Washington People: Jill Stratton

‘World’s oldest RA’ hel​ps students, staff, faculty find their joy

Jill Stratton, surrounded by Danforth Scholars, says working closely with students puts her in “a state of flow.” (Credit: Jerry Naunheim Jr./wustl photos (2))

Jill Stratton, PhD, was afraid of her residential advisor.

Stratton was a rising high school senior when she was selected to spend five weeks at the University of Kentucky as a Kentucky Governor’s Scholar. She arrived with her Sony Walkman and the misconception that her residential advisor would be a prison guard in a Wildcats jersey.

“I remember thinking, ‘I need to stay away from her. She’s the rulemaker, the enforcer,’” recalled Stratton. “But she was so nice. She planned all of these great programs and was like a big sister. At that moment, at 16-years-old, I said to myself, ‘I want to become an RA.’ ”

And she did. As an undergraduate at Transylvania University in Lexington, Ky., Stratton served as a residential advisor and head advisor. As a graduate student at Indiana University, she studied residential advising. And at Washington University in St. Louis, she has trained and mentored hundreds of residential advisors.

“I stepped on a college campus in 1987 and I haven’t stepped off since,” said Stratton. “My friends joke that I am the world’s oldest RA.”

After serving in Washington University’s Office of Residential Life for 21 years, Stratton recently accepted a newly created position — associate dean of undergraduate residential learning— which combines her passion for college student development and creative intellectual opportunities. Stratton plans to develop common education experiences similar to the First Year Reading Program, help create multidisciplinary courses and expand living-learning programs, both on and off campus. She will partner with the four undergraduate schools as well as the Office of the Provost to cultivate and increase intellectual engagement in the residential areas.

“We know it contributes to the life of the mind and the life of the community to have living-learning experiences,” Stratton said. “My goal is to leverage the great spaces we have in the residential colleges and the great minds we have on campus to create learning experiences outside of the classroom.”

Stratton also will continue to co-teach “The Psychology of Young Adulthood” and “Civic Leadership” as well as lead courses in the Praxis Program and with the Danforth Scholars.

Jen Smith, PhD, dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, says Stratton embodies the habits of holistic intellectual engagement.

“She knows our students well inside and outside of the classroom, and therefore can bring her creative mind to helping them bridge those two realms of college experience,” said Smith.

About Jill Stratton

Hometown: Mayfield, Ky.

First home at Washington University: Park/Mudd

Lifelong passion:

Stratton produces acoustic concerts around town and served as artist manager for folk singer Carrie Newcomer for four years

Favorite live music venue: Sheldon Concert Hall. Stratton is looking forward to seeing Rosanne Cash perform there Nov. 20.

Hobbies that keep Stratton happy: Stratton replaced her Diet Coke addiction with running and completed her first half-marathon last spring. She also keeps a gratitude journal and loves spending time with her 5-year old nephew and 9-month old niece.

Those are Stratton’s official duties, but her role on campus is much greater. To many, Stratton is a life coach, a mentor and a de facto big sister, just like the residential advisor who changed her own life almost 30 years ago.

“Jill cares about what makes you happy and what brings you joy,” said Danforth House residential advisor and Civic Scholar Jason Silberman, a senior majoring in philosophy-neuroscience-psychology and in anthropology, both in Arts & Sciences. “My conversations with her have influenced me to pursue what I really care about, which is improving health care for developmentally disabled patients. It’s amazing how time just flows once you commit to what you’re truly passionate about.”

The theory of “flow,” developed by Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, is the abiding principle of Stratton’s life — and one she eagerly shares with everyone from her freshmen advisees to university staffers who attend her workshops. A leader in the field of positive psychology, Stratton also presents on flow at other universities, institutions and organizations.

“When people say, ‘They’re in the zone,’ that’s a state of flow — being so engaged in what you are doing that you don’t notice the passing of time,” Stratton said. “When I talk to students, I want to know what brings them alive. Do they want to be a doctor because society or their parents think that’s important, or is that what they are really passionate about?

“It was Howard Thurman who said, ‘Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.’ ”

Stratton lives what she lectures. Finding new ways to enrich the lives of Washington University students puts her in a state of flow. The Faculty Fellows and Faculty Associate programs, which she founded and will continue direct in her new role, exemplify Stratton’s gift for finding ways for others to flourish.

Currently eight faculty members and their families live on the South 40, where they help students navigate college, lead excursions to local attractions and host parties and programs in their homes. Another 45 faculty associates take first-year students on outings across the region from Crown Candy to the St. Louis Symphony to Eckert’s Farm.

“Before, it would be very unusual to see a faculty member on the South 40,” she said. “Now, it is unusual not to see faculty over here.

“We knew these programs would be good for our students, but faculty members also have told us (these programs) have fundamentally changed the way they teach and advise. It’s rare for a major research university to have this kind of commitment from its faculty, but it’s part of who we are.”

The result: The Princeton Review just ranked Washington University’s dorms tops in the country — again. Certainly, the architects get credit. But so does the Residential Life staff.

Stratton, a 21-year veteran of the Office of Residential Life, recently was named associate dean of undergraduate residential learning.

“If this were just about bricks and dorm rooms, we wouldn’t have ranked that high,” Stratton said. “It’s what’s happening inside that also contributes — the programmatic pieces, our faculty programs, our residential advisors, all of the things that contribute to the idea that people are at home here.”

Ian MacMullen, PhD, assistant professor in political science in Arts & Sciences, served as a faculty fellow in Gregg House for four years with his wife, Lola Fayanju, MD, resident in the Department of Surgery at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

He says Stratton’s exuberant personality, positive outlook and bottomless supply of chocolate — she returns graded papers with a bite-sized Snickers and hands out candy before professional workshops — makes Washington University a more joyous place. During his years in Gregg House, Stratton became both a close friend and godmother to his son, Tobi.

“Even though she is insanely busy all of the time, we knew she would be generous with her time and her attention,” MacMullen said. “You just know some people have a really good heart, and she is one of those people. We see it with our sons, but I also witness it on campus. She is never fake. The enthusiasm you see is genuine.”

That’s just who Stratton is. But MacMullen also recognizes Jim McLeod’s influence on Stratton. McLeod, who died in 2011, was the beloved dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, vice chancellor for students and a visionary devoted to improving the undergraduate experience.

“Jim was good at finding committed and talented people and then giving them ever more responsibilities,” MacMullen said. “Jill is one of those people who has emerged from that era. It’s an important legacy that he has left behind. Hopefully, the example Jill sets will guarantee that the culture we have here will persist.”