New Brainerd Commons Dean Brings Passion to Role

By Charmaine Lam, Features Editor

Visitors to Brainerd Commons might notice the series of owl door signs for all members of Brainerd’s ResLife staff, one of which hangs proudly on the Dean’s office. Over the summer, interior design work has been done to the office and now, visitors are greeted with a fledging owl collection scattered across the room. Watercolor paintings, owl stamps and even a lavender scented plush owl are among the new décor.

This decoration is the work of Brainerd Commons’ new Dean, AJ Place. Place stepped into the role of commons dean in August and has since hit the ground running not only with administrative duties and meeting the commons staff and students, but also jumping in with CRA and residential life training and Orientation as well.

“I started back in August and transitioned from my other job, so I jumped right in with CRA training, ResLife staff training and then orientation, so it’s been a busy month but it’s been great,” Place said.

Place’s transition from his position as Associate Dean for Judicial Affairs to his new role in Brainerd Commons followed the previous Brainerd Dean Natasha Chang’s announcement that she would be stepping away from her position last January.

The College called for applications not only for the Brainerd Commons Dean position that began this semester, but also for the Ross Commons Dean position, which will begin in January.

“The big thing we ask is, can this person work with our students and the changing needs of our students in an effective way?” said Dean of Students Baishakhi Taylor, who is in charge of hiring new commons deans. “Can this person move difficult conversations forward? Can this person help balance the demands and needs of the rigorous schedule our students face within the residential life system?”

Beyond looking for someone who would effectively play the collaborator role between students and faculty, the administration and other college staff, the selection committee also searched for a candidate that could help bring a more inclusive vision of the College to fruition. 

Place’s commitment to social justice issues, among them green-dot bystander training and LGBTQ issues, distinguished him from the candidate pool, according to Dean Taylor.

For Place, a commitment to these social justice topics reflects less the direction he envisions for residential life and more the personality and style he brings to the position.

“All five of us Commons Deans are different. We want that because there is strength in difference and we all bring unique elements to the table,” he said. “There is no master plan for change, but I think in general who I am and what I find important might come through.”

Although Place is only wrapping up his second month as Commons Dean, he has already been bringing his own passions and experiences to the job. He and the new Brainerd CRA, Henrik Gunderson ’16, have worked together to incorporate social justice issues into ResLife training in the hopes of making the commons experience more proactive and to engage with social justice issues of sexuality, class and race that may be difficult to talk about without a specific type of space.

“An important vision we have for Brainerd is to create a safe and productive environment that pushes our students to take chances and grow, but at the same time provide a safety net when they need it,” Gunderson said. “[Place’s] experience from working with residential life for so many years means that he can provide important insight in how we handle different situations.”

Through his position as Commons Dean, Place seeks to bring authenticity both to his role in the ResLife institutional experience and also to everyday interactions with students within the ResLife structure.

“[Working with ResLife] is more home, and so it’s nice,” he said. “I enjoy being in a residence hall, I enjoy seeing students at different times of the day and sometimes in the evening, and I enjoy helping them through difficult situations and being around when they’re celebrating. It’s a different feeling.”

While the Commons office has been kept busy with events concerning the first-year experience throughout August and September, Place has gotten to know not only the new Brainerd students through move-in and orientation but also many returning Brainerd students.

“Meeting with returning students is great because it’s harder to get to know them as they’re not here in the building,” he said. “They know that even though there’s a new dean in this office, they can still come and find me to get some support and some resources.”

As Place moves out of the transition phase of his new position, he continues to meet and work with students to create an inclusive and engaging space within Brainerd Commons.

“All the Brainerd students I’ve met so far have said that Brainerd’s the best, but I think that everybody probably thinks that about their commons,” Place said with a laugh. “So far it’s been a really great group of students and I’m excited to be working with them.”