The AVP Spotlight series is an initiative of the NASPA AVP Steering Committee and is designed to highlight many of the outstanding contributions to the profession that are made by AVPs across the country.
This edition features Vijay Pendakur, Ed.D., Robert W. and Elizabeth C. Staley Dean of Students, at Cornell University.
AVP. Vijay, please share with us your title, institution, years of service in your current role, and years of service as a student affairs professional.
VP. My name is Vijay Pendakur and I am at Cornell University as the Robert W. and Elizabeth C. Staley Dean of Students. I’ve been in the role of DOS for just over 2 years and I have been working in student affairs for 15 years as a full-time professional. But some of these years have been dog-years. So, can I say that I’ve been working in student affairs for about 45 years?
AVP. You may certainly claim those years, Vijay. Please share which units are within your portfolio as the Dean of Students (DOS).
VP. I supervise a portfolio with the following units: Care and Crisis Services, LGBT Resource Center, Women’s Resource Center, Asian and Asian American Center, Student Development and Diversity Initiatives, Undocumented/DACA student support, First Generation and Low-Income Student Support, Alternative Dispute Resolution Services, and Cornell United Religious Work.
In addition to portfolio oversight and supervision, I serve as the lead administrator on campus-wide crises, protests, and controversial event management. I serve as a leader on our campus efforts to think carefully and respond strategically about free speech and campus climate in this sociopolitical moment. I also frequently engage university leadership and the Student Life Committee of the Board of Trustees on trends and hot topics related to the student experience, student wellbeing, and campus climate.
AVP. What do you enjoy doing most in your current role?
VP. My favorite part of my current role is the opportunity I have to work closely with the VPSA, Provost, and President to help Cornell navigate the extremely complex landscape of identity, equity, and climate that universities currently face. Not only do I get to add value in these meetings, because of my lengthy background working primarily in multicultural affairs and with marginalized students, but I also find this exposure to be some of my deepest learning and professional development.
AVP. How are you involved in NASPA?
VP. I primarily am involved in NASPA as a content-contributor. I have presented frequently at NASPA conferences and institutes, often offering special sessions and keynotes, per NASPA’s request. I find that my engagement with NASPA over the years has changed and, more recently, I am learning the most at NASPA when I have a chance to gather in small groups with other upper-level administrators to discuss some of the key challenges I am working on in this DOS role.
AVP. What is the best advice you would give to yourself as a new professional knowing what you know now?
VP. I was deeply under-networked and under-sponsored as a new professional. I was focused on doing good work and assumed that this effort alone would help me navigate future job aspirations. If I could get in the way-back machine and holler at Young-V (yeah, that’s what I call myself in my head, lol), I would say, “Keep working really hard and kicking butt at your current job…AND go out and connect with a national network of people who can help you when you’re ready for your next step!” Boy, that way-back machine would have saved me a lot of pain and anxiety when I decided to do my first national search for an AVP job! Ha!
AVP. What is something you are most proud of as an AVP?
VP. It is awkward and uncomfortable for me to talk about what I’m most proud of. But, if I have to share, I think that I am most proud of the fact that I am doing my best to contribute in this role at Cornell, while also trying to do my best as a husband and father to two very young daughters at home. Would my work be a bajillion times easier if I didn’t have a family? Heck yeah. Would I be a shadow of myself without this rich home life? Absolutely.
AVP. Our roles as an AVP can be challenging. What do you do outside of work to ensure that you’re fresh and energized for your campus job?
VP. Self-care has changed a LOT for me over time. In my 20s, my self-care was mostly physical. I made sure that I hit the gym a few times a week, ran outside when possible, and even did some yoga a few times a month. In my 30s, due to growing professional demands, my time allocation for physical self-care dropped a bit, but I started to get much more disciplined about eating better (particularly breakfast…I used to eat a Clif Bar for breakfast every day in my 20s…that’s it…if I tried that now, my body would quit on me by 10am!) and sleeping more. Now, nearing 40 and as a father of 2, my self-care is a bit scattershot, lol. I don’t work out enough, and this needs to change. But, I do eat well and I am in bed by 9:30pm, latest. Yeah, 25 year old me (Young-V!) would be clowning Old Man V pretty hard. But, I need the sleep in order to bring the mental and physical commitment to my job every day. I’ve also added a morning music-practice routine to my life that I would never have been able to commit to before. Three days a week, at 6am, I go down to the basement and play guitar for 45 minutes. At this stage of my life, this time has become sacred. I am alone, not tethered to a screen, not multi-tasking, and not dealing with drama. The music practice demands that I block out all the noise and just focus on the notes, my right-hand technique, rhythm, tone, etc. It’s as close as I can get to meditation, which I suck royally at.
AVP. What do you do for fun when you’re not working?
VP. In no particular order: I read brain candy novels, every night. I hang with my wife and kids. I meet up with friends for a beer and some smack-talking. I watch movies in the theater, whenever possible. I play acoustic guitar. I visit whisky distilleries and ask lots of questions. And, finally, when I’m in New York City, I window-shop and ogle expensive shoes and guitars that I can’t afford to buy.
AVP. How do you balance your personal life with your professional
VP. I don’t. Honestly, most days, I just feel like I’m hanging on for dear life…both at home and at work. I have a three year old toddler and a 1 year old, and I am the Dean of Students at the largest Ivy. It’s not pretty! The only stable part of my day is my morning routine (see above) and my nighttime routine. I try to get to bed early, read for 30 minutes to clear my mind and then sleep 8 hours. There are days, and sometimes even weeks, where it all seems manageable. And there are days and weeks where I feel totally under water. But, I keep telling myself that it will get better…and this seems to help. I also have some AMAZING friends in the profession who I call numerous times a week for homie-therapy (this is a real thing) and, without them, I would have keeled over by now.
AVP. What are you reading now (or have you read recently)?
VP. I read the thriller Orphan X. It was such an adrenaline rush that I might have ruined my entire sleeping pattern for a week. But…it was worth it!