As the newest interviewers for Frankly Speaking, we decided to team up for our first interview with new Dean of Student Life Rae-Anne Butera. Mike Maloney guided us professionally at times, and we had a fantastic time with Rae-Anne in her welcoming office.
Always fond of students and higher education, Rae-Anne was previously the Associate Dean of Students and Director of the First Year Experience at Smith College, where she made numerous contributions to improve student life. She believes in a continuum of learning that incorporates the entire college experience, both inside and outside the classroom. Rae-Anne is also currently pursuing a PhD in Higher Education from UMass Amherst.
LOUIE: As the Dean of Student Life, could you sum up what you do.
BUTERA: In a nutshell, what I do is work with a fine group of folks here who are engaged with students in their learning. We’re primarily responsible for their learning outside of the classroom, but that is really connected to their experience inside of the classroom, too.
ZHU: I know that you described Smith College as the place where your dream job was, so what made you decide to come to Olin?
BUTERA: What made me decide to jump ship and come here was first learning about Olin’s history. I’m a gigantic nerd, so I love the history of higher education, I love how institutions came to be, what their missions are, what their history is, what their saga is; I love that kinda stuff. The more I learned, the more fascinated I became with how this place started and how it works.
Then I came here for the interview process and I met students. One of the requirements for leaving Smith was that I knew I would need to go some place similar in that there would have to be smart students who are engaged in their learning. Students who cared about their community, who wanted to be involved in what we do, who wanted me involved in their community. I felt that here; I felt students were interested and engaged, they cared about the community, they cared about what they did academically.
You know what my final decision came down to? Over the years so many students came to talk to me about decisions in their lives, about a job or an internship or an opportunity to go away or whatever. They’d sit down and talk to me, and if they asked me for my advice, much of the time the advice I would give was: well calculated risks in life are very important. You don’t learn and grow and move forward in your life unless you take well-thought-out, calculated risks.
I finally said to myself, wow you’ve been giving that advice for a long time, I think it’s time you take it yourself. I’d be kind of a hypocrite if I told students to do that all the time and I didn’t do it, so that is what it came down to.
LOUIE: So we know that you live on a house on campus. Let’s just touch on your family. We haven’t talked much about them. Is there anything you would love to share with the community about them? Will we get to visit your family some time?
BUTERA: Of course! Actually I was just talking today about making some plans to have some things at the house. I love living on the campus. I think some people might have seen that as part of the job and decided that they didn’t want to do that. For me it was something that was attractive.
At Smith I didn’t live on campus, but the house we owned was right on the edge of the campus, and I loved being that close. I actually think that my house at Smith was a closer walk to my office than my house here is. I loved living close at Smith because it gave me the ability be at stuff at night without it being a big deal. That was really attractive here.
My kids have also grown up on a college campus. That’s all they know, so this is not weird to them at all. You might see them – they love to come walk up here and meet me. Well now that it’s dark so early they probably won’t be doing that as much, but they would come up to meet me at five o’clock outside. They love to play on the big lawn expanse in front of the residence. My seven-year old son just runs and runs. My daughter who’s ten feels very safe walking around here. She walks from the house up to my office sometimes by herself, which we feel is pretty safe for her to do.
All these things are great. The ability to be here and be present at stuff, and also now that we’ve settled in, being able to do some stuff for students at the house I think is definitely one of those things that we are looking forward to. My husband also works in higher ed, so this is his life too. He’s always worked in higher ed.
My kids are always on campus. My daughter particularly likes to come do stuff with me. She likes arts and music.
MALONEY: Do they watch the fire arts being practiced right outside your house?
BUTERA: Yes indeed! I guess it was a few weeks ago now. They were out in the parking lot, right after school started. This was the opening of school show, so it started at 8pm, before my kids had gone to bed. My son I think was in bed, but our babysitter who lives with us and my daughter saw them. We went outside, and we were watching it in the parking lot.
LOUIE: I was talking to the students on CORe, and they said that you are really passionate about gender issues related to education.
BUTERA: Well, that is my thing! So that is my scholarly thing. Identity, in a larger way, but in particular gender identity, is my scholarly work. That’s what I do for fun – haha! So gender is a big thing for me. Well this is no secret, but up until this point I’ve only worked at women’s colleges. And that has been intentional on my part because it’s been a passion of mine, and I always felt I was contributing in that arena and that it was important to me to be someone that participates in the role of women in higher education. So that’s one of the things I had to think about coming here. Did I want to leave that world and do something different?
When I really thought about it I decided that this was the next step in the evolution for me. You’re not going to find – I will venture to guess – another engineering program or even another STEM program that is essentially 50/50. It was clear to me even before talking to anyone that you have to be intentional about that. I knew Olin had a commitment to gender at large, in a big way, and what that meant in a STEM field and in STEM education was really exciting to me. I want to contribute to supporting students in thinking about gender as an identity. Honestly, identity is one of the things that we will probably be thinking more about. Just by listening to students and listening to faculty members and staff members that I’ve been meeting with, I definitely think one of the next steps for Olin will be to think about identity and how that intersects with being an institution dedicated to engineering education and what that means for producing the engineers of the future.
LOUIE: Is there anything else that you want to talk about?
BUTERA: Well let’s see. I think in general I’m always trying to find the best ways to get to know students. I’m not the person who would necessarily go down to lunch and plop down in a table full of students, because y’all probably just want to enjoy your lunch and the Dean of Student Life plopping down might inhibit you enjoying your lunch! So I’m trying to be very thoughtful about the ways that I can meet and connect with more students that students would enjoy. So if people have thoughts and ideas, I am always open to those. My door is always open so if people want to just drop by I’m always good with that. I just want the message to be out there that that’s part of my goal. I’ve thought about having a “Lunch with the Dean” table.
LOUIE: I think a lot of people would like that
BUTERA: Do you think so? Then I have these fears of me sitting there by myself, with my salad…
ALL: Oh no no no!
MALONEY: You will never sit there by yourself. I will say that it is very rare that if you sit by yourself in the center of the room, you will be surrounded by students. And they will come over and they will engage you.
BUTERA: I’ll have to try that then!
This interview has been cut to fit the space. Find the full interview online at franklyspeakingnews.com.