As spring semester came to a close, Vice Provost for University Life Valarie Swain-Cade McCoullum had several new positions to fill. Just a few weeks earlier, the new position of chief operating officer of wellness had been announced, and over the summer, the position of associate vice provost for student affairs had also been vacated. McCoullum found herself helping cover for both positions, while handling all her other roles at VPUL.
McCoullum recounted that President Amy Gutmann and Provost Wendell Pritchett asked how they could help her manage her responsibilities. She decided that she could use a second-in-command.
"I thought it would be a terrific idea to put in someone who knew the 12 schools really, really well," she said, adding that she knew former director of Student Intervention Services Sharon Smith would be perfect for the job.
"All the deans were saying, 'We have Sharon on speed dial','" McCoullum said.
Smith has served as the director of SIS since the department launched in 2002 and has now officially become the first associate vice provost for University Life. She will work side-by-side with McCoullum on a range of duties from generating new wellness projects to supporting first-generation, low-income students on campus — two initiatives the vice provost has focused on promoting in recent months.
In her new role, Smith will continue to oversee SIS, the department tasked with handling all emergencies related to students in the community. In recent years, the high number of student deaths, many by suicide, has made Smith's job leading SIS particularly critical to the University. Her name is likely familiar to many who might have noticed Smith's contact information posted at the bottom of University-wide emails announcing emergencies and student deaths.
Smith's new role is part of an overall effort to organize the many departments under VPUL, which has added several positions this year. VPUL oversees some of the departments most relevant to student life, from Student Health Services and Technology Services to the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life and the LGBT Center.
Smith first began working at Penn more than 30 years ago in 1987. Since then, she has led New Student Orientation, the first-generation, low-income student support group known as PENNCAP, and other projects in VPUL.
"I'm really very honored to step up and be a part of the changes, the vision that are taking place here," Smith said, citing VPUL's recent consolidation of all wellness-related organizations under the leadership of the newly appointed Chief Wellness Officer Benoit Dubé.
“I’m really excited about the coordination between Student Intervention Services, my office, and CAPS," she said. "I’m looking forward to how they’re grouped together [with] new initiatives and existing programs.”
Lauren Rudick, the former SIS associate director, began serving as the interim director of SIS over the summer.
Smith said she plans on meeting with student leaders and groups over the next few months to get a sense of what student life on campus needs most right now.
“I think students need to have a direction, a place where they can go, where they can talk and present ideas and know that those ideas will be taken seriously,” Smith said.
Smith will also act as the interim senior associate vice provost for Student Affairs, taking over many of the duties of long-serving Penn administrator Hikaru Kozuma, who left over the summer to Amherst University. McCoullum noted that VPUL is actively looking to appoint a permanent director to the position.
VPUL currently has a number of leadership roles awaiting permanent appointments including the director of Penn's Women’s Center, as well as three currently vacant roles: the executive director of Penn First Plus, chief operating officer of Wellness, and executive director of Counseling and Psychological Services.