Kimberly McElveen readily concedes that she has the best job in the city. After all, she's the ringleader for a Columbus State University office that plans and carries out a variety of fun and informational events and activities designed to welcome students back to school.
It's called Cougar Kickoff, a campaign of sorts that began Thursday, with students moving into housing near the university's main campus or its RiverPark campus downtown.
"It kind of goes back to a sense of belonging," said McElveen, 44, CSU's senior director of student engagement. The native of Aiken, S.C., has been with the university since 2007.
The events that she, a paid staff and a group of student volunteers have arranged run the gamut over the next two weeks. They include picnics, roller-skating, a comedy night, a scavenger hunt, a dance, an ice cream social, an outdoor movie and a field day.
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There also are more functional and community-based events such as a question-and-answer session, a women's awareness rally, volunteer activities and "Meet the Greeks" sorority and fraternity opportunities.
For the more adventurous, whitewater rafting also is planned, while a beach bash at Callaway Gardens is on the agenda. Everything is rounded out with a "chill" session by CSU President Tim Mescon on one afternoon, and a bicycle ride with him another day.
The overall goal is to help the students -- freshmen through seniors -- bond with each other and set up friendships and support groups that, ultimately, will put them in a better position to graduate with a degree in their hands.
The Ledger-Enquirer talked with McElveen recently about her job, what it encompasses and why Cougar Week is more than a luxury. It's a necessity. This interview is edited a bit for length and clarity.
How did you come to this moment in your career and what tasks do you oversee?
I started in 2007, becoming the director of the career center. Within a year, I was over graduate recruitment. After that, I was promoted to senior director for student involvement. That includes the career center. It also includes Greek life, diversity programs, sophomore-year experience, leadership programs, orientation and student activities, and registered student organizations, as well as disability services.
Now you are director of student "engagement"?
That is my title now. We tweaked it a little bit. But either one works.
In 2009, I became the senior director for student involvement. In 2012, I became the senior director for student engagement. I also do a lot of the assessment for student affairs and enrollment management, as well as communications and data collection.
What's your day-to-day life like and is a lot of time spent with students?
Absolutely. That's my favorite place to be, is talking with the students, listening to the students, finding out what kind of events they want, what kind of leadership workshops they want to have, what kind of diversity opportunities they need, internships and co-ops.
Their voice on campus is extremely important in the roles that we play, because the students evolve, they change. They're definitely different than they were a few years ago, and they want different things. So you really have to stay involved and have conversations with them to be able to meet their needs.
It's a mix of keeping them informed and happy and engaged in campus life?
Absolutely. It's a connection of academics and campus life, so that at the end of the four years they have a degree that's going to help them get a job.
We see more and more that their (non-academic) experience while they are here is very im
portant. That's what they take away as well. A lot of times these (social) experiences can also help them in the job market, whether they stay locally or go somewhere else in the United States, or even go globally. The growth that they get from freshman to senior year is tremendous.
You are at a lot of gatherings and activities. How do you pull it off?
We have about 18 students that help us. We call them orientation leaders. They help us greet the incoming freshmen and the parents and get them adapted to what the campus culture is going to be like. They come for two days and that's a little bit of a snapshot of what they're going to see when they get here. We want them to be prepared and we've found that's the best way to do it.
When is the orientation?
They come over the summer. We have probably 4,000 people, between parents and students, that will come on our campus during the summer to engage and acclimate to our campus, whether it's on main campus or the RiverPark campus or Fort Benning.
But you're pretty busy year-round?
We are. When we're not in the orientation, we are doing our strategic plan for the year. We map out what kind of events we're going to have and what kind of leadership programs we're going to have. We did that in May, and we put it all on the calendar.
We don't just sit around a room and come up with this stuff. We have students involved in the process. So the events that you see coming up with Cougar Kickoff, they are events that have been created by the students. It's all student-led, with guidance from staff. The students, beginning probably in January, start working on this calendar and it's meeting after meeting. It's a process.
They also develop the T-shirt design, the book that we put out, they help with the publicity. We pick a new team, a new committee, every year and go through the process. It's about a six- to eight-month process to plan everything and work with vendors and talk about contracts and things like that. So the students kind of get that real-life experience, plus they're planning stuff that's going to be fun.
