As director of the Parents Office, Colleen O'Connor Bench acts as a liaison between SU and students' parents. She fields questions, helps parents when their students are faced with emergencies, and organizes special events.
Colleen O'Connor Bench begins a busy morning in the Parents Office by juggling two phone calls. First she checks on the status of Leslie Marciano '00, an SU student who was seriously injured in a fall early in the semester. In a tone that is equal parts genuine concern and calm efficiency, Bench confirms that Chancellor Kenneth A. Shaw and astronaut Eileen Collins '78 will visit Marciano in the hospital later that day. |
The second call is to a parent who left an "urgent" voice mail message. "What can I help you with?" Bench asks, ready to cope with any situation. There's no emergency this time; the parent merely needs information regarding Parents Weekend registration. Not urgent, certainly, considering the other issues Bench deals with. Yet she treats this conversation with the same professionalism and respect she brings to a crisis situation. "This is the challenge of a one-person office," she says.
Bench is director of the Parents Office, established in 1972 by then-Chancellor Melvin A. Eggers. The office is part of SU's Division of Student Affairs, which Bench indicates is an important distinction compared with parents offices at most other universities. "My colleagues at other institutions focus primarily on fund raising," Bench says. "The Parents Office at SU is totally service oriented."
The office serves three main functions, Bench says. The first is to provide information and referrals to parents, offering a "triage," as Bench calls it. "We help when we can, and redirect questions when we can't," she says. "I can explain how to calculate a grade point average or change a minor. But I'll refer them to their college to handle a grievance against a professor or problems with curriculum."
The second responsibility of the Parents Office is crisis intervention. In any campus emergency that necessitates parental involvementincluding accidents, student arrests, or mental health issuesBench is one of the University's key representatives. "I'm there to meet parents whenever they arrive," she says. "My job is to facilitate the family's needs in any way I can."
While her role in crisis intervention is demanding, Bench believes positive things can grow from such situations. "It gives us a chance to show we're human, not just an institution," she says. "At SU, I have found that colleagues come out of the woodwork to help."
The third function of the Parents Office is to sponsor special events. Bench organizes parental activities for such campus events as Preview, Opening Weekend, and Commencement, and coordinates Parents Weekend each fall.
While not one of its official duties, the office also helps parents deal with empty-nest syndromeas SU students learn to handle life's challenges, the Parents Office helps their parents learn to let go. "Our main mission is to help parents help students learn to help themselves," Bench says. "Part of a student's education at SU is learning life skillseverything from getting along with a new roommate to dealing with an uncooperative landlord."
Bench is grateful for the contributions of generous parents and volunteers who help her do her job well. She relies heavily on the students, parents, and SU staff members who assist with special events; values input from the National Parents Board; and counts on financial contributions made to the Parents Office Special Needs Fund. Bench welcomes such donations to supplement her office's small budget. "The Parents Office pays for hotel accommodations for parents who are visiting a student in crisis," she says. "We purchased books for a student experiencing financial strain because her father died during the summer. We couldn't provide these services without the donations we receive."
A parent herself, Bench and husband Ron have a 4-year-old daughter, Erin Kelsey. Bench, who comes from a large Irish-Catholic family, happily admits her personal life is completely family-centered. "With a job like mine, you're on call 24 hours a day," she says. "I count on the support I get from home, from my phenomenal husband and our extended family. I love my job, but I couldn't do it without them."