Janet Smith Dickerson spent one of her first Saturday nights as a senior administrator at Princeton University getting to know the students—from the front seat of a campus police car. The 1968 graduate, named Princeton’s vice president of campus life last summer, wanted to get a firsthand, late-night look at student life at the Ivy League school.
“I wanted to have a perspective on the experience of students as well as on public safety officers, infirmary nurses, dining hall workers, campus center managers and others who routinely support our evening and late-night operations,” says Dickerson. “It was a challenge to become informed about and acclimated to the Princeton culture. I just immersed myself in it, and I’m asking lots of questions.” As the first black female vice president at Princeton, one of the first questions she asked herself concerned ethnic diversity: How could she contribute to the university’s ongoing efforts? “Princeton has committed to a financial aid policy that will enable us to have students from every background and region,” she says. “I want to enhance our students’ understanding of, and respect for, the diversity we all share, and to improve the options students have to participate in activities beyond the classroom, including service.”
Princeton students will benefit not only from Dickerson’s genuine interest in seeing life from their side, but also from her professional background. Before working at Princeton, she was vice president for student affairs at Duke University, a dean at Swarthmore College and an associate dean at Earlham College. Dickerson began her career as a teacher and guidance counselor before moving into administration. “I moved when I realized that counselors do not have as much ability to change campus cultures as administrators do,” she says. As Princeton’s first vice president of campus life, she is involved with students from a wide range of areas on campus.
The offices that fall under her leadership include undergraduate student life, athletics, health services, religious life and a new center for community service. “They are very different units, but together they provide the fabric of community life at this institution,” she says. “I want to be an advocate for these units. I hope to foster collaborative relationships between them and others who are concerned with our students’ whole lives.”
Dickerson grew up near the campus of Voorhees College, a small, historically black college in Denmark, S.C., and attended a high school that was connected to Voorhees. “My high school, while racially segregated, was a very nurturing and intellectually stimulating place,” she says. “Our teachers made us confident in our abilities, gave us strong basic skills, and confronted us if we behaved in uncivil or disrespectful ways. “They were role models for me in that they modeled caring, disciplined, committed lives. They expected excellence, and exemplified integrity and character. I hope that I do the same for my students.”