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Thriving Together: How the students of W&J build their campus community

students playing jenga

When the Student Government Association’s (SGA) executive board gather in their office on the second floor of Rossin Campus Center, there’s a lot to discuss.

The young men and women in this room have learned how to balance academics, work, and social life at W&J—and when it’s possible, to have crossover between the three. While these students are exceptional people, they are not an exception here at W&J; they’re the norm.

In addition to their duties as officers in the College’s highest-ranking student organization, these students are campus thought leaders, academic achievers, fraternity brothers and sorority sisters, and above all, W&J Presidents.

What does that mean in 2020? Quite a bit.

“This is a special time to be at W&J, and I think that in large part is on account of our student organizations,” said Jess Skobel ’20, President of SGA. “We have a very large group of very active and campus-contributive organizations who create an awesome opportunity to be involved and find a place to belong.”

Whether it’s the Latin Cultural Association hosting Celebración to share their traditions with campus, Student Activities Board hosting their popular Big Bingo event with fabulous prizes or anything in between, these students are creating the college experience they want to have, and having a good time doing it.

From their houses on Chestnut Street, W&J’s Greek organizations plan and host events that encompass all of campus, including popular philanthropy gatherings like Arrowbands, which features student performances and raises money for the literacy organization Read>Lead>Achieve, and Anchor Splash, an event composed of student performances and swimming-themed competitions collecting funds for Service for Sight.

Panhellenic Council executive board member and Pi Beta Phi sister Fontana Micucci ’21 is a big advocate for the work that Greek-affiliated students do on campus.

“My first semester here, I didn’t think I was going to be involved in Greek life,’” she said. “But then I saw a couple of my friends go through the process and how much it could do for women on campus. We want to be the people that people look up to.”

“I love to see myself and everyone else grow in it. I think we’re out of that phase where people see it as something that is secret or exclusive,” she added. “No matter if you’re affiliated or not, people just want to hang out with each other and they want to be together.”

As Alpha Tau Omega President and SGA treasurer River Icenhour ’20 said, “W&J is a microcosm of the larger world off-campus. Students here have formed a community, and work together to make that community a place in which they all can thrive no matter their background or interests.”

“This is a residential campus,” Icenhour said. “We live here for four years, so this is like our town. If you feel like change needs to be made in the place where you live…you make that change, and that’s what we’re doing.”

A large part of that campus development is helping others. It’s a trait you’ll see in many clubs and organizations at W&J, and even in places you may not expect.

With a vision of sharing their passion for knitting with a new generation of crafters, the recently-established W&J Knit Wits created the Knit-A-Thon. The club invited knitters of any skill level to join them in crafting baby hats to donate to local hospitals’ maternity wards.

“The Knit-a-Thon showed the campus how easy it is to be a part of Knit Wits while getting them involved in giving back,” Knit Wits Co-President Savannah Warner ’20 said. “The results were more than we could have ever expected.”

Through two Knit-a-Thons, 90 participants crafted about 300 baby hats to donate to three area hospitals. And that’s just one example of the power of community engagement at W&J. Students are regularly volunteering with children at the LeMoyne Center and through Big Brothers, Big Sisters, spearheading book drives and literacy campaigns, collecting toys for organizations like Toys for Tots, and finding a host of other ways to get involved.

Their philanthropic focus doesn’t mean they sacrifice fun, though. The students will tell you there is a vibrant social life on campus, and they enjoy a wide variety of both school-sanctioned and privately organized events, even when organizing those events is hard work.

“We’re happy in what we do here. I don’t think we would continue to put in this much work and take this much time out of our daily lives if we didn’t get something back from it,” Skobel said.

And while the students are finding and creating opportunities for themselves, the College is on hand to help enhance their experience.

“Our student life experience is evolving,” SGA Vice President Halie Hess ’21 said. “I’ve been on the residence life staff (as an RA) for two years, and just in the span of a year, we’ve increased our programming and are directing it more toward a better first year experience and carrying that through to a better upperclassmen experience, too.”

The College provides ample opportunities for entertainment both on and off-campus. With Feel Good Fridays featuring giveaways from staff members every week, the Pittsburgh Pipeline shuttling students into the city every Saturday, and annual traditions such as Commonsgiving, Finals Week Stress Busters, and more, the staff is dedicated to creating memories students will look back on fondly long after their time at W&J.

Thanks to generous donations and a strategic plan with a focus on campus expansion, that student experience now includes new spaces for students to gather and connect, including the amphitheater outside of the Tech Center, renovated residence halls with expanded common areas, and a brand-new commuter student lounge.

All of these factors work together to create an atmosphere of opportunity that French international student and SGA parliamentarian Remy LeGrand ’22 sums up best.

“When I arrived at W&J, I never felt like there was something I couldn’t do,” he said. “I’ve seen so many things happen on campus that I thought were just amazing. I know I can do it and there’s nothing to stop me if I try.”

So, what does it mean to be a W&J President in 2020?

Anything you want.