By David Goll
San Jose State University, among the largest and most urban of California State University campuses, can be a daunting, confusing place when you’re a new student.
Making the transition to SJSU from high school, community college or after several years in the workplace a bit less stressful was the driving force behind SJSU’s Helping and Caring campaign, first launched in spring 2012 as part of the university’s Vision 2017 campus improvement program. One of its most visible manifestations over the past five years has been the “Ask Me” tables set up at four key locations around the 154-acre downtown San Jose campus for two weeks at the start of each new semester: Clark Hall, MLK Library, the Event Center and the corner of Ninth and San Fernando streets.
“The whole idea (behind Helping and Caring) was to have faculty, staff and fellow students go the extra mile to help students,” said Fernanda Perdomo-Arciniegas, who is currently the deputy diversity officer and previously served as the director of Campus and Community Relations in the Office of the Vice President of Student Affairs. “It means going out of your way to help them instead of suggesting they talk to someone else or go elsewhere to resolve their problem.”
“People who work at tables came from all over campus,” Perdomo-Arciniegas said, noting that the collaboration helped to foster better communication across campus. “Many probably would never have met one another otherwise.”
The “Ask Me” tables provide help answers students’ questions before they even set foot in a classroom. Staffed with two people from the faculty, staff or student body, the tables feature laptops, so information not stored in volunteers’ heads is quickly accessible. Students asked a variety of questions about directions, deadlines, campus clubs and services. Data collected over the years led to FAQ “cheat sheets” providing information on the most frequent inquiries.
“We even offered hot chocolate on cold days and nights,” Perdomo-Arciniegas said.
Incoming freshman and transfer students are not accepted during the spring semester, so only a small number of graduate and international students arrive at SJSU in January, according to Sonja Daniels, associate vice president for Campus Life in the Office of the Vice President. She said the “Ask Me” tables were missing from campus at the beginning of the spring semester, but will be back for the fall semester when classes begin Aug. 23.
“We decided to not have them for spring and focus on fall,” Daniels said, noting the much smaller influx of new students at the start of the spring semester.
At the start of the fall 2016 term, senior Public Relations major Karly Tokioka said she volunteered to work shifts at an “Ask Me” table inside a tent at the entrance to Clark Hall. She answered many questions but also handed out a myriad of resources — including flyers and information brochures — along with free post-it notes, car charger adapters and scheduling planners.
“It’s hard enough to be on a new campus and find your way around,” Tokioka said. “It can really be intimidating as a freshman or transfer student to ask other students for directions, so I think it’s a great way to offer students a way to ask questions without feeling intimidated.”
Senior Bette Cheng, a Psychology major and “Ask Me” volunteer, said the tables provide a valuable service to bewildered, stressed-out students. However, even more than directions or advice on how to add a class, Cheng said she noticed gadgets like pens and USB drives were big hits.
“During tabling, I would have the students ask me a question in order to receive a freebie,” she said. “I found it effective because with a simple question, it led to asking multiple questions.”