Students First

"You don't have to carry the burden alone," says Dean of Students John Pelrine. Photo: Phil Dembinski '08
New Dean of Students John Pelrine talks about how he envisions working with students and the larger Columbia community.

For many who look back at their time as students, there is a turning point—an inspiring professor, a difficult but satisfying project, or an on-campus event. For John Pelrine, recently appointed Dean of Students, his turning point came when he moved into campus housing during his third year of college at Loyola University Chicago. He became involved in student organizations and in his fourth year he won the election as class president. “In the valleys and peaks of my experience, getting involved in those two years was qualitatively different—it was a peak experience of being a student.”
With more than 30 years of experience, Pelrine talks about his excitement working toward advocating for Columbia students.
I see the role of my office as supporting students. We’re finding ways to partner with and complement the core of the institution, which is learning.
There’s a long standing gulf between academic affairs people and student affairs people. The old putdown is that student affairs are the fun and games people and the core work of the institution is over at academic affairs. What I’ve learned is we have to stop comparing each other. I really want to build relationships with academic affairs.
Once you strip away the baloney and the politics, our job is to make sure that the faculty know what we could do to make students successful. If you have a distressed student, you don’t have to carry that burden alone. Maybe they need health care or mental health care or a place to live. Let us know, we can help. It’s about creating the right environment. In other words, we can take away obstacles to their education.
What strikes me is how Columbia students refer to themselves not just as students but as creatives. My sense is that they are really focused on their work, grounded and driven to do well because so many are going into competitive fields. They can still have fun and do what college students do, but they’re here for a reason.

I’m really intrigued by how the curriculum is structured here. There’s a liberal arts background with an element of entrepreneurship here. So, one of the places I’m looking forward to growing is understanding this curriculum. It’s very distinctive. No one else is doing what we’re doing.
Another advantage to our students is having part-time faculty who are out in the world as practitioners making a living out of their work. I think that’s a huge bonus for our students.
Between studios and the Workroom, the Loft and the lounge spaces I absolutely love the amount of space dedicated to student work. It’s a compelling statement about what we do here. The work here is more nitty-gritty, we might need more room to make a mess.
We tell students that they need to leave here with a portfolio, a real solid body of work and I think the college really backs that up by providing them with this amount of space.
We have all these different buildings spread around this neighborhood and some would see  that as a real detractor. But we really make it work.  Having green spaces or leafy walkways between buildings would undermine, in some respects, the notion that we are a school in the city and part of the fabric of the neighborhood. I’m glad we’re not just one big giant building.
I’ve virtually worked every position and did a little of everything. And with all of my jobs, it all boils down to how to best advocate for students. Ultimately, what’s important is their success.
There’s an urgency to learn Columbia as quickly and as best as I can. I worked at Loyola for 22 years and at St. Xavier University for 15 years. I knew where the dust bunnies were in those places. But it took years to learn where all those nooks and crannies were. So, it’s going to take time.