New Dean for Student Life Costantino ‘Chris’ Colombo Describes Important Issues at MIT

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Costantino “Chris” Colombo is MIT’s new dean for student life.
David M. Templeton—The Tech

This is the second interview in a five-part series introducing incoming students to some of MIT’s faculty, staff, and student leaders. Today, The Tech features an interview with Costantino “Chris” Colombo, the new dean for student life, on his second day of work.

The Tech: What does being the dean for student life mean? How would you describe your role to new students?

Chris Colombo: As you know, I’m new, so I have to learn a great deal. What’s always interesting when you come in with a new class [is that] you’re as new as the class that’s entering, so we’ll probably learn a great deal about MIT together.

The expectations that have been [set] for the students and for their families about MIT and the services and quality of education are important. The role of the dean of student life is really to assist them with those expectations and try to deliver the services that are under the purview of the dean and also advocate for them on other issues that may not be in this realm of responsibility.

TT: You just came from Columbia, and you were the dean for student affairs there. Why did you decide to come to MIT?

CC: I’d been at Columbia 16 years — long time — and before that at Hopkins for 18 years. I did a great deal at both those institutions with a wonderful, magnificent staff. But I think it was time to think about what my next step was, and this opportunity came forward. [MIT is] a wonderful institution and through the interviewing process, I was fortunate to meet a great number of students, as well as faculty and staff. It really helped me with my decision.

TT: I know you’ll be staying at Next House for at least the upcoming academic year. What made you decide to live on campus?

CC: I’ve always lived by the campuses that I’ve worked at. I think it’s important for the dean to be available to students as much as possible. Obviously, I will have a family life. My family is very committed along with me to make sure that my availability is there.

At Columbia, I lived right across the way, in university housing as well. I had the opportunity to host students and faculty and others within the apartments … so when they gave me the opportunity to live on campus, I thought it was wonderful and a great way to immerse myself as quickly as I could within the community.

TT: Based on what you know so far, what do you think are important student life issues at MIT?

CC: The ones that have been brought forward to me are issues of food and housing and community-building, in particular in the graduate population. They are very interested in establishing a community for themselves outside of their departments, while undergraduates normally establish their own communities either through the residences they live in, or the sports clubs, or the extra-curricular activities. … I think community is something that is really on the minds of MIT students and is something that I will work with them on trying to make better for them.

TT: Do you have any short-term or long-term goals for student life at MIT?

CC: That’s very hard to answer. [I’ve been here] one day.

I think the short-term goals are to get myself as known as quickly as possible within the community — and that’s the entire community. Long-term — it will take time to try to understand what those goals should be from the staff and from the students and from others. Students are very willing to — and it’s not unusual for students to do this — very willing to let you know what is important to them.

I think what they’re most interested in — at least what I’ve noticed here — is that there is a process where the conversation goes both ways, and not just one way. I’m all for that. You don’t want to make a decision that people are not going to be happy with or support.

TT: Speaking more generally, what kinds of changes have you seen in student life in colleges and universities since you were a student?

CC: … The press loves to label generations — the X, the Y. I think they call this generation — at least the last time I read about it — the Millenials. Each generation comes with different needs and different expectations. With this generation in particular, families are much more involved, which is interesting because the families, the parents are the Baby Boomers who strived for independence and did all their things during the ’60s and ’70s.

It’s really important to have a clear understanding of what the parents’ role is in all of this. I think it’s important for them to understand that we’re going to work with their children, that they will be making decisions for themselves. While parents certainly have an influence over that, it is important for them to allow that process and that growth to be established.

TT: Any advice for incoming freshmen?

CC: I think first-year students really need to explore as much as they can in their first couple weeks, not being afraid to go out of their comfort zones. They’re going to meet students from all over the country and all over the world, and they may not have had that opportunity where they are coming from. … I think if they explore the institution, explore the people that are here, really establish the kinds of relationships with their classmates as quickly as possible — not just within their residence halls, even though I know that’s a very strong established program here, but outside the residence halls, in their departments and in their interests — they will begin feeling very comfortable here at MIT. That’s what I intend to do.

TT: How do you spend your free time?

CC: I’ll give you what my family will accept, which is that I love to vacation with my family. I have two boys, an eight-year-old and a three-year-old. They’re great, great kids. … We have a real interest in swimming. I love to scuba dive. They don’t yet, but hopefully someday they will.

The other way is that I love riding my motorcycle. But that’s the piece my family doesn’t like …

TT: What kind of motorcycle do you have?

CC: I have a ’76 Harley.

TT: Is there anything else you’d like to tell students about yourself?

CC: I’m happy to be here. I’m really excited about being here. It seems like that people that I’m going to be working with are very interested in making MIT a better place for their students. The campaign that they have established is really geared toward enriching the students’ lives here. That’s exciting to me, that’s been my whole life, and I’m looking forward to this.