Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
October 22, 2021

New JHUnions director considers student culture

By RUDY MALCOM | October 24, 2019

hal-turner
COURTESY OF HAL TURNER Hal Turner became the University’s first director for JHUnions & Programming in August.

Hal Turner was appointed as the University’s inaugural director of JHUnions & Programming this August. In this role, Turner oversees student groups such as the Hopkins Organization for Programming (HOP), the JHUnions Programming Board, Hoptoberfest, the Johns Hopkins University Model United Nations Conference (JHUMUNC) and Spring Fair. 

He also supervises student managers and monitors in the Mattin Center, the LaB and areas of Levering Hall.

JHUnions separated from the Office of Student Leadership and Involvement (SLI) in February. This division was intended to allow SLI to continue to focus on supporting student organization processes, whereas JHUnions would be able to concentrate on large-scale programming.

Halfway through his first semester at Hopkins, Turner elaborated on these changes and his plans to improve the student experience. Further, members of JHUnions groups and other students reflected on Hopkins culture and expressed their hopes for the future.

How will JHUnions improve campus culture?

Turner emphasized his goals for his new position.

“You don’t want to go from zero to 100 when it comes to changing the different programs that you do or trying to change the culture,” he said. 

Turner shared his perceptions of Hopkins undergraduates so far. 

“What’s unique about the Hopkins culture is that sometimes the challenge can be part of the positive,” he said. “Our students are so academically driven that you want to make sure that they are also prioritizing co-curricular involvement, as well as mental and physical health.”

Madelynn Wellons, a student manager in the LaB, echoed Turner’s sentiments. The LaB is a Hopkins-run late-night entertainment venue located on the ground floor of Homewood Apartments.

“Other things to do besides work can make students realize, ‘Oh, life isn’t just about getting an A. It’s also about becoming a more well-rounded person, meeting other people and doing fun things — and taking care of myself,’” she said.

Turner plans on taking a data-driven approach, using satisfaction surveys and the Corq app, to determine whether JHUnions programs appeal to a majority of the student body.

According to Wellons, programs can help promote self-care, which she thinks students are often discouraged from practicing.

Similarly, senior Rojahne Azwoir criticized the University’s atmosphere of collective suffering. She suggested weekly student performances on the Beach as a means of fostering school spirit.

“The culture here is very much ‘suffer,’ and that’s the only sense of bonding that the student body gets as a whole,” she said. “The student body rarely comes together, and when they do, it’s always lackluster. A lot of things that bring students together have to be based on free items and food, rather than wanting to spend time together as a student body.”

Turner responded to Azwoir’s observation. He believes that Hoptoberfest activities were well attended, stress-relieving and that they helped encourage health and wellness. 

He hopes to collect informal feedback on events through conversation with future participants.

“I did see some students that would come get the shirt and go, but for every one of those, I also saw five or six that were staying and enjoying the entire event and having a great time,” he said. “It’s something I’ll continue to figure out; I don’t have a 100-percent solution to it yet because I’m new.”

Azwoir added her belief that events are insufficiently publicized.

However, Co-Chair Mary Yunting Yu of the JHUnions Student Programming Board disagreed.

She explained that Monday Night Trivia in the LaB and Paint Nights in Mattin Center and Levering Lounge, which the Board facilitates, are advertised on Facebook and, as of late, also Instagram.

Freshman Nicole Loza described an unfamiliarity with these programs.

“They aren’t marketed enough; I haven’t heard of any, other than once a few weeks ago,” she said. “The only opportunities I know to de-stress are doing yoga at the Rec Center or going to A Place To Talk or the Counseling Center.”

Yu mentioned that the board also markets larger events, such as monthly movie nights, the upcoming annual Mattin Center Halloween and collaborations with other student groups. These events, Yu said, enhance many students’ relationship with the Hopkins community.

“A lot of Hopkins life is focused on academics and research and volunteering,” she said. “We aim to get a large attendance so that people can take a break from all the stress that they’re feeling because of the Hopkins atmosphere.”

Sophomore Saumya Nimmagadda, a member of Spring Fair, highlighted the need for better advertising.

