A hallmark of the socially gifted, good follow-up questions keep conversations alive and awkwardness at bay—an essential college survival tactic. Dean of Freshmen Thomas A. Dingman ’67 has mastered the art.
On the walk from the Freshman Dean’s Office to Annenberg, Dingman, dressed in olive slacks, green and blue Tattersall shirt, and champagne-colored tie, tosses me a couple of these softballs:
“Where are you from?”
“Where in New Jersey?”
“Oh, so near Hopewell Valley?”
And so forth.
Tasked with helping freshmen transition to college as painlessly as possible, Dingman knows the importance of setting anxious students at ease. Not only students, though—everyone who runs into Dingman seems to loosen up a bit when he says hello. Walking into Annenberg, he takes a moment to hug a fellow administrator and warmly greets a HUPD officer and Francine, who swipes my ID as I enter the dining hall. “Francine, you don’t know these people by name?” Dingman says, jokingly.
“You know the drill,” Dingman says as we walk past the double doors into the serving area. I don’t see anybody I know as I gather my lunch, but Dingman seems to have something to say to everyone he passes. Scooping mushrooms onto his plate, he turns to a HUDS employee who is wiping debris off the tray aisle. “Freshmen: always making a mess,” he says, which is acknowledged by a knowing nod.
As we chat, Dingman works through his modest meal: the aforementioned mushrooms, two pieces of red spiced chicken, three tomato wedges, rice, a coke (diet, I suspect), and two oatmeal cookies. He has a knife on his tray, but cuts his chicken with his fork.
“This job is pretty 24/7,” Dingman says when I ask him what he does for fun (watch hockey, play squash, spend time with his family). We spend most of the conversation talking about his work, and then his own advising experience when he was a Harvard undergraduate in the 60s.
“During my sophomore year, I went to the History Department to get my study card signed. They told me I could leave my card there over the weekend and I could come back to pick up the signed card on Monday, but that wasn’t really why I was there,” Dingman says. “I was looking for a conversation, not a signature.”
He believes that advising has improved since he was an undergraduate, but notes that he and his team will have to keep trying new things to improve students’ experiences.
“You can’t always get it right the first time,” Dingman says, chuckling, and recalls last year’s widely-publicized incident regarding a new opt-in freshman pledge, which received criticism from some students and faculty. This year, the pledge has been replaced by sensitivity training, including staged skits by students.