Sandra S. Johnson began her position as RIT’s senior vice president for Student Affairs in July 2014. She oversees a $25 million annual budget, 20 different offices and a staff of more than 200 people. Student Affairs serves students in RIT’s nine colleges, a diverse population of more than 15,000 undergraduates and 2,900 graduate students from all 50 states and more than 100 countries, including more than 1,300 deaf and hard-of-hearing students at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf.
I was one of those undergraduate students who got involved. I ran orientation. I was involved in student government and residence life and I volunteered in the community. In my senior year I went from going to law school to pursuing a career in higher education.
I ended up at Barnard College as an assistant dean for the pre-college program and a residence hall director while attending graduate school. I didn’t know a lot about women’s colleges and here I was at one of the best women’s colleges—and I fell in love with everything about that environment. I had great mentors there and a lot of doors were opened to me as a professional, including developing an understanding of a large research university because of Barnard’s relationship with Columbia University.
My next career step was across Broadway to Columbia at a time when they were completing re-organizing the Student Affairs division. Again, I had wonderful mentors and was able to further develop my skills in organizational change and assessment. Then a new opportunity came across my desk at Hofstra University, a young and ambitious university looking to re-envision their Student Affairs division. So I moved off the island of Manhattan to Long Island.
Hofstra was a great place for me in many ways—more great mentors and new opportunities. I was very happy there and felt good about how we had been able to shift the campus to becoming a student-centered place.
As a VP, you end up getting calls from search firms all the time, and when I was called about the position at RIT, my first response was, ‘I don’t want to move to Rochester.’
Here is where networks come into play. Another member of the search firm whom I had worked with when I was at Barnard called me and said, ‘Sandy, look at RIT—it’s a great place and a great next step.’ I listened to her and did my homework and talked to my go-to mentors. In the end I realized this is a great opportunity.
Once I landed in Rochester,I heard Dr. Destler’s vision; met with students, faculty, and staff; walked through campus; and explored Rochester. I was truly sold and very excited about making another change and being a part of a changing university and the larger Rochester community.
What has been fascinating for me is getting to know the organizational culture. I am one of those organizational geeks. I like to look at an organization and dissect it. Do we need to realign things? What can we be doing better? Where can partnerships be strengthened?
I like the challenge of how to demonstrate to our alumni and others that RIT is a different place and that we are on an upward trajectory. When I hear people say, ‘This is not the RIT I remember,’ I tell them that is good because it should be different because if it isn’t different, it means RIT is not advancing. Quite frankly, when your institution advances, so does the value of your degree.
I have to say that working with students is my true north. With a new group coming in every year you have your finger on the pulse of where the world is going—they are the leaders of tomorrow. Students keep me fresh and focused and remind me that the world is changing around us, so either get on board or get off the train.
I am the lucky one. I wake up every morning and I love coming to work. I can’t say that I ever dreaded going into work a day in my life. There were days that were harder, but that comes with the territory. At the end of the day if you feel like you made a difference somewhere along the line, then it was a really good day.
New York, N.Y., and before that Hauppauge, N.Y.
Ed.D., University of Pennsylvania; M.Ed., Columbia University; BA, political science, State University of New York at Oswego.
Associate dean in the Office of Student Life at Barnard College, associate dean in the Division of Student Affairs at Columbia University, vice president for the Division of Student Affairs at Hofstra University.
Traveling, my family, technology, being a forever learner.
Life partner, Andrew; sons Caleb (15), Daniel (13); two Labrador Retrievers, Charlotte and Brittany.