If the road to graduation occasionally seems long and arduous, for students at SUNY Cobleskill, it seems it can also sometimes involve large quantities of whipped cream. Preparations for commencement at the rural New York campus used to be a fairly sober affair, with students readying for the big day with just the administrative process required to collect their caps and gowns. All that changed with this year’s Grad Fair at SUNY Cobleskill which, with a strong a carnival atmosphere, ensured a much more eventful lead up to graduation.
“We have a model here of putting our students first and we know graduation can be a stressful time of the year — that sense of what’s next, of finding a job and leaving friends,” explains Vice President for Student Affairs, Steven Ackerknecht. “The idea of a Grad Fair, where the school could come together in a fun, student centered-way, seemed the perfect way of easing that stress, and a great opportunity to celebrate before our grads leave the campus,” he adds.
That sense of celebration began when SUNY Cobleskill Bookstore Manager Jeri Usatch discovered some long forgotten carnival games in storage, and started to think about how to create a more festive air to the graduation proceedings. Working with partners like Stewart’s convenience stores, who provided a plentiful supply of ice cream and toppings for a sundae table, and Coca-Cola, who donated t-shirts, giveaways and beverages, Usatch also brought in a DJ from the university ranks while the campus provided food. A professional photographer was also on hand for portraits and a representative from Barnes & Noble College supplier, Herff Jones, helped students with their graduation regalia needs, from class rings to announcements and diploma frames.
And then there was the pie booth, where students played speed-round trivia, with the correct answer earning the opportunity to toss a pie. “I had the great honor and privilege of enjoying some whipped-cream pie to the face,” Ackerknecht admits, and while the esteemed faculty and administration were gracious enough to act as targets, they also exacted their revenge, with campus Acting President Dr. Debra H. Thatcher firmly trouncing the bookstore in the Hippity Hop inflatable horse races. “It was an excellent concept and spirit-building event that really engaged our college constituents and offices in a special way,” Ackerknecht says
In return, Usatch is quick to acknowledge that it’s the culture at Cobleskill that really enables her to do her job and become creatively involved in the campus to take events like the Grad Fair far beyond the expected reach of the bookstore. “We just work well together,” she says, adding, “It’s a really generous administration and we work together like a family.” It’s also a culture where the students benefit, and where they can find advice, support and practical help right across the campus, from the Registrar’s Office to the bookstore. That kind of approach also makes it easy for things to happen at Cobleskill. “I feel I can walk into any office in the administration building, and chat for twenty minutes – it doesn’t even have to be work related,” Usatch acknowledges, “and it means that, because of that bond and the interaction between us, if a problem ever arises, I know the answer is never more than a phone call or a cup of coffee away.”
For an institution with roots stretching back to the early 20th century, things are changing at SUNY Cobleskill with a $100 million investment in infrastructure upgrades over the past decade. With a state-of-the-art Agricultural Center and the new Alumni Commons townhouses for students, the campus is embracing development, but the connection with its students never wavers. Usatch seems genuinely baffled if questioned why she would spend nine hours in the pouring rain to be time keeper for a national qualifying Woodsman event for the school, or why some students drop by the store just for a hug. “Why not?” she says simply. “They’re my kids.”
That kind of commitment also underscores the role the bookstore plays at Cobleskill, and her belief that a campus that plays together, stays together. “It’s important if you want a successful store; if you want to support your students and campus, and support great retention — those kinds of things aren’t going to be handed to you,” she maintains.
It’s a philosophy reflected in outcomes such as this semester’s highest textbook adoption rate ever, and also in the service award Usatch recently received in recognition of her dedication to the school. “To be able to walk anywhere on campus and have the kids stop and talk with you — I love that; I honestly want for nothing,” she says. And as the Class of 2014 leaves Cobleskill to meet their futures, plans are already in discussion for next year’s Graduation Fair. Somehow, we know it’s going to be the party event of the year.