Sarah Thornton sits cross-legged on the floor of her office in the new Dean of Students space where first year experience used to make its home. Around her there is only a desk, a comfortable chair for guests and a bookshelf covered in a Spartan arrangement of mementos. Several balls of colored yarn rest on the topmost shelf along with a miniature porcelain bust and an embroidered image of birds sitting on a branch covered in blossoms.
One shelf down is a framed image of a cat and a small statuette of Groot from Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy,” a tiny plant growing out of his head. There is a painting of a stretch of sidewalk running next to a grove of trees on a waterfront, a homemade bookmark for one of Thornton’s initiatives, a pottery mug and a selection of snacks that range from Smartfood to Oreos and chocolate chip Cliff Bars. A yoga mat rests in the corner by the shelf as well as a pair of trainers that are switched out for winter boots when Thornton leaves the office.
Atop her desk sits an enticing container of homemade pizza, generously topped with pepperoni and honey, resting just under the window that looks out onto Arthurs hall.
Amidst this still life, the click and chunk of a button making machine rings out, followed by a cry of enthusiasm that lights up the small office. The first button has been forged, a near perfect rendition of the stack that Thornton wants to have out for NVU-Johnson’s winter orientation. Each has a picturesque silhouette on its face with “Johnson Welcome Week” typed neatly on the front and an accompanying QR code that takes students to the welcome week schedule of events.
This is one of the first such activities that Thornton has embarked on since joining Northern Vermont University-Johnson as the director of student activities and community service.
“What that means is that I am responsible for overseeing anything that touches student experience,” Thornton said. “So, clubs. I also officially advise the Student Government Association as well as collaborate with other folks on campus who work with students like SHAPE, the wellness center, Dibden.”
She also oversees the student-led activities programming and SERVE offices.
Born and raised in Troy, New York, Thornton has always had an appreciation for Vermont, given the proximity to Bennington, which was only an hour away. “Vermont has always been the ideal for us,” she explained. “I lived about an hour from Bennington, and so my sister and I would travel to Vermont and go and eat cheese. We just thought it was the most beautiful place in the world, and my family and I would go especially in the fall and check out the leaves. I’ve always wanted to live in Vermont.”
Living in Vermont was one of many stops on Thornton’s journey into working in higher education. She started in Rochester, N.Y., at the University of Rochester, studying religious history in her undergrad program.
“A little-known fact is that Rochester in the 1800s was a hotbed of religious activity,” Thornton said of her time at school. “I really dived into experiential learning, and was just traveling with my classes all over the city, looking at these historical sites and digging into these documents, and I just fell in love with that. I loved reading and understanding the history of religious activity in the United States.”
She graduated in 2010, and with the great recession in full swing, she decided to return to academia.
“I went to Vanderbilt University for my master’s degree, living in Nashville, Tennessee, and I had a blast studying there. I really was able to sort of flex my intellectual muscles there, and it was really fun,” said Thornton. “Also, it was my first time ever living in the South. So that was a bit of an experience – delicious food, amazing music.”
The one thing that stuck in her mind the most, however, was the fried pickles, which she still misses to this day.
At Vanderbilt, she experienced something of an epiphany that placed her on a somewhat different path. “I had such a great time, but I realized very quickly that I loved organizing my research. I didn’t necessarily love writing about it, so a Ph. D program was not for me. After that, I was I was a little unsure of what to do.”
Once out of grad school, Thornton wasn’t immediately sure where that path would take her. Her process for finding her way to Johnson was as much trial and error as it was planning. “I usually joke with people that I am not one that necessarily figured out what their calling was or what they were supposed to do. Rather, I figured out what I really didn’t like doing,” Thornton said. “I started working in human resources, and learned pretty quickly that that was not for me. I realized I wanted to continue working in an academic setting, because I loved being around students and their energy. I also love organizing. So, working in administration has been really exciting for me.”
From grad school, she decided to focus on community first, and then worry about her profession later, which led her back to the University of Rochester to work at its library. One of her main goals was to break down barriers to accessibility, and to make library programming that was engaging and interesting for students.
While working at the library, Thornton found one of the core pieces of her professional development, which was an ability to think unconventionally on engagement and interest opportunities. She credits this and a thirst for trying new things as one of her major skills that she picked up on her way to NVU-Johnson.
“I used to joke that it was my job to make the library seem cool. I would find ways to engage with students in the spaces and sort of meet them where they are,” said Thornton. “I was doing a lot of social media. And you would think that it’s easy to write in 140 characters. This was before Twitter changed it. But it’s not.”
Her attention to fun and inclusion carried Thornton into her current position at NVU Johnson. There was an attraction Vermont had on her, and when she and her partner were looking at options for their life after school, Vermont ranked high on the list with its mountains and natural scenery. Another driving factor in coming to Vermont was the availability of an opportunity to work and live at a small liberal arts university where she could feel like she was making a difference.
Thornton has already begun to change the face of the offices she oversees.
One of the first items on her agenda was a reformation of the club structure to increase its appeal and accessibility. Work has begun on a new model for student-led clubs that will make starting and running a club more efficient and accessible to students.
Of those changes, Thornton has begun work on scaling back member count requirements, leadership position needs, and community service standards to make the club structure more flexible and responsive to the student community. Many of these changes have come at the behest of student club representatives who found the old regulations to be obstacles.
From her office in Dewey 171, and the three other spaces that she manages across campus, Thornton has a wide variety of plates to juggle. She has taken oversight of the Student Government Association and is working with the senate and its leadership to revise services that student government provides.
“I do have one specific plan for the SGA. I’m calling it project bring the fun,” Thornton said. “There will be snacks, there will be activities. I keep joking that I’m just going to bring the fun wherever I go. I just want to provide opportunities for them to have fun where they don’t have to organize it themselves.”