So it's also about creating excitement?
Yeah. If I had to sit two weeks behind my desk and plan two weeks of excitement for this generation that's coming in, it would be so lame. (laughs) That's why I think best practices (at universities) around the United States is that most of the things that we do are student-led.
I see whitewater rafting on the Chattahoochee River is on the menu. Are you ready to raft?
I haven't actually gone yet. This will be my first time going down the river. I'm a little excited and a little scared. We have 150 slots for students to participate; that will be interesting and fun.
Last year we took 500 to Callaway. This year we're looking at taking 650 students to Callaway. It's the beach bash. And some of them have never been in water before. They play miniature golf, they do laser tag, they go swimming, they play beach volleyball. We have a DJ there. Whenever you can bus that amount of people to a location and back, we're pretty proud of it. We've been doing it now for four years.
At it's core, it's about bonding together and friendships and creating support groups?
Absolutely. It kind of goes back to a sense of belonging. We have students that come from outside Columbus, from different regions of Georgia and the United States, and from out of the country. They come here and they barely know people. They're excited, but a little intimidated. So we have these engagement opportunities where they can have fun and also meet a lot of people along the way.
What we have found is that if students get involved in the beginning and they stay involved and join a club or organization or Greek life, then they're going to usually graduate, because they have peers that are keeping them accountable. Plus, we know who they are a lot more if they're in our offices (early on) and they're spending more time on campus. We kind of keep watch over them as well.
Cougar Kickoff is not just for freshmen?
Anyone can participate in the welcome back. I was just talking to a senior yesterday and she said, 'I can't wait for the activities to start Monday.' So she's planning on coming. And we're going to have Ricky Smiley. That's going to be one of our featured events. He's a comedian and will be joining us at our Lumpkin Center.
What is your favorite part of your job?
If you come to campus during any one of those events, you'll see what the favorite part is. The students are having fun, they're engaging. That's the fun of it. Then you get to meet the new freshmen. We see a lot of them during the (summer) orientation season. Then we get to see them again during the welcome back weeks. The excitement and energy and the vibrancy of this first two weeks of school is just like none other before that I've seen.
What's the most challenging aspect of your job?
When you plan things so delicately with so much detail, I think inevitably little things will come up that weren't expected. But, really, we have such a good strong team. It's not just me. It's the group of students, plus I have a large staff that will be in charge of each event. So even if something comes up, you have qualified people who are used to putting events on that can kind of figure out how to work through it.+
What skills or experiences would someone need to follow your career path if they chose to do so?
Interestingly, I was very involved in college. I was a student government senator. I was a competitive athlete, and I was in a sorority. So I was involved in campus and absolutely loved my campus experience. When I was that age ... I knew that I enjoyed being in a classroom, I knew that enjoyed interacting with individuals.
I went on to teach at Central Texas College, so it kept me in the classroom. Then I went on to teach at Savannah State University, again in a classroom. In both of those jobs, I got involved in school activities with the students outside of just the teaching aspect.
Then I went on to get my doctorate at Georgia Southern, because once I really had those other two jobs, I knew I wanted to stay in college forever.
It sounds like you've found your calling?
I love it. I have the best job in Columbus.
Name: Kimberly McElveen
Hometown: Aiken, S.C.
Current residence: Lives in Harris County
Education: 1986 graduate of South Aiken High School; bachelor’s degree in political science, College of Charleston, 1991; masters of management, Troy State University, 1995; and doctorate in higher education, Georgia Southern University, 2007
Previous jobs: Senior trainer and special projects with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Georgia; government and history instructor with Central Texas College; and business management instructor with Savannah State University
Family: Husband John McElveen, who is assistant vice president for enrollment management at Columbus State University, and five children — Meredith, 27, Andrew, 25, Kaitlyn, 13, Lauren, 12 and Natalie, 10
Leisure time: Enjoys reading, traveling and spending time with family and friends
Of note: A mentor for Columbus Scholars and a board member with Columbus Youth Soccer; also interned for the late U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond in Washington.