The Theory of Office Staff

The office staff at your university can make an enormous difference in your college years. Get to know them. Talk to the person at the front desk for your department, and your dorms, and the library, and the scheduling office. When you get emails from the same name again and again, go ahead and follow that email to the source and get to know the face behind the inbox. Ask a question, say hi, mention an event you heard about somewhere else on campus that your peers might be interested in hearing about.


Because office staff are people too. That’s the main and fundamental reason. These folks are often stuck between the university on the one hand (with stressed-out deans, budget issues, and *the occasional* high-strung professors) and the students on the other (who blast through offices with loud demands or complaints and then leave without a thank-you). Most people staffing the offices are people who truly value education and who love your school. They want to help students make the best of their time. But, more often than not, their time is undervalued by the university and their presence is unappreciated by the students they’re there to help. So make contact, and possibly a friend. You’ll never know who you’re dealing with until you make the effort.

The other reason to get to know the office staff is that they have the knowledge and resources of the department at their command. This is a secondary point: the main reason to get to know anyone should not be because of what they can do for you. However, these are the folks with the answers to your questions, and the knowledge of opportunities you haven’t even thought to ask about.

Getting to know the staff made an enormous difference for my time in college. I was slightly acquainted with some of the staff early in college, and then I got a part-time job as a tour guide for the Honors College. Twice a week I would walk prospective students and their anxiety-ridden parents through the college, answering questions and talking about my experiences. On days when no one came for a tour, I put together information packets and did some general office work. In the process, I really got to know the folks around the college. I witnessed the stress of admissions time, and the huge effort behind fund-raising events and graduation. I saw my peers storm into the office in rage or confusion around class registration time, and often treat the staff quite poorly. I also witnessed the help the staff would offer: counseling outside their job description, or arranging for meeting space or contacts for student organizations.

I was challenged to find the most ridiculous hat in Chile. I succeeded.

After that, it became my goal to get to know everyone in the office. They might not be in charge of your grades, but that is far from the whole point of college, anyway. When I went abroad, one administrative assistant asked me to find the most ridiculous hat in Chile, so I sent a photo of a knitted ski hat that was (I swear) ten feet long. When I started a student organization, the office supported me with free copies and use of an empty classroom for meetings. Some staff people are good friends still, years after the time when I was interacting with them on a daily basis. And when I gave my undergraduate thesis defense, several of the office personnel sat through my hour-long talk and question-answering. It makes a difference.

So get to know the office staff. Heck, get to know the grounds maintenance folks while you’re at it. It’s easy to lose perspective on campus, and get to thinking that the only important people are the students and faculty. But college is a whole set of relationships and effort and people, all there to contribute to the community. So make the effort to take part in that network, and to respect all the different parts of it. If you’ve received 3,000 emails from an administrative staff person but you have no idea what he looks like or what she does over the summer, then get out there and fix it. Have a real human experience. Just see what comes from there.


Let me know what you think! And a special thank you to you folks I knew through my university days. You know who you are.