Smita Ruzicka joined the University as the new Dean of Student Life in August, filling a position that had been vacant for the past six months. Ruzicka is the first person to permanently hold the position since July 2017, when former Dean of Student Life Terry Martinez left to work at Hamilton College.
After Martinez left, Tiffany Sanchez served as interim Dean of Student Life from the summer of 2017 until she accepted another position at Stevenson University in February 2018. When Sanchez left the University, other University administrators temporarily took over the position until Ruzicka was hired this summer.
Before she came to Hopkins, Ruzicka served as Assistant Vice President of Campus Life at Tulane University for three years. Ruzicka has over 15 years of experience in higher education management, including various leadership positions at the University of Texas (UT) at Austin.
After obtaining her B.A. in Psychology and English from Trinity University, Ruzicka completed a Master’s degree in Counseling at Texas State University and then earned her PhD in Educational Administration from UT Austin.
In an interview with The News-Letter, Ruzicka discussed what she plans to offer the University as its new Dean of Student Life.
“I’m so new into my role that I certainly have not assessed at a deep level what are all the current programs and initiatives. There are a lot of projects started under Dean Martinez’s leadership that I want to continue,” she said.
Ruzicka noted the importance of elevating the role of the Dean of Student Life Office and serving all students as an advocate for their voices, instead of trying to be their voice.
She felt that her professional experience and skills gathered from working specifically in student affairs at research universities would lend themselves well to the environment at Hopkins.
During the recruitment and application reviewing process for the Dean of Student Life position, University administrators offered students and staff the opportunity to interact with candidates and ask them any questions that they might have. Ruzicka felt that this gave her an opportunity to connect with the Hopkins community early on.
“When I met students during my recruitment process, I found them to be academically so skilled, yet also really engaged and invested in thinking about the student experience,” she said. “I really enjoyed talking to them and I could see myself serving the students here at Hopkins.”
Ruzicka wants to bring a holistic approach to her position and use it to improve multiple aspects of student life, not exclusively academics.
“The most exciting piece about Hopkins was being able to contribute to student engagement outside of the classroom at the oldest research university,” she said.
She described the instant connection she felt for Hopkins, owing to its history and the students. For Ruzicka, the University’s legacy of student engagement and commitment to the undergraduate experience mirrored her own passion for active student life.
“Many research institutions often put a priority on faculty or graduate experience,” she said. “I was excited to see a commitment at all levels towards creating a campus where undergraduates are really immersed not just in top notch classes and academic work, but also in meaningful, experiential education outside of the classroom.”
When Ruzicka held administrative positions at Tulane and UT Austin, she worked on furthering initiatives centered on student leadership. She proposed the creation of leadership laboratories, which she believes would help students gain important leadership skills.
According to her, one of the best ways that students can make themselves marketable both to potential employers and others is by engaging in student leadership. She aims to partner with student organizations to promote increased student involvement and help existing student leaders better navigate their positions.
“How are we making sure that our organization leaders are not getting tied in the bureaucracy while also helping our students understand the importance of... having consistent policies?” she asked. “We are going to do some work around student organization policy development.”
By championing diversity and inclusivity within student organizations, Ruzicka hopes to help Hopkins create a new generation of leaders.
“[I am] able to find and facilitate places where students from marginalized communities feel like they belong and that they matter,” Ruzicka said, “at the same time, I want to find and facilitate spaces where students who are part of the dominant communities are also engaging in conversations around inclusion and how they can be more inclusive.”
As an undergraduate at Trinity University, Ruzicka was an international student from India, and because her father was a U.N. diplomat, she had lived in various places around the world. She added that her unique background was part of her motivation to create inclusive spaces at Hopkins.
Part of the Dean of Student Life role involves supervising residential staff, case managers and counselors. Through this part of her role, Ruzicka aims to coordinate with the student body to address mental health and wellness needs at the University. She plans to work toward putting the recommendations outlined in February by the Task Force on Student Mental Health and Well-being into action.
She emphasized the importance of educating students to proactively think about their own well-being and resilience when faced with various stress-inducing factors.
“While we are focusing on mental health and making sure we have enough counselors and mental health resources, I also want to really focus on... how are we educating and helping our students become more resilient?” Ruzicka said. “How are we helping our students tackle those everyday stressors? What tools are we providing our students to decrease their academic stressors?”
Overall, Ruzicka highlighted the need for her to communicate directly with the student body in order to combat the various issues the Hopkins community faces. She has met with student leaders, including first year mentors, Residential Advisors, and members of Student Government Association and Graduate Representative Organization. She anticipates working closely with these student organizations.
Ruzicka added that even outside of her formal interactions with student organizations and leaders, she believes that talking to students is the most important part of her career instead of spending most of her time in her office in Mattin Center.
“I like to be out and about on campus to say hello to individual students. If I can find an opening, I start conversations with students, whether it’s in line at the FFC or just walking to Garland or somewhere else,” she said. “I try as much as I can to make informal connections with everyone.”