• Assistant Director of Student Activities Jennifer Frias

Life outside the classroom

In January 2019, Jennifer Frias took over the role of assistant director of student activities at Southwestern University. Hailing from Del Rio, Texas, and having earned her B.A. and M.A. in English language and literature at Angelo State University, in San Angelo, she originally considered a career in teaching and was grateful to have the opportunity to teach classes as a graduate student. The experience was “as rewarding as I expected,” she says, “but I felt there was something missing from that role because I liked to invest my time in talking with students one-on-one because students have lives outside class.”

She began researching other careers in higher education, and she was drawn to job ads  that focused on student programming—that is, “planning experiences for people to participate in and come together as a community,” as Frias describes it. Having enjoyed working as a peer mentor and in the library as an undergraduate as well as in academic tutoring and support in graduate school, Frias began applying to student-affairs positions. She felt she could “make a connection and make an impact” on students’ lives more effectively in student life than she could while teaching general-curriculum courses. “I really value the sense of recognizing connections and establishing those connections,” she remarks. “I realized this is what I should be doing. And it looked like a lot of fun, too!”

She had wanted to try living outside Texas and in a big city, so she moved to Los Angeles and took up the position of assistant director of student programming and commuter services at Mount Saint Mary’s University, a private Catholic liberal-arts college. She was grateful for the position, and she appreciated L.A.’s beauty and the numerous interesting things to do there, but she found the work–life balance, commute, lifestyle, and distance from her family difficult to adjust to. So she researched universities in Texas, zeroed in on smaller liberal-arts schools, and found her new home at Southwestern.

“I like that Southwestern is small and more intimate. I like that even my colleagues get to know the students. I definitely wanted to work at a place that I could feel invested in and it would feel invested in me,” she says. She was also drawn by SU’s commitment to diverse perspectives and the opportunity to host events on potentially sensitive topics. “That’s where conversations should be happening: in a place of learning, in a place of respect, in a place of understanding. If you can’t fully understand someone’s perspective, you can at least respect it. That’s what really intrigued me the most about Southwestern,” she recalls.

Promoting work–life balance

As SU’s assistant director of student activities, Frias advises and collaborates with the University Programming Council (UPC), the student organization that puts on campus social events, from Karaoke Night and SU Showcase to Laser Tag, Retro Game Night, and SU Drafthouse. UPC comprises approximately 30 student volunteers and is led by a four-member executive board of students. Rather than dictating how or what programming should happen, Frias serves as the UPC’s sounding board, overseeing the events and assuring that they take place. She enjoys planning with the organization, encouraging other students to attend, and posting about the events on social media in real time.

UPC

The organization’s schedule is fast paced for SU’s small size—the group averages an event per week, with some regular events, such as Friday Night Live, attracting 100 students on average. “But thinking about the total student body, it would be nice to see even more people come out,” Frias comments.

Part of that is knowing the value of the events themselves. “It’s important for Southwestern students to work hard but also destress and take care of themselves,” she says. After all, engaging in campus programming can bolster undergraduates’ academic schoolwork by relieving stress, improving social skills and connections with other students, and stimulating creativity—something that overarchieving SU students can sometimes forget. She also wants to make sure SU students graduate with a healthy sense of balance: “Your work is not your life,” she says knowingly.

To improve attendance, then, Frias, who still values collecting and analyzing data the way she did as a researcher in graduate school, has been developing surveys with the UPC so that students can provide feedback on not just the kinds of events they’d like to see more of on campus but also how to best use spaces such as the Bishops Lounge and the Cove to make them more inviting. “You can never make everybody happy, but if students are feeling changes need to be made, I’m glad I can be part of making that process come to fruition,” she says.

Creating community and shared memories

One of her favorite—and one of the most well-attended—events during her first few weeks on campus was Late-Night Carnival, which featured fresh popcorn and cotton-candy stations, miniature golf, Fourth and Goal, the Bushel Basket Toss, Skee-Ball, and the Milk Jug Toss. “I felt so energized by that event because it involved so many different parts, with a lot of different students working the different stations, but it was simple, too: it was just carnival games, music, and free food,” she recollects. “It was neat to see all the UPC members working together, and we had almost 200 students just hanging out and actually staying and experiencing it. Seeing that definitely made me feel a lot of excitement and pride in creating these experiences with students.” 

She is also proud of this past March’s Music on the Mall, one of the UPC’s largest and most collaborative events, with Austin band Wild Child headlining along with Southwestern bands sleep well. and Sweet Maple Street performing. The music festival drew a crowd of more than 300, with more than 15 student organizations cosponsoring the event.

Moreover, she loves seeing faculty, staff, and their families attend events such as Late-Night Carnival or Cinematic Saturday. Frias hopes that she can collaborate more with academic leadership to increase their engagement with social programming. “I would like to explore the idea of involving faculty more in programming,” she comments. “I remember being a student and wishing I could get to know my favorite professors outside the classroom.” If faculty and their families participate in more events, students can see their professors not just as faculty but also as people who students can connect with through shared nonacademic hobbies and interests. Professors can also serve as models for students of a healthy work–life balance.



“But the biggest part of my role,” Frias adds, “is making sure the UPC students feel motivated and encouraged by seeing the results that they want to see. During our meetings every week, we definitely take a moment to reflect: What do we think of last week’s events? What do we like? What can we do better? Do we want to do something like this again?” She believes that taking the time to self-assess with her volunteers is important because it’s helping them “develop 21st-century skills,” and she’s been consulting with Lisa Dela Cruz, director of Mosaic, to learn more about how to encourage those lifelong competencies. By planning, implementing, and then reflecting on their events, the UPC students are using their critical-thinking skills, but instead of applying them to writing an essay for an English class or solving homework problem sets in a mathematics course, they’re applying them in a cocurricular setting.

After her first full semester of student activities at Southwestern, Frias continues to be committed to fulfilling the visions and aspirations of her UPC members while tailoring events to the SU community. In the fall, she looks forward to contributing to Welcome Week and Homecoming in addition to expanding student programming. “I think it’s important for us to be adaptable and really listen to what each incoming cohort wants to see in their programming and what they want their Southwestern Experience to be,” she comments. “What kind of memories are students going to have? What shared experiences will they remember? I definitely see opportunity there, and I’m really excited to be a part of that.”