Dickerson earns MLK Day Journey Award for roles as mentor, advocate

Janet Smith Dickerson

Janet Dickerson Photo: Denise Applewhite

Janet Dickerson, Princeton's vice president for campus life for the past 10 years, received the University's MLK Day Journey Award, which recognizes efforts to continue the journey to achieve Martin Luther King Jr.'s vision for America.

Dickerson, who is retiring in June after devoting a career of nearly 40 years to students at four U.S. colleges and universities, was honored Jan. 18 with the Journey Award for Lifetime Service at the University's King Day ceremony in Richardson Auditorium of Alexander Hall. In nominating Dickerson for the award, students, faculty and staff colleagues emphasized her commitment to serving as a mentor to and advocate for students, particularly those from underrepresented backgrounds.

Members of the University community nominated candidates for the Journey Award based on their support for King's philosophy and teachings and their contributions to the improvement of civil rights and/or human rights. Preference was given to candidates who have positively affected the University campus and/or community. Members of the MLK Day Committee judged the nominations, and Princeton President Shirley M. Tilghman selected the finalist. The award, which was instituted in 2005, includes a commemorative plaque and a wristwatch.

In presenting the award to Dickerson, Tilghman said, "Quietly but effectively -- and always with immense compassion -- she has devoted herself to building or renewing the bridges of understanding, tolerance and common purpose that underpin our University today. At Princeton, as elsewhere, Janet has always been conscious of the human tendency to 'find your own community and stay there.' But, she reminds us, 'Princeton's communities are not gated. Their boundaries are permeable. The richness of our University lies in their interconnectedness.' For the past decade, Janet has done more than anyone I know to strengthen these connections while celebrating the diversity that has increasingly come to define our University."

Dickerson is Princeton's first vice president for campus life. When she arrived in 2000, the title for her position was changed from dean of student life to reflect the broad administrative responsibilities of the position. She oversees the Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Students, the Department of Athletics, University Health Services, the Office of Religious Life and the Pace Center. She also had responsibilities for the Frist Campus Center when it opened in 2000. In addition, she has sought ways, in collaboration with the Graduate School, to enhance the quality of graduate student life.

"Her gracious voice has led and supported students in a range of efforts to 'level the playing field,'" Amy Campbell, director of campus life initiatives in Dickerson's office, wrote in nominating her for the Journey Award. "From creating funding mechanisms to strengthen student-initiated activities and advocating for financial assistance in support of pre-orientation experiences, to listening to the student narrative and offering her encouragement and guidance, Janet has worked publicly and privately to advance the opportunities for Princeton's undergraduate and graduate community."

Campbell added, "Her accomplishments over the past 10 years have made Princeton a better place and enhanced the student experience."

In her nomination, senior Jessica Gamboa said Dickerson deserved to be "recognized for her ability to listen to students and put their ideas into concrete action."

Gamboa noted that Dickerson was an advocate and adviser for the Latino Coalition, a student group that worked to help establish the Program in Latino Studies and a mentoring program for first-year Latino students. Gamboa also has worked closely with Dickerson as coordinator of the Princeton University Mentoring Program, which supports Latino, African American and Asian students.

"She in many ways embodies many of the ideals professed by Dr. Martin Luther King since she has always made diversity and inclusion a top priority," Gamboa wrote.

Among many campus life initiatives undertaken during her tenure, a key effort in which Dickerson played a lead role was planning for the transition from the two-year to the four-year residential college program. She also oversaw development of new spaces on Prospect Avenue to complement the residential college program, including Campus Club, which is a gathering place for undergraduate and graduate students, and 58 Prospect Ave., which is home of the Fields Center, Community House and a portion of the Pace Center staff.

Dickerson also co-chaired the Diversity Working Group, which recommended steps the University could take to increase the diversity of its staff. She co-chaired the Task Force on Health and Well-Being and co-chairs its successor, the Healthier Princeton Advisory Board. The task force made many recommendations, including increasing the staff in University Health Services and improving Campus Recreation facilities, that have been implemented. One outgrowth of those two health groups is the Alcohol Coalition Committee, which is working to address high-risk drinking among undergraduates.

Under Dickerson's watch, other key areas of progress over the past decade have included: the thriving of the Frist Campus Center; the expansion of facilities and the building of a community of friends groups in athletics; the expansion of the mission of the Office of Religious Life to include support of and outreach to students from all the major religious backgrounds, including the addition of a coordinator for Muslim life and a coordinator for Hindu life; the flourishing of the Pace Center as the focal point for the University's civic engagement efforts; the growth of opportunities for graduate students; the work of the Undergraduate Life Committee, which she co-chairs with a student and has helped deal with numerous campus issues; the efforts, such as Sustained Dialogue, to increase understanding between divisions in society; and the success of efforts to enhance the presence and voices of students at University trustees' and other leadership meetings.

"She is engaged to an extraordinary extent, supporting offices and programs, meeting with student groups and individuals, and tirelessly attending activities, which I know means so much to all involved," Sanjeev Kulkarni, a professor of electrical engineering and the master of Butler College, wrote in his nomination of Dickerson. "Whenever I've attended events ranging from Naacho's dance performance to discussions of diversity on campus, I could be sure to see Janet there. In addition to her engagement, she exudes compassion and understanding together with quiet strength. This combination puts students from all backgrounds at ease, while helping them find their place and their voice."

Dickerson came to Princeton from Duke University, where she had been vice president for student affairs for nine years. She spent 15 years at Swarthmore College, including the last 10 as dean of the college. She began her career in student life administration at Earlham College, where she was associate dean of students and assistant professor of education from 1971 to 1976. She earned her B.A. from Western College for Women (later merged with Miami University of Ohio) and her M.Ed. from Xavier University. She has done advanced graduate study at the University of Pennsylvania and at Harvard University.