On Aug. 21, 2018, Whittier College released information via their Instagram page (@wctherock) on the College’s new Associate Dean of Campus Life: Deanna Merino-Contino.
Merino-Contino found her way to Whittier College after seeing the job posting while working on her Doctoral Program with Azusa Pacific University. Whittier’s mission to prepare students “from diverse backgrounds to excel in a complex global society” correlated with Merino-Contino’s ambitions and passions to work with college students in developing communities, relations, and supporting their growth throughout their college experience.
“One thing I have enjoyed doing at public institutions is creating communities and working across campus with campus partners,” said Merino-Contino. Coming from California State University Fullerton (CSUF) as their Director for the Center of Scholars, Merino-Contino has plenty of experience in the past working with college students through Greek life, residential life, and organizations across campuses. When she heard about Whittier, she wanted to take the advantage of a private college’s small student size. “It excited me to work with Whittier . . . having heard good things about Whittier and its students,” said Merino-Contino.
On top of being the school’s new Associate Dean of Campus Life, Merino-Contino is also enrolled in Azusa Pacific University’s Higher Education Leadership Doctoral Program. Two days out of each month, Merino-Contino attends Azusa Pacific to take Student Success Equity and Access and an assessment course. “What’s really great is, what I’m learning in the classroom, I am applying to my job.” Merino-Contino was already able to apply her classroom skills to her professional work during Whittier Orientation, and she continues to do so when she works with other student organizations.
Merino-Contino’s ambition to work with college students first took root during her undergraduate experience at San Diego State University, where she studied Communications. She worked as an orientation leader, a tour guide, and a student government representative before a mentor of hers, at the time, convinced her to pursue higher education as a career. “I [knew] I wanted to work in education, [but] I wasn’t sure how to get to that goal,” said Merino-Contino. It was her involvement at San Diego State University that sparked her interest in working with different programs. “At the time when I was looking at programs, there weren’t a lot of programs in California,” said Merino-Contino. “A lot of the programs were back East.”
Coming from Southern California, and having a close relationship with her family, Merino-Contino took the opportunity to step forward and attend Miami University in Oxford, Ohio for her Master’s Program in College Student Personnel. Oxford is a college town, so Merino-Contino benefited in the overall culture and from the institution itself. “Being able to work with the community and opportunities . . . to think about how to build a community is what was really great,” said Merino-Contino.
However, she did have her struggles fitting in as a Latina and finding what it meant to be Latinx in Ohio. “You often represent everyone . . . [but] there are different type of Latinx people. I learned about [various cultures] I’ve never been exposed to being in Southern California,” said Merino-Contino. “The greatest part of that is I really got connected with the students there in writing their student organizations, Association of Latin American students, and working with those student organizations. That was really rewarding to me.”
Merino-Contino has not shied away from developing herself as a support mentor for students. “The greatest thing about working with college students is watching their development from the day they step on campus — watching them go through that journey, and successfully graduate across the stage. You get to experience life with those students . . . [to] get them to think about things they’ve never thought about before,” said Merino-Contino.
Since coming to Whittier College, Merino-Contino has enjoyed her time working with the students who made this year’s Orientation a success, as well as getting to know the students involved with the Student Life Division. “I definitely want to be engaged with students,” she said. “Hopefully [when things] settle down a little bit, maybe [I can] be more present: hosting some events on campus would be great.” Merino-Contino aims to learn Whittier College spots as well as to become familiar with Uptown Whittier.
Merino-Contino would also like to create what she called a “town and gown” relationship, connecting Whittier College and Uptown Whittier closer together. “I think [what] makes Uptown unique is that there’s a sign that says, ‘Uptown Business Association welcomes Whittier College students.’ So, I think that for people coming to Whittier for their first time, or coming to Whittier College, it really creates that since of community,” Merino-Contino said.
As the new Associate Dean of Campus Life, Merino-Contino finds her first responsibility is to ensure safety and belonging. She oversees Residential Life, Office of Student Engagement, and Orientation, just to name a few of her responsibilities. Merino-Contino partners with other departments to create programs that students find “value and student voice” within. One of Merino-Contino’s goals as a new faculty member of Whittier is to develop a mentor relationship with students and to show her support for the Poets.
Merino-Contino values the need support all communities within the College, as well as learning the College’s distinct culture. Some of her priorities as a mentor at Whittier College are becoming a resource and having an open door policy. “One thing that I really learned as a student affairs official is that student voice is at the center of what we [the faculty] do,” Merino-Contino said. Though she cannot promise to fulfill all students’ requests, she is willing to hear students’ voices and feedback in hopes of continuing to represent students.
At the end of the day, Merino-Contino’s drive and motivation comes from working with students. “What’s really great is when you learn new ways to help students and are able to implement that into the change, whether that be the retention or persistence, or a sense of belonging,” said Merino-Contino. When working at CSUF, she participated by supporting first generation Titans in creating an involved community for them to increase their overall involvement and retention rates. She finds that her potential growth as an educator and mentor in Whittier College lies with the students. “There’s no way I would learn half the things I would know as an adult if I didn’t learn from students,” said Merino-Contino.
Merino-Contino believes that her job is to become a mentor and partner with students by sitting down and having a real conversation and seeing Poets succeed and grow. For more inquiries on finding a place in Whittier College or Whittier itself, come visit the Campus Center building below the Campus Inn and have a conversation with Merino-Contino. She will gladly hear you out, get to know you as a student, and person, and support you with your concerns.