Reorganization of student affairs leads to increased collaboration

Nicole Kent-Strollo and the Dean of Students’ office holds a resource fair to show students all the department has to offer. Photo by Henry Shorr / The Jambar

By Henry Shorr

The three vice presidents in charge of each part of the Division of Student Affairs have found greater room for collaboration in the year since the department reorganized.

 Joy Polkabla Byers, associate vice president of Student Experience, has found that since consolidating these different departments, the division of Student Affairs has more effectively aided students this past year. 

“Our students have such unique needs and we need to pay attention to them. And being able to really focus on our unique areas that fall under the three of us has allowed us to become more expert in what we’re doing and helping with the resources to help students,” she said.

Polkabla Byers has worked at Youngstown State University for almost 17 years and has worn many hats. In her role as the head of Student Experience, she oversees the offices of Veterans’ Affairs, Campus Recreation, Student Activities and Housing and Residence life as well as many other aspects of the YSU experience. She takes pride in knowing that she is helping to “create that sense of belonging and passion for students.”

Polkabla Byers spoke about the impact the COVID-19 pandemic had on move-in and how the division overcame problems at the beginning of the semester.

“Right before move-in, we had some staff members and some students that ended up getting COVID, and we still had a job to do. Everybody stepped up — whether they were in enrollment management or if they were in the dean of students — we all focused on the students,” she said.

Elaine Ruse, associate vice president for Student Enrollment and Business Services, spoke about this event as well. She said she was proud of how quickly everyone worked together to make things run as smoothly as possible for the students.

“It was a really proud moment for the three of us to be able to come out of a tough situation that could have really hurt our students who were trying to move in during a stressful period. That was a really visible example of where customer service was improved, not hindered,” Ruse said.

She is also appreciative of the expanded collaboration between the offices.

“It took a little bit of time to coordinate things, but we are doing great things in a collaborative manner because we each get to focus on the needs of our students for the areas we’re responsible for and yet we get to collaborate where there is overlap and referrals needed,” she said.

Ruse’s Student Enrollment and Business Services offices — which include Undergraduate Admissions and Financial Aid and Scholarships — have had to take on greater responsibilities during the pandemic. 

Undergraduate Admissions offered numerous virtual recruitment programs in addition to testing-optional admission. The Office of Financial Aid and Scholarships had to implement applications and processes to administer and disburse $26 million in HEERF funding while following federal regulations and implementing other COVID-19 appeal processes for loss of income and academic progress. 

The pandemic created additional stress for students who were already experiencing financial or personal challenges. Ruse worked closely with both Polkabla Byers and Nicole Kent-Strollo to ensure the financial needs of the students were met.

“We all worked really well together before, so it’s been nice to have these services working closer together under one umbrella,” Kent-Strollo said.

Kent-Strollo, dean of students and Ombudsperson — who previously developed and served as Director of the Office of Student Outreach and Support — finds that in her role in the division of Student Affairs, she is still doing much of what she did before, but more effectively.

“In the role that I am in — quite frankly — a lot of what I do, I did before. But at this point, I have the ability and authority to, in this position, make some quicker changes,” she said.

The Office of the Dean of Students has many services under its banner including Student Counseling Services, Community Standards and Student Conduct, Student Advocacy and Support, and Compass Family and Community Services — including Rape Crisis and Sojourner House. Kent-Strollo said having all of these services under the same office creates a more holistic approach to aiding students.

“We have all of those [services] under one umbrella, and a really outstanding team of people who are in those fields and are just so willing and capable of helping students who deal with very extenuating situations — things that without this assistance would serve as really big barriers to their ability to succeed as a student at YSU,” Kent-Strollo said.

The trifecta of Polkabla Byers, Kent-Strollo and Ruse is able to do more for students because this reorganization has made collaboration and referral between their departments much easier. 

“Ultimately, that’s our goal. We want to recruit them and we want to retain them, and I take it personally when I find out a student is not having a good experience,” Polkabla Byers said.