First CXO may just be a student's new best friend

March 02, 2021

Shot of Tom Ellett talking to students on the quad

When Tom Ellett heard that Quinnipiac was looking for a chief student experience officer, he was intrigued. It was the first advertised job of its kind he’d seen, and he could visualize himself in that role. Enhancing the college experience for students is what he’s done for more than 35 years at four different universities.

He’s taught students for 12 years, shared hundreds of meals with them, and indeed lived among them in residence halls a good part of that time. He knows what makes students tick, and the one thing that never changes: They want more than anything to connect with peers.

Ellett came aboard Aug. 1, retiring from his position as senior associate vice president for student affairs at New York University. He was percolating with ideas about how he could make an impact at QU, where he finds the sense of community palpable and the ambiance conducive to personalizing a student’s educational experience.

He hit the proverbial ground running, but in a different way than he’d imagined. Before he could tackle making the Quinnipiac experience smoother and more convenient for students, he needed to make sure they were mentally and physically OK as they returned to campus amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Face masks served to hide smiles of recognition on returning students’ faces as they greeted their friends and to conceal the tentative smiles of first-year students hoping to make new friends.

Ellett found his way to the front lines, helping to coordinate the rigorous on-campus COVID testing and encouraging students to guard their health and that of the larger community by protecting “the Bobcat Bubble,” as it was called. He joined the COVID-19 task force, which meets daily on all things pandemic. He pitched in to help Student Affairs staff field questions from anxious parents and lent a hand to dining staff bagging food orders. No job was too small and no distance too far: When a volunteer was needed to drive COVID tests up to a Boston-area lab in November, he grabbed his car keys.

Ellett oversees all student-facing functions including enrollment management, student affairs, registrar and bursar, public safety, veterans affairs, and more on the horizon. This structure reflects a transfer of duties from what previously was included under the umbrella of the role of provost and executive vice president. His appointment allows new provost Debra J. Liebowitz to focus exclusively on faculty, academics and research while continuing to work in strong partnership with him. Both are members of President Judy Olian’s management team.

“From the touchpoint of the first time a student thinks about attending Quinnipiac all the way to handing them to Alumni Affairs, the team I work with needs to think broadly, give consistent and personal messages, and create intentional development opportunities,” Ellett said.

“Tom is both creative in building a total living-learning experience and is committed to engaging personally with students at every point of their college years,” Olian said when she announced his hire.

In order to engage with students, Ellett needed to get to know them, not just as numbers, but as people with faces, hopes and dreams. He began walking the Mount Carmel Campus in August, introducing himself to students enjoying the early fall sunshine. Students describe him as friendly and approachable.

As he ambled down Bobcat Way, he recruited first-year students as well as sophomores and juniors to join advisory boards he was forming to begin the conversations shaping his plans and the changes he’s considering. Groups met on the quad and outside the library until it got too chilly, turning to Zoom later in the semester.

“We talked about their day-to-day experiences in the dining halls, residence halls, and such, and we discussed how Quinnipiac communicates with them—from how they pay their bill to how we make them feel valued and cared for,” Ellett said. Those talks continue today.

Ellett shares inside information with his student boards, such as new policies or COVID-related emails, before he disseminates it to the entire student body. In return, he asks board members to share complaints or issues they have or have heard about directly with him so he can help. He learned about a large Halloween party some students chose to attend last semester in New Haven this way.

Vanessa Blassi ’23, MS ’24, is on Ellett’s first-year student board, although the School of Communications accelerated dual-degree (3+1 ) student said she’s technically a sophomore. She describes her group as close-knit and focused on “making ‘Corona College’ not stink.” She was appreciative of Ellett’s initiatives in planning events, such as scavenger hunts and other games, for both residential and commuter students.

Each student who visits Ellett gets his undivided attention. Personalizing his exchanges with students is his trademark, he said. “And I don’t just say ‘Yes, I’ll take care of that for you’—I want to know how the student will participate in any change. I tell them that, at the end of the day, it’s our institution, not mine. I emphasize that because I have a place of power or privilege here, I have access to information, but that doesn’t necessarily make my voice louder and stronger than theirs.”

He teaches young people how to navigate the system. “I’ve always thought students can make longer and faster change than I can,” he notes.

John Shepherd is a believer. The sophomore criminal justice major had some gripes about dining options early in the semester. Ellett invited him to join the first student board he created, or better yet, form his own sophomore board. Shepherd recruited almost 20 other students who were up to the task. Ellett also put him in touch with a Chartwells Dining manager to find some solutions.

“We talked and I told him that we felt the quality of the food had gone down because of COVID,” Shepherd explained. “The manager admitted they had fewer employees on hand and were doing the best they could, but sat down with me to listen.” One solution they agreed upon was that Chartwells would pre-package breakfast items at a station to make them more accessible, add more choices, like vegan chocolate chip cookie dough bites, and leave breakfast items out for a longer time period.

