UW News

February 25, 2010

New HFS director Pam Schreiber: It’s about much more than just housing

When Pam Schreiber was an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, she took a job as a resident adviser in student housing. As a first-generation college student who was supporting herself, she saw it mainly as a way to make money in a pleasant environment. She didn’t know she would still be in that environment 30 years later.

Schreiber came to the UW a year ago as the director of housing and food services, just the most recent step in a career that has been almost entirely in student housing. She had spent the five years before that as housing director at Florida Gulf Coast University — a relatively new (it’s now 13 years old) state institution.

“The interesting thing about Gulf Coast was building the place — physically building the campus, building the programs and services, building the culture,” Schreiber said. “That was really a fascinating experience.”

She has another building experience ahead of her as the UW embarks on plans to construct four new residence halls on West Campus (see our story here ). Coming to a university at such a time of expansion is ideal for a housing director, Schreiber said, but she was also attracted by something else.

“When I had the chance to visit, it was pretty amazing,” she said. “There is an environment here and a culture — you see it in how people treat each other and how much people love the UW — it really is evident when you come on to the campus. And I was excited by the opportunity to join a large university that has a tremendous reputation in a great part of the country.”

Ever since her arrival, Schreiber has been consumed by the construction project, and over the last eight months she’s led her department through a planning process. Though the buildings had already been designed before her arrival, she wanted her staff to be thinking beyond bricks and mortar to what they wanted to the use the buildings for — what kind of programs and experiences they would offer students who live there. Some of it, she said, is simply logistics. One of the buildings, for example, will have a fitness center. That’s a new thing for UW student housing, so the staff needs to figure out how to run such a place and be ready when it opens.

“As we’ve gone through this planning process, I have tried to infuse some of my values as a leader and some of my vision for HFS in terms of how we will work together as a team,” Schreiber said. “It’s given the staff an opportunity to know what my priorities are and to see me operate so they know what they can expect of me.”

What they can expect is a very collaborative person who is eager to engage with people across campus. “It’s crucial that HFS be viewed as a part of the University,” Schreiber said. “It’s very important to me that we reach out to other areas of the campus, that we serve on committees, that we develop relationships in any way that we think can help us improve our work and serve students.”

She’s following her own advice by serving on a visioning committee for Odegaard Undergraduate Library. The committee’s charge is to create a report for the provost and the dean of libraries on what things should be considered for an eventual renovation of the library. Participating on such committees, Schreiber said, allows her to not only learn about other areas of the University, but to tell people about HFS in her conversations with them.

Schreiber said she loves working in student housing because in that environment “you have such potential to make a difference.” She believes that when students leave school, it is most often because of social adjustment problems, not because they can’t do the work.

“As an undergraduate resident adviser, I had students tell me, ‘You helped me stay in school,’ and I didn’t even know I’d done it,” she said.

In one instance when she was a residence hall director, Schreiber worked with a student who was having a mental breakdown. She helped the student get the services she needed so she could recover and get back to school. The student kept in touch with her for years after that.

“One of the things about being in the residence halls, especially when you live in, is that students recognize you as sort of a bridge between the folks in other departments who may or may not be approachable and their roommate, who may or may not have the knowledge or the needed resources. So it’s an interesting position to be in,” Schreiber said.

She started out intending to become a social worker, but when jobs were scarce after her bachelor’s degree, she went on for a master’s in college student personnel and later a doctorate in adult education, all the while taking on increasingly responsible positions in student housing. Before going to Florida Gulf Coast, she worked at the University of Georgia and the University of Florida.

Student housing has changed a lot in those years, Schreiber said, and not just in the increasing amenities being offered in residence halls. Parent involvement, she said, is at an all-time high, and that’s both a good thing and a bad thing. The good side is, of course, that parents provide strong support for their students. The bad side is that sometimes parent support can interfere with student growth.

“As parent involvement has increased, we’ve all learned how to partner with parents and explain —sometimes calling on their own college experience — that we’re not going to let the student fall off the cliff, but sometimes it’s okay to let them wrestle with issues because they’ll come out of it a better person,” Schreiber said.

She’s also seen a dramatic increase in student interest in volunteerism during her career, as well as an increase in students with mental health issues — largely because a rise in effective treatments has permitted more such students to go to college.

Through it all, Schreiber has continued to believe in the importance of a good student housing system. “An operation like housing is often viewed one-dimensionally. Our job is to house students so that they can go to class,” she said. “But the reason I got into this work and the reason I continue to do it is, I believe it’s much more than that. Yes, fundamentally we house students so they can go to class. But they bring back to the residence hall every part of their life. They bring back their role as a scholar and a student, they bring back their personal concerns, they bring their desires to find their values and their voice. And so, to the extent that we can create an environment where when they come back to the residence halls, they feel it’s just one big part of their whole experience here, rather than a separate piece, then that’s ultimately what we can offer.”