“You don’t really hear too much about these events, but they’re a way to push the Hopkins bubble outside the library,” she said.

Sophomore Orlando Espinoza wished that more events like Spring Fair were held on campus.

“During Spring Fair last year I remember thinking to myself, ‘Why can’t it be like this every week?’ It’s sad, sometimes, seeing the stark difference between that and normal weeks,” he said.

Aspen Williams, another Spring Fair member, expanded on the annual festival’s goals. 

“Giving everyone a chance to relax for the weekend and not have to worry about school — and to really focus on being part of the broader Hopkins community because we don’t really get the chance to do that a lot,” she said.

Williams also stressed the importance of taking regular breaks.

According to Wellons, who meets weekly with Turner, JHUnions is striving to implement more late-night programs.

She hopes that this will enable students to relieve stress without excess alcohol use, which she considers to be prevalent on campus.

“We do a ‘work hard, play hard’ model,” Wellons said. “But our ‘play hard’ is that we binge drink as much as we can.”

The JHUnions Student Programming Board might organize an event in Mattin during finals week, Yu said, that would offer free food and coffee to students on their way to Brody Learning Commons.

Turner specified 15-minute brain breaks in the library as an example of a stress-relieving activity that JHUnions could host in order to reach those who are preoccupied with studying.

“Even doing little things like that, I think, can help,” he said.

How are changes to JHUnions affecting student groups?

Last spring administrators told The News-Letter that this division would allow the Office of Student Leadership and Involvement (SLI) to prioritize student leadership and development and budget management, whereas JHUnions would focus on programming and facilities. 

Turner clarified the distinction between JHUnions and SLI, which separated in February. He noted that he collaborates with SLI Director Calvin Smith, Jr. 

“We both work on nuts-and-bolts things that help students accomplish their missions. There is a separation of duties when it comes to which committees and organizations we’re advising, but our goals of enhancing the overall student experience are very much the same,” Turner said.

Turner explained that while he concentrates on cultivating a sense of belonging for students through programming, Smith is working with the Student Government Association to examine student groups’ practices, missions and funding. The auditing process began on Oct. 14. 

In an email to The News-Letter, Executive Director Marlynn Lopez of HOPthon, which raises funds year-round for the Children’s Center at Hopkins Hospital, expressed her belief that Turner will provide JHUnions groups with more support.

“Students here are incredibly determined to succeed academically, which is amazing. However, many students see extracurriculars as optional instead of as opportunities for personal growth and as an outlet from the stress caused by academics,” she wrote. “Establishing clear expectations and encouraging the student leaders to plan well in advance will aid to increasing commitment.”

Similarly, Williams commended the changes to JHUnions.

Williams stated that Turner was her favorite candidate for the position. She and other Spring Fair members interviewed applicants during the summer.

“JHUnions has a chance to really become what it wants to and can spend a lot more time focusing on improving campus culture,” she said. “I’m excited to see what JHUnions does with their newfound autonomy.”

Senior Sean Jost agreed, though he expressed his prior frustrations.

“Student groups put on a diverse range of engaging and enriching events. The administration’s role should be to streamline them, not restrict them with red tape, which has been an issue in the past. It seems that the problem was recognized, so hopefully these changes help student groups,” he said.

Turner emphasized JHUnions’ efforts to streamline events and to communicate with students about rules and logistics. 

Sophomore Saumya Nimmagadda, who is a member of Spring Fair, recounted difficulties in these areas during last year’s annual festival

However, she looks forward to better discussing these issues with Turner.

“Admin are coming from a good place of wanting to ensure the safety of students, but from our side it can be clouded to see that,” she said. “Finding a better median point can be a very useful thing for us in which we understand the very specific guidelines set forward and can strictly adhere to those.”

Yu remarked that administrators have consistently helped facilitate her programming ideas, such as a hot chocolate night. 

“I haven’t had the feeling where one of our events was being blocked or obstructed by any of the faculty at JHUnions,” she said.

According to Yu, JHUnions’ separation from SLI has not affected the JHUnions Programming Board.