Shepherd is grateful for Ellett’s help. “Tom is straightforward and he gets to the point—if something is not going to work, he will explain why, whether it be lack of funding to do X, Y and Z or a logistical issue. He also is very responsive, and I get return emails from him, even when I am asleep.”

In fact, Shepherd remarked that he had no idea who the previous student experience officer was because they’d done nothing as far as he was concerned. He laughed when told that Ellett is the first!

Ellett’s career began in 1986 at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. He moved on to the larger Syracuse University in 1996, as director of residential life, staying until 2001. NYU, a school with 50,000 students, was next, where he led four student affairs units with a $25 million budget and $215 million in revenue and was instrumental in creating a new Center for Student Life. “I see the chance to bring the siloed experiences—like the registrar, bursar, financial aid and other student administrative units—and put them under one umbrella to lift the administrative bureaucracy and create a one-stop student experience that answers all student questions,” he said.

Other services that could fall under this umbrella might be technology help, parking and student employment.

At Syracuse, Ellett embedded living-learning communities into residence halls to create deeper connections between students and faculty. He did the same at NYU, where more than 80 faculty members either lived in the halls or participated in programs and excursions with students twice a month. He may replicate a similar experience at QU.

“I hope there will be a day when I live in the residence halls at Quinnipiac. I think that is where I am at my best—immersed in the community and the culture. I am a sociologist at heart, always studying human behavior,” he remarked.

Ellett noted that NYU didn’t have much of a traditional student community. “But here, it’s different, and I’ll have more of an opportunity to have an impact,” he said as he gazed out at the quad from his office inside the Arnold Bernhard Library. NYU didn’t have a quad, and Ellett enjoys the view and the student contact the quad provides.

He and his wife, Gladys Vallespir Ellett, raised their sons, Christian and Alexander, in residence halls on and off during his career. Gladys is finishing her doctorate in nursing practice at NYU. Ellett has an undergraduate degree in English from Fordham University, a master of fine arts degree in theater from Catholic University, and a doctorate in educational leadership, administration and policy from Fordham.

“An adult presence with a family adds a totally different culture to a student’s home. My role is not to be a conduct officer—it’s really to enrich their intellectual lives and be the person who engages them in talking about their dreams and other big questions, such as how to live a meaningful life,” he said.

Sharing breakfasts with students or inviting them to dinner is something he and other dorm-dwelling faculty enjoyed. “It breaks barriers to break bread with someone and get to know them in a relaxed way,” he said. Shepherd likes this idea. “We would see faculty more as people and less as teachers grading papers,” he said.

Ellett said some of Quinnipiac’s dorms are in great shape and others need renovation, part of the school’s recently unveiled master plan. In the future, he hopes some residence halls will include classrooms, apartments for faculty, workspaces for students and even a room to show movies. While some of QU’s dorms have living-learning communities where students live with fellow majors, Ellett is thinking more along the lines of interest-based communities where people share an affinity for music, film, art or architecture, for example.

At NYU, Ellett designed a first-year student experience that fostered a stronger sense of community and led to more students choosing to remain in university housing after their first year. Quinnipiac has announced plans to have undergraduates live on campus for three years. “The outcomes would be better retention, certainly more affiliation, creating tradition and having people feel like they’re lifelong Bobcats,” he said.

In Ellett’s experience, most college students not only want to have friends and be part of a community, but they also want to be celebrated for their identities. “By identity, I mean sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, ability, all of those things that make them unique. That is the difference today from 20 to 30 years ago. They want to talk about being a Latina first-generation college student, for example.” Back in his college days, Ellett said those descriptors would be called labels. “Today, students refer to them as their essence.”

Ellett said, “So in terms of engaging students, we can have a tie-dye party or share a meal or even talk about religion or we can have conversations about salient identities thru tie-dyeing shirts or cook a meal based on heritage or conversations about religious differences,” he said, adding: “It’s more about their journey, their story.” Traditions at a university are important, he said. At NYU, he created UltraViolet Live, a talent competition among residence hall communities with cash prizes. It now bears his name. In 2005, a singer/pianist named Stefani Germanotta played two original compositions and came in third—we now know her as Lady Gaga.

He also thinks an arts festival of sorts could really galvanize people, especially if held when there are a lot of visitors on campus to show off the place to prospective students and provide an audience for current ones.

Ideas like these undoubtedly would please students, but Shepherd knows what he wants most from Quinnipiac.

“More than anything, I want to make the kind of friends who attend each other’s weddings, their kids’ birthday parties, and remain friends after 20 years. I want a good group behind me to carry me through life ... whether it be professors or friends who can help make me the best person I can be.”

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