Since his time as a graduate student at Rockefeller College, University at Albany’s Vice President for Student Affairs, Michael Christakis, has had a simple mantra stuck in his head – Make a difference. 

“When I started in grad school here in the fall of ’99, the Public Affairs Student Association (PASA) was selling these shirts,” recalled Christakis. “I wanted a Rockefeller shirt, so I bought one and the saying on it was, ‘Make a difference.’” 

“When you’re just out of college and you’re at a public affairs school, ‘Make a difference’ resonates with you. It still resonates with me,” said Christakis. “That is sort of my anthem – How do we make a difference? How do I make a difference? How does my team make a difference? How does the student make a difference in a peer’s life or in D.C. when they’re doing an internship? My thing has always been, in personalizing the student experience, how are we making a difference in the student’s life?”

Named the Vice President for Student Affairs in 2015, Christakis manages the University’s entire student affairs portfolio in collaboration with key divisions across campus, such as academic affairs, development, athletics, the Alumni Association, and others. 

Christakis’ responsibilities include administering a comprehensive range of programs and services related to campus programming and planning; assisting in creating a campus culture that promotes the academic achievement and personal development of all students, ranging from undergraduate to professional; supporting crisis response and institutional initiatives; advocating on behalf of students; and fostering collaborative relationships among students, faculty, and staff. 

With infectious energy and a knack for bringing people together (in general and for his popular Twitter selfies), Christakis is focused on personalizing the student experience and making a difference in each student’s life. 

“Just because we’re a large public research university doesn’t mean we need to be impersonal,” said Christakis. “It takes a little more elbow grease to be personal, but the return to the institution and to the student’s experience is huge through that personalized attention.”

“There are formulas that say how you can touch a student’s life,” continued Christakis. “We can do that here – in part, because at UAlbany and at Rockefeller College all of our faculty and staff are interested in student success. That isn’t hard to get folks to subscribe to. Who doesn’t want our students to be successful? But our emphasis has pivoted in a way where it starts from day one.”

To begin, Christakis revamped the University’s orientation, taking it from one large lecture center session to several small sessions with just 15-30 students. In the much more personalized meetings, Christakis brings staff members from an array of areas on campus to talk about subjects such as career preparation and stress management.

“So not only are you getting to know your peers better, but you’re also exposed to professionals that you might not otherwise have been exposed to in a large 250-person lecture center,” said Christakis.

In addition, Christakis and his staff have committed to closing the communication gap for first-year students by creating dedicated success teams, consisting of an academic advisor, a writing and critical inquiry instructor, and a residence hall director. With this strategy, UAlbany has a seen a jump in student retention.

“There’s no better metric in my view than the freshmen to sophomore retention rate that went up 3.5 percent to a six-year high,” said Christakis. “That is a significant metric in higher education. This was done by a shared commitment on the part of the faculty, of the staff, and of the entire institution to make a difference in the lives of our students. That’s how we caused the dial to move.”

Student experience has proven to be a priority for both the University and Rockefeller College. Adopting State University of New York Chancellor Nancy Zimpher’s “Cradle to Career” initiative, UAlbany and Rockefeller are preparing students for the professional world through supportive programming and experiential learning.

“One of the great strengths of Rockefeller College is the array of services that we provide to students inside and outside the classroom,” said Karl Rethemeyer, Interim Dean of Rockefeller College of Public Affairs & Policy. “For more than 20 years we have been a leader in experiential learning through our Career and Internship Office and Semester in Washington Program. By linking our students early in their undergraduate and graduate studies to career-relevant experience, we prepare them to find and keep jobs that can make a difference.”

“In recent years we have greatly expanded our efforts to help students meet our high standards, including lead TAs in undergraduate lectures to help identify students who need aid transitioning from high school to college, as well as hosting the Welcome Week “boot camp” for MPA students, which includes extensive math and writing refreshers,” added Rethemeyer. “We are working hard to give every Rockefeller student the best opportunity to succeed.”

“The strong partnership forged between Student Affairs and Academic Affairs is critical to the success of the students UAlbany has admitted. It complements the excellent curriculum by providing the personal attention students need to thrive in a public research university,” said UAlbany Interim President James Stellar. “Mike deserves tremendous credit for his understanding of exactly how to increase student success through programs of engagement and for his ability to inspire us all to implement those programs. And we know it is working because of the increase we saw this year in freshmen-to-sophomore retention.”

“I think it’s proof positive, if you pay a little bit more attention, care a little bit more about the student’s experience – on that one student’s experience – then it makes a very significant difference,” said Christakis.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2017 Rockefeller College News Magazine