Dean Sarah Young: The Secret World of the Dean of Students


Kenneth C. Zirkel

Buffalo State College, Grant Street at Rockwell Road.

Matthew Karovski, Writer

In a quest to explore the inner workings of an institution of higher learning, I interviewed Sarah Young, the Dean of Students for Buffalo State University. While some students may merely see her name at the end of an Interim Suspension letter, the reality is: Young works extensively to drive student affairs, and to ascertain the student body is well-supported.

The interview below was slightly edited for purposes of brevity and clarity.

1) How might one define “Dean of Students?”
I think what people think of when they hear Dean of Students, like one you may see in movies dating back to Animal House, they may feel the Dean of Students is the paramount position at a college. It really isn’t but a lot of people have that perception. Some may think: If I just call the Dean of Students, they can tell my faculty what to do or fire someone, and those aren’t really the things that a Dean of Students does. The real intent of the Dean of Students is to help students: to make sure that they [the students] are abiding by the code and assure that they are acquainted with the culture of the institution when they come in new, and follow-up, if they are experiencing crises of some sort. I think a Dean of Students is truly here for the students to make sure that they are getting what they need. And that as a whole, the community of students is doing well.

2) As the Dean of Students, what might your day typically entail in higher education?
Collaborating with staff internally and externally to my division. I’m in the division of student affairs, which includes a lot of people such as athletics, career center, dining, and then in my area specifically, conduct, student leadership and engagement, residence life, Inclusion and Equity. We do sexual violence prevention, too, and that person reports up through me as well as our support and Care area. We have a pretty large area within student affairs, and of course, the Counseling Center, Health & Wellness center, and Health promotions. Those areas all report through us, so I think that we do a lot to provide continuity and service. In terms of my actual day, it’s making sure, for one, if a student complaint comes in about parking, I work as the dean of students to kind of remedy the response and remedy the concern to work with the facilities and management and with student parking services. I may work with student accounts, whomever it is. Then, I would get back to the student. So, I really believe that we try to, as much as we can, respond to the question in the moment, and not just cold refer someone somewhere. In addition, we provide Outreach and support to students experiencing crises, emergencies or atypical situation, sexual violence, physical assaults, things like that. This may include off-campus circumstances such as homelessness, perhaps their parents might have kicked them out for some reason, or someone has passed in their family that has impacted their ability to go to class.

3) What is your favorite part about being the Dean of Students?
I think my favorite part of being Dean of Students is feeling like you can help someone feel better about their day or their experience, just making students feel comfortable here at the institution and making them know that there are people who care about them. Sometimes, this might be the first person they’ve interacted with outside the classroom, and typically, people are very nervous about coming to meet with me because they do think of me as like the principal. They may get called to my office, and they may be thinking, “oh, that means I’m going to be in trouble”. Typically, however, it’s because I’m just trying to check up on the student. I may have heard something happened, maybe I got an email from a faculty member or an RA [resident assistant], or the student was involved in this incident. We find out if everything is okay, and what we can do to help. So, that’s probably my favorite part of the day!

4) What is the least favorable, if any, part about being the Dean of Students?
Sometimes, a Dean of Students may have to make decisions that do not make folks happy in the moment. But even though you’re following the guidelines and policies, you’re impacting students’ lives and family members’ lives. And most of the time I’m lucky that typically the decisions I get to make with students are helping them: giving them funding or connecting them to a food pantry or helping them with a class. However, sometimes, and that’s the least favorite part for me is when, perhaps, someone is experiencing a tragedy where you kind of have to step in and address it.

5) Why did you choose to assume the position of Dean of Students?
I don’t know if I chose this position per se, but it kind of ended up as the trajectory I was on, and I do like to feel like I impact a lot of students. People talk about, “Oh, I never want to sit in a higher position because I get to be in the classroom, or I get to live in a residence hall and I’m talking to students all day”. When you supervise staff, you actually get to help other people who are talking to students think about the way they do that. You still are impacting students. And I really love this position. Specifically, I’ve worked at five different colleges before I worked at this one, and I just like where it’s located: it’s an urban campus. I like the diverse student population: commuters, residents, where they’re from, their family type. All these things build a remarkably interesting campus.

6) What would you deem the greatest or most pressing challenge within the institution of
higher education?
I think there are a few, depending on which vantage point you’re sitting at. I definitely think mental health is an issue. For example, I have friends that work across the country and in various institutions, and everybody’s talking about the impact of covid in a world where we were already dealing with technological impacts on people’s mental health. I definitely think mental health, but I’d also think financially. We’re in a situation where our country is struggling financially with a lot of things and that always impacts higher education because families need to make a decision regarding if it is the right time for me to send the students to college. In New York, we have a lowering population period. So, that impacts how the institution can recruit and assure that they have the numbers that they need. I think financially higher education is being impacted. I think covid is impacted higher ed. Students believe that
they like my online learning more than they like in person learning, which is a tough struggle for some students as they make their way back from that forced online learning situation. But then I also think about mental health, and that takes a lot of different forms.

7) What services might the Dean of Students office be able to provide to the Buffalo State
campus community members?
The Dean of Students serves as an advocate for the rights of students. So, that’s part of my role, including the promotion of the compact, which is kind of what I alluded to when I said understanding the culture of the institution, what the expectations are and what you can expect from here. I serve as the chair of the Care team, which is a group of faculty and staff who work together to identify people who may be a potential harm to themselves or others. And then try to outreach and support them and make sure we can intervene as a team to get them connected to the right place. Also, the support and care of students, which includes Milligan’s food pantry, and the emergency relief program. We have student conduct which, including our restorative justice center, sexual violence prevention education, which goes beyond just the education portion like Take Back the Night and large-scale events. She also does trainings for student leaders on campus, athletes, orientation leaders, and departments, making sure that people across campus know what the mandates around Title IX are. Then, our student leadership engagement office. They create the educational experience for orientation through commencement and clubs, Greek life. So, they’re there to help student clubs navigate systems and understand kind of what’s been going on as well as promote their own programs: Homecoming, Weeks of Welcome, and Bengal Stripes Leadership Program. We have inclusion and equity, which the assistant Dean is within my office suite for inclusion and Equity. He supervises veteran and military services. He also works with the Community of Faith chaplains who, when a student passes away or an unfortunate event where that kind of support is needed, we can call on chaplains from the Buffalo Community to come and help and he serves as a liaison for that. And then he also works with our Bengal Ally group to promote, LGTBQ programming on campus as well as student of color and identity-based programs, and then finally res life. The Residence Life office’s report up through me. So, that’s all under our umbrella.

8) If one day you awoke and were notified that you were to teach a class at Buffalo State University, what course would you hope that is, and why?

I couldn’t decide on one, but I’ll tell you two. If it were related to my job, specifically, the one class I would like to teach is like the UNC 100 class where I help students transition and transfer at Buffalo State. The other thing I’d like to teach is swimming because I love swimming and I love the idea of having swimming classes, but that’s less to do with my job and just more personally.

The Compact for a Caring Campus:
Milligan’s Food Pantry:
Emergency Relief Program:
Weigel Health Center:
Inclusion and Equity Office: