By Kate Blankinship
Jen Kennedy, director of the new Office of Student Centers, started her journey at UChicago as a student enjoying the very spaces she now oversees.
“I did the whole typical UChicago story,” Kennedy said, explaining she met her husband, made some of her best friends, and established her career at the University.
During her time as a student, Kennedy majored in sociology and lived in Mathews House (which later became Linn-Mathews House) in Burton-Judson Courts. And, through a connection her Resident Assistant had, Kennedy started working in the Reynolds Club as a financial assistant, managing supplies, organizing mail, and assisting with other office tasks.
It was when she moved out of Burton-Judson her fourth year that Kennedy became even more involved with Reynolds Club, looking for the same supportive community that Housing provided. In fact, she wrote significant portions of her BA Thesis in Reynolds Club.
When Kennedy was preparing to graduate in 2002, a finance position opened in the former Office of Reynolds Club & Student Activities (which later became the Center for Leadership and Involvement). She held this position for two years before moving into the role of coffee shop coordinator.
“[The coffee shop coordinator] was such a great job because we really started looking at the shops as student leadership development opportunities and not just ‘Are you following the law? Are your bills getting paid?’ That’s important, too, of course. But we really focused on making sure that shops felt as a unit, together,” she said.
Under her guidance, Ex Libris moved to its current space, Harper Café opened, and Hallowed Grounds and Cobb developed their unique aesthetics. Kennedy then became an advisor of Recognized Student Organizations (RSOs) for the next five years, helping students achieve their visions for their groups.
Kennedy shifted her focus to facilities in 2009 when she started working in buildings and events, an area in which she has worked ever since. In July 2018, the operations and event service functions of the Center for Leadership and Involvement combined with the former Office of Event Services to form the Office of Student Centers. As the office’s inaugural director, Kennedy became less of a “steward of the spaces” who focused on the “nuts and bolts” and started thinking more holistically, working to use the student centers as a way to develop stronger communities on campus.
“With more spaces comes the role of being able to think of them more cohesively,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy loves making campus spaces accessible to students while also maintaining the historic and beautiful look. “You have to look at the spaces and ask what they can do for us, what’s the real spirit of them. How are students already using them, and how can we enhance that? It doesn’t make any sense to try to twist the spaces into something they’re not.”
Kennedy’s experience gives her the unique ability to consider students’ opinions from the perspective of a former UChicago student who worked, lived, and studied in the very same spaces she now oversees. It’s her connection with students that Kennedy finds most rewarding.
“[Student employees] come from every single place in the country and across the world. They have every single major. And they all have different experiences and different things to tell us. And that’s been really valuable to me,” she said.
Kennedy has found that students approach their jobs and RSOs with the same passion and intensity they approach academics. She witnesses this passion firsthand, as students approach her with unique requests for their events (like attaching artificial grass to a stairwell’s walls in Reynolds Club). For Kennedy, the answer usually isn’t no, but rather, “How do we get to a yes?”
Working so closely with students, Kennedy also recognizes that “the stress will always be there. But there is time to do both; there is time to be a great student and to have a job and to be involved.”
In her new role, Kennedy hopes she will continue to help students navigate the web that is UChicago by creating little pockets on campus where students can feel at home and where they can feel involved. “We don’t want to disrupt little ecosystems here, we want to add to them,” she said.
“UChicago is super special,” she added. “[The University] has a commitment to being relevant and to listening and serving students specifically, while still remaining as excellent as possible.”