By Laurie Davis
Juanita Denson is tuned into the needs of those who walk into Room 205 of Weiboldt Hall, whether it’s a gentle nudge to turn in paperwork, a warm smile, a pair of winter boots or a crisis intervention.
Denson, Department Administrator for Romance Languages & Literatures, is the sixth recipient of the Marlene F. Richman Award for Excellence and Dedication in Service to Students, given by the Office of the Vice President and Dean of Students. She considers much of what she does a prerequisite of the job, but the student nomination letters for the Richman award tell a much more personal story.
“To find out how the students felt about me,” she said, was surprising. “They never said anything like that to me. They come in and say, ‘Hi, I see you’re busy, I just wanted to say hello.’ But, to actually sit and read what they had to say—I had no idea that they observed me that well in what I do on a daily basis. I think one of them referred to me as an aunt.” In their nomination letters and daily exchanges, the students know her as Juanita.
One student wrote: “Juanita has a personal style that is unmatched and a wonderful twinkle in her eye. She is a person who loves life and shows it by making the lives of others run more smoothly.”
Juanita paid special attention to a prospective student, now in the department’s PhD program, who first arrived in Chicago to a cold surprise. “She came for a campus visit from Puerto Rico, and she actually arrived here in sandals and a very light coat. It was February, and I think we had snow up to our knees,” says Juanita. “We took a ride and went to a couple of stores and ended up at Sears and got her some boots. She took them back home with her, and she said to herself, ‘I still have the boots. Why not go where the snow is?’ So it’s like a little private joke between us.”
Juanita, who calls herself the “overseer” of the day-to-day operations of the office, maintains the budget and works with students to choose classes and plan their course of study, and she assists with new faculty searches. “It’s busy, it’s stressful, but I don’t do it by myself. The department works well not because of me, but because of a joint effort,” she says.
Juanita notes that the teamwork in her office comes from the respect everyone has for each other. “I don’t think anybody has ever said, ‘I can’t do that.’ Everybody pitches in. There are no big I’s and little you’s.” And nobody goes unnoticed.
When a student she knew came to her office one day with an empty stare and a worried mind, Juanita monitored her and then sought outside help. “I got her some water and I told her to sit there for a few minutes until I contacted someone in her family, and then I sent her to the student health services. I did not know the background of it, but I knew something wasn’t right.”
The student later recovered and has never forgotten Juanita’s quick reaction. “She still thanks me for that particular day,” she says.
A member of the University’s staff since June 8, 1968—27 of those years were spent working in the School of Social Service Administration—Juanita will retire at the end of 2008. “The University is a great place to work,” she says. “It’s rewarding to know there are people here who care about you, not only about your work, but about you.”
After 40 years of service, Juanita has gained a lot of professional experience, but as the “overseer” of Romance Languages & Literatures, she more often relies upon her natural instincts.
Her advice to others who work with students: “Number one, see them as human beings. Know that they are under pressure and that you should try to do as much as you can to help them feel comfortable in whatever it is they’re doing. And when you make a promise to them, follow up on that promise because they’re depending on you. Your face is the one they see when they come in and need help. Just be there for them.”
Originally published on August 4, 2008.