There were the engineering students who figured out how to access the defunct intercom system in Burge Hall and broadcast messages in the middle of the night. There was the student band that rolled a piano from the Daum basement into an elevator, added a guitar and bass player, and performed in transit. (Get it? Elevator music.) And there were the students who wanted to surprise their hall coordinator with a live turkey on Thanksgiving. Unable to find one, they settled for a live pig.
“I think the farmer they borrowed it from even gave it a bath first,” remembers Maggie Van Oel, the soon-to-be-retired director of the University’s Department of Residence Services. “Eventually the pig got loose and was squealing and running up and down the hall.”
Funny memories for someone who intended to teach art.
“I didn’t plan to do residence hall work at all,” says Van Oel, who came to Iowa to get an MFA in August 1970 and will retire in January 2004 after 32 years of service to the University. “At Iowa, I just wanted to get a degree, get out, and start teaching.”
But by the time her acceptance letter arrived for the fall semester of 1970, off-campus housing was scarce. The residence halls still had plenty of room, however, and so she wound up living on what she calls “an eclectic floor.”
“There were first-year students, people returning to school, students of all ages, even a couple of nuns,” says Van Oel, who had been a resident assistant for three years at the Kansas City Art Institute, where she studied painting, printmaking, and photography. “At Iowa, I volunteered to be in the residence hall government, and then to be on a team of students who interviewed prospective resident assistants (R.A.’s). I liked it. I liked helping to provide programs for students. An administrator suggested that I apply to be an assistant hall coordinator, so I did.”
Thus began a career in the Department of Residence Services in which Van Oel moved through the ranks from assistant hall coordinator in August 1971, to manager of housing assignment in 1980 and assistant director for housing in 1987. For the past nine years, she’s served as acting director and then director of residence services.
During those years, little in the residence hall system has remained static.
“The residence halls are a lot nicer places to come to now,” Van Oel says, referring to the myriad renovation and building projects she’s overseen. “I’m proud of the improvements we’ve made in our facilities and in the grounds.”
She’s the first UI director who has had to conduct major construction projects with students in residence.
“The projects have just gotten too massive to work on only during school breaks,” she says. “It’s been a challenge, but in talking with directors from other institutions, I feel blessed that we’ve been able to include stipulations such as no weekend work, or no work during finals, in our contracts. Other schools haven’t been able to do that.”
Van Oel’s skills are appreciated by Phillip Jones, vice president and dean of student services.
“Maggie has worked in every facet of the system and that is how she has been able to create innovation and modernize the halls while keeping the finances in excellent shape,” Jones says.
Van Oel credits her Iowa colleagues for making it possible to cope with construction projects while maintaining the quality and quantity of residence services programs and activities.
“The staff in our department are wonderful,” she says. “I’m so pleased with their work ethic, their ability, their intelligence. They’re all working together and they want to do a good job. It’s made me want to work all the harder.”
Dicta Schoenfelder, who has worked with Van Oel for the past 23 years, says that Van Oel’s enthusiasm and caring for students sets the tone in the office.
“Whenever we make a decision in our department, Maggie’s first thought is always ‘How will this affect the students? Is this a wise use of the students’ money?’ Everything that has happened in the last 10 years, and that’s been a lot—all the remodeling and construction projects—have started by Maggie asking, ‘How can we make this better for students?’ ”
Van Oel’s student focus comes from a genuine enjoyment of working with them.
“I’ve always been an advocate for students,” she says. “I understand their trials, and I know that sometimes doing stupid things is part of growing up.”
Candidates to replace Van Oel interviewed in the fall, and a new director should be named by December.
Van Oel is looking forward to spending time on the deck of her recently built house, watching the hawks that circle above and the deer that rustle through the woods that edge the property. But even there she’ll feel the influence of her years in residence services. She worked with a local architect to make sure the home is universally accessible, inspired in part by her experience with making residence halls accessible to students with disabilities.
“Overall, I’m going to miss working with students—the Daily Iowan reporters, the ARH members [the residence hall student government], the students who come into my office with a problem that I can help them fix. It’s been very rewarding.”
Elevator music, live pigs, and all.
by Linzee Kull McCray