LaB Student Manager Madelynn Wellons, however, predicts that the overall effects of the division will be amplified in the future.

“JHUnions has quite a few vacancies open. When there’s a full staff, it’ll work really well,” she said. “Even now it’s being helpful.”

Turner said that JHUnion is in the process of hiring more staff.

Wellons added that it would be beneficial for JHUnions to work with Kevin Shollenberger, who became the University’s first vice provost for student health and well-being in August. 

Wellons is optimistic that Turner will incorporate student input regarding programming in the student center. When University President Ronald J. Daniels announced plans last spring to construct a student center in Mattin’s current location, many students expressed concerns regarding the loss of Mattin, which serves as a home for the visual and performing arts on campus and hosts the Swirnow Theater.

Turner said that conversations regarding the makeup of the future student center were ongoing. He welcomed students to visit his office and noted that the architectural firm Shepley Bulfinch was running a series of engagement sessions to collect student input.

In an email to The News-Letter, Technical Director for the Barnstormers Allison Cuesta mentioned that she would like for JHUnions to work with performing arts groups. However, she questioned whether this would be feasible. 

“Having theater as an outlet has been great for my own mental health, and I would love to share it with as many people as possible, but I don’t know about finding the resources to make that happen,” she wrote. 

Cuesta doubted JHUnions’ hypothetical ability to balance supporting the needs of performing arts groups with those of usual programs. 

“Maybe I’m not being imaginative enough, but I can’t see it working out,” she wrote. 

Black Student Union Secretary Danae Baxter argued that whether students frequent the future student center depends on campus culture.

“What’s going to make students decide to spend time in the student center versus Brody? I personally believe that the Diversity and Inclusion offices and SLI should be housed in the student center,” she said. “A huge part of shifting campus culture will rely on accessibility to these resources, and to me, these offices are not very accessible to students.”

In an email to student organization leaders on Oct. 22, Smith announced the release of a financial module on the Hopkins Groups website. 

This module will provide most organizations allocated money from SGA, the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life, and the Office of the Dean of Student Life with real-time updates to their account balances and purchase requests and reimbursements.

Last fall, SLI told dozens of student groups that they had deficits in their accounts going back several years, sometimes upward of a decade. Many groups reported difficulties communicating with SLI about their finances.

JohnCon President Jessica Montoya reflected on JHUnion’s split from SLI in an email to The News-Letter. JohnCon, a science fiction and fantasy club, often collaborates with JHUnions on their annual gaming convention and other events, Montoya said.

“The separation between SLI and JHUnions does not affect us,” she wrote. “I am not really sure how this impacts campus culture, since student groups (including us) have been annoyed about budget stuff that is unrelated, so I’ve heard less people talking about this.”

Baxter questioned whether students were aware of the changes to JHUnions, which SGA members included as part of a monthly email update in March. The Hub has also not yet announced that Turner joined the University in August.

Baxter voiced her excitement for JHUnions’ future.

“The culture on campus needs to have a major shift, and I’m confident that some of our current faculty and even new faculty, such as Hal Turner, are putting effort into accomplishing this,” she said. “I’m not sure that students know what JHUnions’ goal actually is or if the University made the hiring process a transparent one, but I’m optimistic to see what the following years will bring.”

Turner, born and raised in Baltimore, will help define the mission and vision of JHUnions.

He shared his plans to also attend non-JHUnions events across campus. 

“That’s a great way that I can meet up with people and say, ‘Hey, what can we do to engage your community more?’” he said. “For any new employee at a new place, especially someone who is running a newish department, you need to do a lot of learning and a lot of listening.”

Previously the assistant dean of students and director of fraternity and sorority life at the University of Virginia, Turner added that he has been impressed with Hopkins students’ commitment to both academic excellence and co-curricular involvement. 

“There’s a lot of fun aspects about our institution and student population that we can celebrate, in addition to all the great academic success that our students have,” he said. “I want all students to feel like they have a home at JHU where they can have positive experiences and form new connections and relationships, so that’s what I want to use as the foundation moving forward.”

JHUMUNC, Hoptoberfest and The HOP declined to comment.

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