Dr. Rheo Morris takes reins as Dean of Students

1 year ago

For Dr. Rheo Morris, one of the most important aspects of a successful residential life program is providing students and staff opportunities to take ownership of it. It hasn’t taken long for the new dean of students at the Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences and the Arts to implement that idea on campus.

Morris began working as ASMSA’s newest dean on June 1 after almost nine years as assistant director of residential living at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway. Before that, she served three years as a hall director at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg, Miss. She follows Bill Currier, who retired July 1 after serving 10 years as dean of students.

One of the new programs she plans to bring to ASMSA’s residence life is a new residential curriculum. While much of the students’ focus is put on the academic curriculum, there are many aspects of living on campus that are just as important, she said.

An example is how to do laundry. Many of the students may not have had to do their own laundry at home but will now be required to do so. Through a residential life program, they may learn how to sort the laundry in regards to fabrics or colors, how much bleach and detergent to use and how to properly care for their clothing.

It may be a simple subject for many students, but it can be an important step in learning to be independent, Morris said. That will be the focus of the curriculum — to help the students learn skills that will help them become comfortable as a member of ASMSA’s community. The program — called Live Learn Explore — also aims to help students learn how to live in a residential community before leaving for college.

The program will include focused lessons and programs, giving it a deeper purpose than providing sessions for sessions sake, she said.

“We plan to be more intentional about the program,” Morris said. “Instead of I like card games so let’s play card games we’ll have something that will be outcome focused. It’s not that we aren’t going to have fun doing it. We’re going to find ways to still have fun, but at the end of the day what do we want to take away from what we are doing.”

Following her mantra of giving ownership to participants in the program, Morris asked Briana Crowe, ASMSA’s community developer, if she was interested in creating it.

“I want it to be her brainchild,” Morris said. “I threw the challenge to her. We discussed exactly what we wanted out of the program and as her if she wanted to take it over. In the end it will be hers.”

The new program is one of the first steps Morris is taking to meet one of her own goals — making the residence life program just as important as the academic program. She wants students and staff to understand why the residence life program is in place, how it can serve as a bridge for the gap between the two programs and how residence life staff members can help.

“A lot of it will start from us being enthusiastic,” Morris said. “We have to be excited about what we’re doing — that we’re excited about living here and putting on our programs. Again ownership is big. We need to students to understand that this is your building — this is where you live. If something goes wrong in the building, you need to let us know. We want you to have the best experience. We want to transfer that pride not only from the academic side but to living here as one of their best experiences.”

Morris and Currier’s tenure overlapped about a month. That provided Morris the opportunity to glean information from Currier that will be important during her transition to dean, she said.

“He was able to tell me how we do things and why we do things a certain way. He’s seen a lot during his time here. He heard the backlash to some decisions. He helped me through my first decision. He said in the past this is how we handled a decision but that I didn’t have to do it the same way. Bill came from the same kind of road as I did (from a college residential life background). It was definitely invaluable having that time with Bill,” Morris said.

She said she expects that working with high school students may be more challenging, but she’s looking forward to the time students are on campus. Morris was able to meet many of the students and parents this past weekend’s junior orientation. She’ll get to experience her first ASMSA move-in day on Saturday, Aug. 5.

Morris said people may be surprised to hear that she considers herself an introvert, considering the career path she has taken. But she said she has always loved seeing people grow and to interact with them. She has followed the example of a residential assistant in the residence hall she first lived in at the University of Alabama at Huntsville, she said.

Morris had moved to Huntsville from St. Kitts in the Caribbean Islands. It was her first time to live away from home. Her RA made sure to learn her name and would invite to her various events and programs.

“She would push me a lot in residence life to make sure there was someone outside of the classroom. I knew I could always talk to her. She may not always agree with what I had done, but I knew she always had my back,” Morris said.

It’s that kind of atmosphere that ultimately she wants to create in the Student Center and on ASMSA’s campus.

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