Nearly two weeks into her job, Vice President for Student Development and Campus Life Dr. Dawn Meza Soufleris walked into a hostile environment.
Last Tuesday, residential students were upset when potential Montclair State University students were invited on campus to tour the university. They were then angered by an email advising all resident students to avoid any unnecessary travel. There were also rumors of students protesting the actions of administrators over the upcoming weekend.
Dr. Soufleris said that if students feel the need to protest, they absolutely have the right to, as long as it is done safely and appropriately.
“If protests happen, it happens,” Soufleris said. “We’re not going to stop it unless someone truly gets hurt. If a student or group of students wants to do something that’s number one socially distant with masks on, and they want to have signs, they can do that.”
Although Soufleris is new to Montclair State, she comes with plenty of experience. She was vice president of La Salle University and has worked in student affairs for a long time. She felt prepared to work with the frustrated students and was open to discussing possible changes.
“My biggest piece of sadness in it is that I hate to see when students feel like we’ve made decisions not thinking about their well-being,” Soufleris said. “I will tell you that even before I got here, the well-being of the students and the community is all anybody has been thinking about over the past year.”
Dr. Soufleris handled the situation by speaking directly with a few upset residential students over a Zoom call. The students gave her helpful suggestions of what should be changed and the university is planning to put those ideas into place. One of those suggestions is to have regular town hall meetings, with the first one starting in May. Once the fall semester begins, the university will conduct monthly meetings to address student concerns.
“Now we can meet about COVID[-19], athletics or, I don’t know, a fee,” Soufleris said. “Whatever it may be, a new policy or something and we’re going to do them and have the right people on the call but we’re going to do one every month.”
As soon as the administration found out about the students’ disappointment, they made changes to the guest policy as well as the campus tours. Now, when conducting campus tours, no one is allowed inside of the dormitories. When the semester ends and students move out, arrangements can be made if a group is interested in seeing the residence halls.
President of the Student Government Association (SGA) Ernst Lozin stresses the importance of giving the students a voice.
“Anytime the students come together, they have a voice,” Lozin said. “Although their voices were in a position where some people may have seen it as disrespectful or wrong, the students still have a voice, and they’re obligated to use their voice in matters like this because this is a hard situation to be in. I commend all the students who took their voice to be able to speak to Dean [of Students Margaree Coleman-] Carter and our VP to figure out ways to salvage this year.”
Lozin’s first encounter with Soufleris was at one of the student leadership events and he believes that she handled the situation like an experienced vice president.
“Instantly, she was just a bright light,” Lozin said. “I mean, just a bundle of joy, nice energy and I feel like she handled it like a vice president should’ve handed it. She didn’t come in with the mindset where ‘I’m the boss, what I say goes.’ She came with the mindset of ‘I understand your frustrations but how can we fix it?’ And I think, one big thing with Dr. S[oufleris] is that she makes you feel as if that you have a voice, and she’s only been here for about two weeks.”
With all of the help from the Division of Student Development and Campus Life, Dr. Soufleris could not have asked for a better team.
“First of all, the team here in student development and campus life are all on board, and they’re working behind the scenes and being great and I will tell you the president has been wonderful, and my colleagues have been wonderful in every division,” Soufleris said. “I’ve seen a lot of things in my time in higher ed[ucation], and you learn from something from each and every one. What I think I’m learning here is it’s helping me understand Montclair [State] students better. Really quickly, and that’s a good thing.”
With many wonderful years ahead as vice president, Soufleris truly cares about Montclair State students and will continue to do her best to meet their expectations.
“There are good things that come out of strife, and there are good things that come out of student unrest or any kind of unrest and so I look for the silver lining and I think that there are some positives in all of it,” Soufleris said.