Jim Wessel reflects on 18 years in support of the safety, wellbeing of students
For a week straight several times during the year, Jim Wessel is on call to help University of Chicago students who are facing urgent issues. Calls and messages can come in day or night, and each student has a unique situation that needs a tailored solution. It’s a role that requires compassion, creative thinking, and quick problem solving, and Wessel has been committed to it for over 18 years.
“As a Dean-on-Call, I hope that the support I provide will always demonstrate that I genuinely care about students and think holistically about their experience,” he said. “Not just about this one quarter that might have gone poorly for them, or the test that didn't work out well, or the medical or psychiatric concern that is the roadblock to moving forward. It's about connecting with people on a personal level, building trust and rapport.”
As part of a network of safety-related services at the University of Chicago, the Dean-on-Call program is available 24/7 as an important intermediary and helpful resource for students who need assistance with a variety of problems. While 911 should be called for immediate, life-threatening emergencies, the Deans-on-Call can help with academic issues, medical or mental health needs, concerns about a friend or classmate, or any instance where a student needs help navigating a situation. About 20 trained staff members rotate over the course of the year to serve as Deans-on-Call. To contact the Dean-on-Call, students may call the University of Chicago Police Department at 773-702-8181 or text the Dean-on-Call directly through the HELP button in the UChicago Safe App.
Wessel, whose full-time role at the University is Director of Residential Programs for Summer Session in the College, knew he was interested in becoming a Dean-on-Call because of his passion for improving students’ experiences. Solutions look different for every student. Sometimes, it can mean communicating with a professor or helping secure accommodations for a certain course. Other times, the Dean-on-Call can discuss mental health factors and offer to connect a student with UChicago Student Wellness.
“We’re reassuring students that their faculty, their department staff, and their Dean of Students all have a vested interest in them succeeding,” Wessel said. “Deans-on-Call normalize the whole process of asking for help and dispel the myth that asking for help is a sign of weakness.”
Wessel has provided support during a variety of circumstances, including hospitalizations, accidents, and other medical complications. Other instances when a Dean-on-Call provides support include when a student is the victim of a crime. In this situation, the UCPD connects the student to the Dean-on-Call for one-on-one support. Some of Wessel’s colleagues are specifically trained to serve as Sexual Assault Deans-on-Call to handle matters related to assault, harassment, and intimate partner violence.
In addition to direct calls from students, the Dean-on-Call also takes messages from concerned staff, faculty, friends, and family who have observed a student experiencing or approaching a crisis. The Dean-on-Call can follow up on these concerns, including conducting a wellbeing check via phone or Zoom or in person.
“There are some students who just need somebody to reach out,” Wessel said. “That makes all the difference. Sometimes a student’s thought process is: ‘I thought if I asked my professor, they would think poorly of me. If I asked my friends, they would feel that it was a burden. If I asked my family, they would be disappointed in me.’ But that is not the case with a neutral party like the Dean-on-Call. We can make the connections for that student without judgment and reassure them that engaging with the resources available to them should not have a stigma.”
As a collaboration between Campus & Student Life and the UCPD, the Dean-on-Call program is part of the University’s commitment to resources that promote an environment of safety and wellbeing.
“We are always looking for creative and compassionate solutions to meet student needs, and the Dean-on-Call program is instrumental in those efforts,” said Michele Rasmussen, Dean of Students of the University. “I am grateful for the service of our Deans-on-Call in helping all UChicago students navigate their time at the University.”
For Wessel, this role has been enormously rewarding, and he will continue to be an advocate for students in need of any kind of help or support.
“I will do whatever I can to reinforce the fact that I'm authentically interested in what's going on with students,” he said. “I really try to reinforce that it’s always okay to seek help and remind students that the Dean-on-Call and many other people at the University want to help them succeed.”