Among the students

By John Walsh

Donna Byrnes is more familiar than most with the lives of thousands of John Carroll students. That’s because she has spent a good chunk of her 34-year career at JCU living in Murphy, Millor, and Bernet Halls. Throughout the years, Byrnes has seen changes with students, but one aspect remains constant: They’re trying to find their way in the world.

“Students come to college with their own set of values, and they get tested,” says Byrnes, the associate dean of students. “If they didn’t, we wouldn’t be doing a good job.”

One significant difference Byrnes sees nowadays compared to the early 1980s is students are much more stressed about what they’re going to do with their lives.

“Back then, students weren’t so worried about what they were going to do once they graduated,” she says. “They all thought they’d find something.”

Another considerable difference she sees is students are much more attentive to the world around them and involved in service. Additionally, Byrnes believes the art of conversation is being lost because of technology – namely smartphones and social media – yet students are much more connected to their families as a result of that technology.

Byrnes

“When I first started, students would call home maybe once a week,” she says. “Now some students call home three or four times a day.”

Byrnes, who grew up outside Philadelphia, first came to Cleveland as a result of knowing
a Cleveland Heights, Ohio, native in graduate school, where she was earning a master’s degree in higher education pertaining to student counseling. She visited Carroll after attending a conference in Detroit where she was interviewed by JCU administrators. Later, they called her for a second interview in May, when she was able to experience the beauty of campus.

Carroll was attractive to Byrnes because it was a Jesuit Catholic university (she knew a Jesuit in high school), the assistant director of residence life position allowed her room to grow and learn professionally, and the size of the school allowed her to wear multiple hats.

“I also wanted to be by water because I grew up near the ocean,” she says. “Water is important to me. I didn’t want to be working in a state that was landlocked. I love knowing Lake Erie is near. I used to fantasize about living on a houseboat but realized it wasn’t possible because the lake freezes.”

In August 1978, Byrnes started working at Carroll, living in Murphy Hall and dining with students. She earned $400 a month but had few, if any, living expenses.

“I didn’t mind living in the halls because I didn’t know anybody then,” says Byrnes, who was 22 years old at the time. “Eventually, I got to know everybody.”

Byrnes thought she’d work at Carroll for a few years and then migrate west to another university, ultimately returning to the East Coast where her family originates. It turns out her sister and parents live in California now, and her brother lives in Georgia.

“I took it year by year,” says Byrnes, who volunteered with the burgeoning softball program that started in 1983. “After about four years here, I asked myself three questions: Am I contributing to life on campus, am I learning, and am I having fun. I was doing what I wanted every year.”

In 1980, Byrnes picked up the game of golf to get away from the noisiness of living in halls. She became an avid golfer, though not necessarily a good one, and the sport re-energized her.

The late ’70s and early ’80s was a time when all classes lived among each other. Then, the development office suggested all freshmen live in the same halls to develop a stronger class identity.

“That didn’t turn out as well as expected because seniors lost some opportunities to be
Byrnes role models for the freshmen,” Byrnes says. “But freshmen enjoyed being with other freshmen.”

In 1986, after living in Murphy and Millor Halls, James Lavin, Ph.D., vice president of student affairs, asked Byrnes to be the director of residence life. In that role, she lived off campus for the first time. In 1998, a graduate hall director quit, and she decided to live in Bernet for a semester.

“That was the re-education of Donna Byrnes,” she says. “As I moved up, I moved away from the students more.”

In 2002, the dean of students, Patrick Rombalski, was promoted. As a result, Byrnes took on some of the dean’s duties until the University hired Sherri Crahen, Ph.D., as dean of students. In 2004, Byrnes became the associate dean of residence life and then associate dean of students in 2006, which meant being more involved with student conduct and food service.

After more than three decades at Carroll, Byrnes still asks herself the same three questions she did a few years after she arrived: Am I contributing, am I learning, and am I having fun. She still answers yes to all three. JCU


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