Never a dull moment for official den mother

April 07, 2005, vol. 32, no. 7
By Roberta Staley

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One month before graduating in 1974 from the theatre arts program at Sir George Williams University in Montreal, Jan Fialkowski was summoned into the office of Norma Springford, chair of the department, to discuss her future.

It was a tradition at Sir George Williams, the mentor's final sage comments to young graduates before they embarked upon their adventures on the stage. Dressed head to foot in de rigueur black, the wiry Springford eyed Fialkowski, lit a cigarette and took a drag.

Pulling open her desk drawer, Springford grabbed a bottle of scotch and sloshed a healthy dram into a glass. She offered both to her student, who politely declined. Finally, Springford drawled, “what are you going to do with the rest of your life, because you have limited talent.”

Stunned, Fialkowski stared at the theatre maven (now deceased). Amidst a jumble of emotions, Fialkowski heard her plaintive inner voice: “You couldn't have told me this after year one? I could have taken accounting or something.”

Fialkowski heeded Springford's advice, and did not pursue the great roles at London's Old Vic Theatre or on Broadway. She married and spent time as a mother and homemaker before her life detoured back to where tragedy and comedy take centre stage.

As SFU's director of residence and housing since fall 2000, Fialkowski is the official den mother - although she often feels like a Keystone cop - to 1,600 students-in-residence. (Another 225 will settle into new campus digs in September.)

Some are teenagers just leaving the family nest, who have lots of academic smarts but are sorely wanting on life skills. Other students are trying to juggle their studies with rearing babies and toddlers.

Some parents, in accordance with tradition, have invited grandparents to live with them on campus to help care for the youngsters, says Fialkowski. “You see them pushing baby carriages, doing tai chi in quiet spots on campus.”

“One of our challenges is that we have to be culturally sensitive,” says Fialkowski, who came to Burnaby from Trent University in Peterborough, Ont., where she was associate director of residence and food service.

In good Mother Hen tradition, Fialkowski's job also includes chastising - with genuine threats to evict - those who have allowed their apartments to become so filthy it poses health risks.

She and the 13 fulltime residence and housing staff members also keep tabs on those whose post-pub revelries awaken campus, drug users, slackers who've stopped attending classes, as well as squatters. “It's like a French farce sometimes,” says Fialkowski. “A door is shutting and another is opening as you try to keep up with who is actually in there.”

There are grim tales alongside those that raise bemused eyebrows. Some students become so “overwhelmed by the lack of money, the work and the stress,” staff is forced to intervene, occasionally to the point of initiating a suicide watch, says Fialkowski.

And some female students from conservative cultures opposed to educating women have had to be hustled into hiding when a relative has stalked them.

Fialkowski takes personal pride in the new $43-million student residences she oversees, which now includes a dining room and the four-star Simon hotel for visiting faculty, out-of-town dignitaries and athletes. (These structures complement venerable residences like Shell house, McTaggart-Cowan hall and Louis Riel house for families.)

The two new eight-floor towers are for first-year co-eds only. Fialkowski has created special programs for these undergrads: the students attend discussions on cultural diversity, homophobia, racism and alcohol abuse as well as such prosaic necessities as laundry. And there is a required meal plan, “so at least we know the students are eating,” Fialkowski says.

Food at the new dining room, which is open 16 hours a day seven days a week, is balanced and healthy, although meeting budget is challenging, Fialkowski admits.

Guest chefs (including the occasional parent) are regularly invited to campus to conjure up gourmet fare like red snapper with a Dijon mustard sauce, adding diversity to the menu.

Fialkowski may not have made it to the stage, but she is the director of a human drama with joy, hilarity, pathos, and everything in between.

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