In 38 years working in residence life at William & Mary, staying current has been the challenge and the fun for Deb Boykin ’76, M.Ed. ’82.
Not a single part of what’s new or can be improved did she want to pass her by.
Boykin will retire as associate vice president for student affairs and director of residence life this summer, moving into the next phase of a life rooted in Williamsburg and anchored by family and the university community. She will take with her a career’s worth of knowledge about meeting the needs of students living on campus, having served as the department’s director since 1992.
“I always like to think that everything that I do touches students directly or indirectly,” Boykin said.
She is quick to point out she doesn’t do it alone, and works with a big staff of people who are responsible for all the various aspects of residence life, which when done right aren’t even noticed. She brings the perspective of having been a student staff member, live-in professional and full-time administrator in her many years in residence life at the university.
After graduating from W&M and living in the Boston area with her husband for a couple years, they returned to Williamsburg, and she said she knew this was where she was going to be. But doing the same thing over and over again, year after year didn’t appeal to her.
So she honed in on professional organizations from statewide to international as a way to keep up with trends, find ideas that might work and constantly improve residential life for students. Her office walls are dotted with awards from the various groups, and in 2013 the Virginia Association of College and University Housing Officers renamed its highest award the Deb Boykin Outstanding Professional Award.
Several years ago she was selected for two consecutive years to teach officials in colleges and universities in South Africa how to run residence halls.
Boykin said the boredom of not constantly evolving would be uncomfortable for her. She tells people she has never had a boring day in her job, though some challenging days dealing with a crisis such as a hurricane or fire she would have rather been bored.
“So I’m always looking for changes and yes, I do sometimes think I push people to see what else is out there,” she said. “What are some other schools doing? Or what will work for us here that’s different?
“That’s where I get my energy, from that. I thrive on kind of exploring, thinking and trying to do some different things.”
Leading by example
Boykin has served as a mentor and role model for numerous colleagues at W&M and beyond. In addition to her energetic approach to work, taking time for herself for health and fitness and her dedication to her husband and two daughters set an example.
“People talk about work-life balance now, but she was about that decades ago,” said Chris Durden, the longtime director of housing operations who has worked for Boykin for all of his 28 years at W&M.
“She always encouraged us to do that and to take that time out because you’ll be more effective in the long run.”
Working as part of a group and collaborating with people are among the things she said she’ll miss most about her job. She points to a recent day where she spent a morning meeting working with an excited group on plans for a residence hall renovation, and the entire afternoon putting heads together with others on a message to be sent out to the campus community regarding water testing.
“So when bad things happen, I’ve never felt that it was me that had to solve it,” Boykin said. “Everything’s done here with support up and down. And that’s, again, sort of exhilarating.”
She particularly enjoys doing the budget because she gets to set priorities for the upcoming year. Working as part of a group — whether her own staff, the larger department or campus-wide commitments — has made her thrive as well.
“I credit any success I have had in this position to my early role model, mentor and friend Sam Sadler,” Boykin said, referring to the former W&M vice president for student affairs. “He really taught me how to be a caring student affairs professional.”
Colleagues speak of Boykin in terms of an inspiring boss and trusted confidant.
“She’s pushed me when I needed to be pushed,” Durden said. “She’s thanked me when I needed to be thanked. She’s been a great, supportive supervisor who brings out the best in the people around her.”
Ginger Ambler, W&M vice president for student affairs, was an undergraduate resident assistant and Boykin assistant director of residence life when they first met.
“Now, as one of my senior staff colleagues leading the Division of Student Affairs, Deb continues to be a professional mentor to me,” Ambler said. “The truth is, she has been a rock and an inspiration for our whole division. Hers is ever a steady, wise and collaborative voice, not only at the student affairs leadership table, but also in a host of university-level leadership roles she’s played.
“I will forever be grateful for Deb’s experience, her perspective and her profound love of W&M and our students.”
Boykin maintains close relationships with people she’s worked with, and they continue to turn to her for everything from professional help to personal advice, according to Dana Anderson-Radcliffe, an administrative assistant in residence life who has worked with Boykin for 16 years.
“She is an institution that stands alone,” Anderson-Radcliffe said. “There is always that one supervisor you’ll remember, and for me and many of her colleagues, Deb is the one.”
Boykin has invested vast amounts of time, resources and money to allow her staff to learn and succeed, according to Terry Fassanella, an area director for several residence halls who is among the numerous W&M housing staff members actively involved in professional organizations.
Time for the next phase
Boykin, who recently received a proclamation for her service from one of the organizations, said she knew it was time to move to the next phase of her life. She and her husband — a teacher — welcomed their first grandchild in October and will have time to travel, visit family and pursue activities in the community.
Her passions are diversity, women’s issues, the environment and voter equality. She also plans to add more yoga and Pilates to what has been a lifelong commitment to physical fitness.
She will look for a new purpose in this phase, going forward from knowing that her purpose at work was to provide students with a safe, secure feeling of belonging in their residential environments. The job is mostly managing a big staff of people, and making sure they feel empowered and know what their job is, she said.
“I think somewhere along the line I’ve mastered that, hopefully,” Boykin said. “And have always felt like I have good relationships with the people that are my direct reports, and that that made them be able to go and do the good work for our students. Because nothing happens in a vacuum.”