Parent Times: The University of Iowa
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SUMMER 2001-02
Volume 45, Number 4


Dazed and confused? Iowa's staff is here to help

This Old Dorm: Renovations bring neighborhood concept to eastside residence halls

Residence hall living: Students sign on for independence

They WILL talk to strangers: Encouraging safety at college

Becoming a part of University life

University Calendar

The University of Iowa campus is a big place. With its approximately 29,000 students and 13,000 employees, some students may find that it’s more populous than their hometowns. And even for students from urban areas, there are adjustments to be made. Fortunately, the faculty and staff of the University are here to help. Below are three of the many people for whom the most rewarding aspect of their work is spending time with students.

Cafeteria classics: Tater-tot casserole and John Cochran

It’s lunchtime, and students begin to filter through the food lines in Burge Hall. Today there’s a homey selection of entrees. And standing behind the steaming trays of grilled cheese sandwiches and chicken and noodles, John Cochran dishes up conversation that matches the food for comfort.

John Cochran readies the lunchline.

“Hi Amy, how’s it going?” he asks a sleepy-eyed blonde. When she affirms that she’s as tired as she looks, he offers some encouragement. “Just two more days ’til the weekend. You can do it!”

“What’ll you have, Matthew? Green beans?” Cochran asks another. “Your mother’s going to be proud of you.”

It’s a small connection—being remembered and called by name—but an important one for many students.

“First-year students are easy to pick out,” Cochran says. “They’ve got that ‘deer-in-the-headlights’ look. They’re surrounded by 20,000 students and living with a perfect stranger. I just try to have empathy.”

Cochran’s been dishing up a side of cheer with the flank steak for the past five years. And it’s a two-way street—students call John by name, ask him about the photos of his grandchild posted on the wall behind his food line, and he still gets a Father’s Day card from a former Burge diner.

“I really enjoy these students,” he says.

Cochran is equally enamored of the food he ladles out. Students at both the Burge dining hall (on the east side of the river) and Hillcrest Market Place (on the west) can choose hot dishes that range from the exotic, like spicy Thai chicken to old favorites like mac and cheese. They also have the option of the Grab and Go line, open from 7 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Here students with class schedules that make it difficult to go through the regular dining lines can choose from a variety of cereal, ready-made and deli sandwiches, salads, yogurt, pudding, fruit, and a variety of beverages.

The University’s facilities are in the midst of renovation. In place of serving lines, Hillcrest dining room, which was remodeled in 2000, now features serving stations like Piazza Café, World’s Fare, and Golden Harvest Home Cooking. Burge dining hall is slated for a similar expansion and remodeling. (See story on page 2.)

Back at the food line, Cochran checks in with another diner.

“Hey Brandon, did you get your car fixed? Were you able to make it to the Knoxville prom?”

Brandon smiles and nods his assent, the stress of upcoming midterms momentarily lifted.

“I just try to make the kids feel at home,” Cochran says.

More information about residence hall dining options, including hours and menus, can be found on-line at

Dispensing keys, flowers, and advice: Sandy Lee

Sandy Lee’s official title is Clerk II. But mom-in-residence might be more appropriate. While her job description says that she’s responsible for helping students fill out work orders to repair clogged sinks, checking out keys, and distributing packages, her informal duties extend to the kinds of things you’d ask mom about, if only she were around.

Sandy Lee assists a student with room check-out

“Students come in and ask if they can wash an orange tee-shirt with white shorts,” says Lee. “Or their car needs fixing and they ask me where to take it. I’ve had them ask what to get their parents for an anniversary present.”

Lee is a desk clerk in Quadrangle, where she’s worked for 12 years. Along with the 34 resident assistants and student desk clerks in Quad and Rienow halls, she’s there to help students living in the westside residence halls. Each complex has a 24-hour desk, where students can check out recreational and housekeeping equipment, exchange rented linen, and pick up parcels. The 24-hour desks are where students can get help at any hour of the day or night.

“There’s always someone to help a student with any kind of need or problem,” Lee says.

Aside from the day-to-day assistance, Lee and her staff see all students when they check into and out of Quad or Rienow. At the beginning of the semester, students pick up room keys and hall information, and they return the items at the end of the school year. But in between May and September, visitors stop in for lots of other reasons.

“Parents may drop off treats for their student, or someone might get flowers delivered,” Lee says. “That’s when I feel like Santa Claus.”

Although life at the 24-hour desk can get hectic, Lee thrives on it. She has two grown children of her own and says her family teases her about her attachment to University students.

“My nieces say, ‘You always said you wanted lots of kids—now you’ve got them,’” Lee says with a smile. And despite the more-than-occasional chaos, there’s only one time of the year that Lee dreads.

“It’s the end of the year, but not because it’s busy,” Lee says. “It’s because I hate to see the students leave.”

Helping students find their niche: Mary Ellen Sinnwell

As the seventh of 10 children in a household with one bathroom, leaving for college wasn’t much of a stretch for Mary Ellen (M.E.) Sinnwell, manager of Residence Life.

Mary Ellen Sinnwell, center, laughs with senior Jessica Ray and assistant hall coordinator Kevin Hochett.

“Moving into a residence hall as an undergraduate felt pretty normal,” says Sinnwell. “Those getting-along skills I learned as a family member go well in a residence hall.”

So well, in fact, that after Sinnwell earned a master’s degree from Bowling Green State University in higher education administration, she continued to work in residence halls, spending 10 years at Michigan State University before coming to The University of Iowa three years ago.

“Residence Life is here to assist in the life skills development that goes on outside the classroom,” she says. “I really enjoy the impact it’s possible to have on student life.”

A lot of that impact is helping first-year students, who make up 72 percent of the inhabitants of Iowa residence halls, establish their place at the University.

“We’re here to help new students find their niche.” Sinnwell says. “That niche may not be the same one they occupied in high school, and that’s okay. The residence halls are a safe place to explore many options.

“College is an opportunity for students to open themselves up to new experiences, and learn more about themselves,” she continues. “We want students to get involved, to try something they never thought they’d try, like student government or intramurals, and see how they feel about it.”

Sinnwell, along with David Coleman, assistant director for Residence Life, oversees the staff who help students explore their nonacademic opportunities: the five hall coordinators, eight assistant hall coordinators, and 114 resident assistants (RAs). Together they work to develop programming opportunities for students that have both a fun and educational component. In addition, she advises and supervises the campuswide residence hall student governing organization, ARH (Associated Residence Halls).

“I really encourage students to get involved at the floor, hall, or campuswide level,” Sinnwell says.

She also urges students to venture beyond their orbit of classrooms, residence hall, and dining hall.

“A student could be here for four or five years and miss a lot of opportunities,” Sinnwell says. “Hop a Cambus and see what the University has to offer—attend productions, walk into buildings and see what’s going on.”

Sinnwell is also responsible for keeping track of less savory kinds of student activities, including violations of roommates’ rights to sleep and study, in check.

“We make sure that community living standards are adhered to,” she says.

In addition, Sinnwell and Coleman are responsible for enforcing acceptable use policies related to the Internet.

“It’s important to understand that students are plugging into the Internet through the University,” she says. “The University’s Instructional Technology Services notice when bandwidth use exceeds regulations, I’ll meet with the student about correcting the problem.

“My job is to look at the whole picture of residence hall life,” Sinnwell says. “We’re the educational part of college that is nonclassroom-related, helping to teach students to be citizens accountable to one another and to society.”


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