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Just a few weeks into her new job as Executive Director of Services for Students, Jana Luker laughed when asked how it is going. "Great. I found the office on the first day—but I'm pretty good that way." With some two decades in student services, Luker will rely on her vast experience as she rolls up her sleeves and begins working toward enhancing the student experience here at McGill. Upbeat and enthusiastic, Luker sat down with the McGill Reporter to discuss her role at McGill, the importance of student services and her off-hour pursuit as a bungee-jumping, skydiver who has sailed across the Atlantic in her own sailboat.
This is a new position at McGill. Why was it created?
Students want the best possible services and agreed that this is what was needed. I think it shows McGill's commitment to improving and extending student services—a movement that is kind of sweeping the nation's universities right now. People realize that the student experience extends beyond the classroom and are treating students as clients—which makes perfect sense. We're here to serve them.
What is your role?
I report to Morton Mendelson, Deputy Provost (Student Life and Learning). Essentially, I will be trying to coordinate and increase collaboration between all the services in order to respond to students' needs and help develop a larger vision of the services for students.
Because of McGill's size, collaboration is the key. There are so many good programs at McGill, sometimes working in isolation. It's going to be great to get these people talking in one room.
I know it's early days, but what are your short-term plans?
I'm not someone to come in and make all kinds of sweeping changes. My style is more to sit back, get my footing, listen to people and see where we are right now. Initially, I want to talk to as many people as possible—especially students. Are there any deficits, in their eyes, or things that need bolstering? I also want to review all the surveys and assessments in order to get as much background as possible. What do external reviewers say? Where does McGill stand in the larger Canadian and North American surveys?
And in the long-term?
I'm very interested in developing a strategic plan for the university's services for students. I think it is important for people—staff and students— to have a good idea of the direction in which we are going. It's about transparency. People have to be able to see that "OK, we can't implement this project just yet, but there is a timeline for it and it is on the horizon."
There are specific projects I will be working on, including the First Year Transition Network—something that was identified before I got here. This is a collaboration among all the university's services, not just the student services, but also academics. Because first-year students go through so many changes, we want to increase their chance of success by making the process as easy as possible for them.
Then the students' voice is essential in all this.
Absolutely. I couldn't imagine doing this job any other way. Yes, it is more challenging when you're dealing with such a large population, but it means we have to rely that much more on student leadership.
We'll be getting first-year students involved as much as possible. Every year, we will conduct first-year surveys and get lots of feedback. This will allow us to benchmark our performance and assess it. I don't want to survey anyone to death, but it is so important to be able to measure what we are doing and make sure we are meeting the objectives we've set.
Of course, this requires student engagement. I can't believe that anyone going to McGill wouldn't want to have some say in their surroundings.
What is the greatest need when it comes to enhancing students' time at McGill?
As simple as it sounds, it means really listening to them. It seems so basic, but it requires building relationships and developing trust as a transparent process—these are values I hold. My background is applied psychology counseling and women's studies. The counseling part taught me the listening skills and the ability to try and work through the conflicts and differences that inevitably come up. [Laughing] I was also a court mediator at one point so these are the skills I bring with me.
How did you get started in student services?
I was a don in residence as an undergraduate. Later, I became a senior don or head don and I kept moving up in housing. Then I jumped from housing to become Dean of Women at U of T and later Dean of Students. Most recently, I was Vice-President of Student Services at St. Francis Xavier University. These were all stepping-stones to getting to McGill. I couldn't be happier right now. This is my life's work, my chosen profession. This isn't short-term for me, this is my career and I wouldn't want to be anywhere else.
What is the biggest difference between McGill and a smaller school like St. FX?
Because of the school's size and the diversity of its population, you have to do more consultations and be very cognizant of the fact that with larger numbers, there is a greater chance that people fall through the cracks.
On the flipside, the diversity of students is a huge plus. It's so exciting to be able to work with students who are so well-rounded, so academically focused, but who don't just stay in their rooms 24/7 studying. These are students who are activists and who will assist in making the changes that will only make McGill a better place to work and study.
Of course, on a very basic level, the larger the university, the larger the bureaucracy needed to run the place. The joke is that universities run at a glacial pace. In smaller institutions, things often get done somewhat faster—but, when things are working well, you don't have an influence on the same number of people.
What are your off-campus interests?
Sailing is my other passion. My partner and I had a sabbatical in 2001, so we took our kids and sailed across the Atlantic on our 37-foot sailboat.
Not your regular family vacation.
One of the downsides about this work about which I am so passionate is that I do spend a lot of time away from home. I'm very fortunate to have a partner who supports me tremendously, but at some point when the kids were looking at me and saying "Mommy, right?" I thought we should do something, something different.
What was the itinerary?
We sailed from Toronto to Cape Breton in about a month, then from Cape Breton to the Azores in just under two weeks. On the other side we went down to Madeira and the Canary Islands. On the way back it took just over three weeks to get to Barbados and then back up through the Caribbean.
[Laughing] It sounds very romantic, but really, you're just fixing your boat in exotic locations—and tearing up hundred dollar bills while you're doing it—with cold water coming at you at a 45-degree angle.
Where do you get your sense of adventure?
My family is huge into adventure. When my parents were in their mid-60s, they traveled to South Africa and found these t-shirts that they really wanted to get for their grandsons.
But to get them, they both had to bungee-jump off a 300-foot suspension bridge over a river. When they came back with the shirts, I thought "If they can do that, I can do it." So I did.
I've gone up to skydive five times and actually never jumped because something always goes wrong; there's too much cloud, the wind whips up, etc. That's coming, though. Stay tuned.
It's not often you see a McGill administrator with a pierced eyebrow. What's the story behind that?
The truth is that when I was working at the University of Toronto several of the student staff had facial piercings which I admired. One woman in particular convinced me that it was not inappropriate for "a woman of my years" to do the same. So, I had it done before I took the vice-president's position at St. Francis Xavier—but not until after the interview [laughing].
What did your family think?
My kids thought it was pretty normal for me, it's the tattoos they find a bit sketchy. On the other hand, after I got my first tattoo, my mom wouldn't talk to me for four days. But that's another article [laughing].