In honor of the launch of FIRE’s new Student Defenders program, all this week we’ve been profiling students already helping peers accused of conduct violations navigate their school’s often confusing disciplinary systems.
Today, we’re talking to Penn State rising senior (and current FIRE summer intern) Veronica Joyce. Joyce is the director of the Penn State student government’s Student Conduct Advisors group. In a recent chat, she tells FIRE about the group’s work, how she helps calm “very, very scared students,” and the mistake that accidentally got her involved in the first place.
Some questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.
FIRE: Hi, Veronica. Tell FIRE readers a little bit about your program at Penn State.
Veronica Joyce: Student Conduct Advisors has been around for a while, so it’s kind of fun that I recently got to take it over.
Our main focus right now is helping students through the conduct process. Whenever they’re getting a citation or written-up, we advise them through it. We kind of hold their hand, make sure that they’re doing OK, make sure they know they’re probably not going to get expelled, things like that.
FIRE: How big is your group and when was it started?
VJ: Student Conduct Advisors was originally started under a different name in the ‘60s. Originally, it was formed to change the code of conduct at Penn State, but turned into what we have today where we just help students through the conduct process.
As for advisors, there are seven of us right now. When I took over the program my sophomore year, it was just myself and one other student. So for the past two years I’ve been building it back up.
FIRE: How did you get involved?
VJ: That’s kind of a funny question because I didn’t remember clicking this button, but we had to take an incoming freshman quiz online and there was a button asking if we were interested in becoming more involved with student conduct and things like that. Apparently I clicked it. I got an interview to become an advisor during my freshman year and I really liked it.
I liked the idea of helping people and of being more involved in my school system. We work very closely with the Office of Student Conduct and I just went from there. My sophomore year, the person who was graduating didn’t really have anyone to take it over and some of the old members weren’t really staying with it, so I took it on.
FIRE: How do students find you? And then how does the process play out for a student seeking your help?
VJ: We have a lot of little plugs on various websites, so if students Google something like “I’ve gotten in trouble at Penn State. What do I do? Who can help me?”, we should come up.
When a student gets referred to the Office of Student Conduct, they also email the student and give out our information so the student can come to us for help. Then we can accompany them to their hearing or conduct conference.
FIRE: What are students like when they come in?
VJ: Probably the biggest thing I notice is that freshman are very, very scared. Freshman will come in and think they’re getting expelled for underage drinking. That’s the majority of cases we see: students getting written-up for underage drinking. So they’re afraid of having to tell their parents, that they’re not going to get into grad school or get a job, or that they’re going to get kicked out of their major.
But with your first offense, as long as it’s a pretty minor one, generally not that much happens. With alcohol offenses there’s a class you have to take and a fine you have to pay, but other than that, it doesn’t really get noted on your transcript. So that’s what we tell them. It’s not going to ruin their life but if they continue to do it, it’s going to end up being a problem. That’s when the consequences will get more severe.
We just like to prepare students overall for what they’ll see when they go to the Office of Student Conduct. We tell them generally that it’s just a one-on-one conversation. And we’re allowed to accompany them so they feel comfortable, and we can point out anything we think is unfair.
FIRE: What are some of the ways you ensure students’ rights are protected?
VJ: A lot of it happens beforehand. For example, we help make sure that any changes to the student code of conduct won’t impede students’ rights, although I’ve never come across anything like that. The code of conduct has been very fair for as long as I’ve been involved.
Then, in meetings, we’re there so the students can ask us, “Do you think that this is OK?” And for the most part, we do. If we see some kind of problem with the way their case manager is handling the case, or if we see a different punishment being handed out for the same offense, we can speak up. We have pretty free reign to say anything in conferences. In more formal hearings, we have a little bit less freedom, but we’re still allowed to consult with the students and prompt them with anything they should be bringing up.
FIRE: What would your concerns be if students needed to face these processes by themselves?
VJ: I would worry that without somewhat of a watchdog, there could be the potential for unfair or biased treatment. I think having us there is a good way to keep the Office of Student Conduct in check.
FIRE: What are some of the more serious violations you deal with?
VJ: Some of the bigger things that happen are the more physical things, like fights, or something where the police may be called, or where a restraining order is issued. In a situation where there’s more than one person involved, there’s a lot more ambiguity. There can be witnesses involved, lies involved. There’ll be two sides to the story.
It’s important for a student to know they have someone on their side who isn’t directly involved. We’re just there to ensure that the student is being treated fairly.
FIRE: What kind of feedback do you get from the students you help?
VJ: Most of it is relief — that they would definitely recommend us to a friend, but they hope they never have to see us again.
But usually, we walk out of the office together and they give a big sigh. They’re really worried that things are going to be so much worse, and we can help reassure them. I’ve never had anyone have a negative experience.
FIRE: Is it a ton of work? What would your advice be to someone who wants to do this?
VJ: I’m definitely in an interesting situation because I basically had to start my program over. I would say, just keep calm. My advisors put in about 3 to 4 office hours per week.
My biggest piece of advice is to get a couple of strong people on board first so that you can have a couple board members. I have a secretary, coordinator, and somebody doing PR. So when I come up with ideas, I have a task force and I have people to bounce ideas off of. I have people who can train new advisors and access different resources.
I definitely recommend starting out small and not being discouraged if you only have 3 advisors in your first year.
FIRE: You’ve mentioned you’re building up the program. Aside from recruiting more people, what other kinds of things are you doing?
VJ: A lot of our new ideas involve ways students can find out about us. We also like to educate students by going to speak to different groups and telling them about what we do.
Some other cool things we’re working on right now include going paperless in our office by using online forms rather than hard copies, and we’re also working on getting the advisors to be Green Dot certified in bystander intervention through a program called Stand for State.
FIRE: Can any student get involved?
VJ: Definitely. If you go through the training, anyone can do it.
It’s a really cool opportunity. I’m still figuring out what I want to do after I graduate, but it is helpful understanding how to advocate for for people and dealing with people in a situation where they’re very upset.
FIRE: What’s been the most difficult part of doing this job, and what’s been the best?
VJ: The most difficult part is retaining my actual advisors.
I think the most rewarding thing is when a student comes in crying, because it’s upsetting when you get in trouble. But I’m able to talk them down and reassure them to the point where they can leave my office smiling.
We hope you enjoyed our features on student defender programs around the nation this week. Don’t forget to go to FIRE’s Student Defenders page to learn more about how you can create your own group, or get involved with a program near you.