students, so they can go on to pursue their own success — however they define it.

“It’s OK to need a pause, so we take that deep breath, refocus and then help our students again with the programs, services and support that help them succeed, letting each student define what success means to them,” Sermersheim says. “And that becomes our to-do list.”

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