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Gatti and Smith '81 combine for over 70 years at Otterbein, continue to see core values realized

Gatti and Smith '81 combine for over 70 years at Otterbein, continue to see values realized

When talking about Otterbein legacies, two very familiar faces come to mind: Bob Gatti, vice president for student affairs and dean of students, and Becky Fickel Smith ’81, executive director of alumni relations. Bob has been at Otterbein since 1978, and Becky never left, becoming an employee after graduation in 1981. Together, they talked about the changing, yet steady, culture through the years at the ’Bein.

What has changed, and what has stayed the same in your tenures?
Becky: The caring and supportive staff and faculty have always been genuine and welcoming. The values of inclusion and diversity have not changed.
Bob: In all my time here, if I’ve asked a faculty member to help out a student, I’ve never been turned down. That’s not the norm at other places. And the students haven’t changed that much. They may look different, they may listen to different music, but they still have that same ethos of care. They care for one another, they look after one another. Community service wasn’t as organized as it was today, but they were still doing community service. They were still helping, working and volunteering.
Becky: The other thing that I constantly hear from alumni is the beauty of the campus. We kept the integrity of the grounds looking so welcoming and beautiful.
Bob: Facilities have changed a great deal. We didn’t have the Clements Center, we didn’t have the stadium. We’ve renovated every residence hall on campus. We built DeVore Hall, we purchased and renovated 25 West Home, we built the Commons. We built Roush Hall and we completely renovated Towers Hall and the Science Building, and now launched The Point.
Becky: And now Battelle, too. Everything’s had a facelift.
Bob: Except the Campus Center. That’s still the same. But it has become a campaign priority.
Becky: We have a lot more support today for mental health issues. We now have three staff counselors in their own building.
Bob: Years ago, we had one counselor in Worthington that we drove students to see, for a couple of hours a week. I was struck with something when I first came here, and I’m still struck by it now, after all these years, and that’s the love the alumni have for their university, for their college. Although the generations have changed, that same love for the alma mater has not wavered.

What’s been the biggest change? What’s been the biggest challenge for students?
Bob: Things like financial aid, requisition forms, and so forth have gotten much more complicated. And then there is the change in our menu. When we started, we had one entrée, one salad, and cereal. Now we have an executive chef hired from retail, we have a slew of sous chefs, we have a bakery chef. We prepare at least ten options. There’s a gluten free option, a vegan option… I don’t think we’ve served liver and onions for 20 years!
Becky: The other change that’s big for our students is access and affordability.
Bob: That’s one of the biggest challenges.
Becky: The students are often working two jobs, maybe they are an athlete as well, and balancing all that on top of academic studies is very challenging.
Bob: Just in the last 10 years, we’ve seen such a greater liability with student loans. We’re seeing more and more students with food insecurities. We opened the Promise House a little over a year ago, and now we have over 250 shoppers at the Promise House. And that’s just something we didn’t experience 30 years ago. We need to meet those basic needs of our students or they’re not going to be successful.

If you could magically retrieve something from the past, what would it be?
Bob: For me, it’s relationships. We were smaller so we knew everybody. We didn’t have social media and email.  If you needed to communicate with someone you talked to them and had more time for personal interactions with our students and colleagues.
Becky: I loved campus life during the month of May ... Spring Music Fest, May Day celebrations, students studying on the lawn of Towers Hall. With graduation in late April, I miss the buzz on the campus.

What are the elements of change that stick out in your mind?
Bob: Certainly the curriculum has grown and professional studies have really grown. Nursing, MBA, all the graduate programs, engineering, equine, and so forth. One of the positive changes is how the endowment has grown. I think it was about five million when we started and it’s grown to more than 100 million dollars. The budget was small, half of the residence halls were empty. That’s changed dramatically. And diversity has grown. It’s gone from maybe two percent to around 19 percent today.

When you think back, who are the people who have stood out?
Becky and Bob: (simultaneously) Dean Van.  
Becky: I’m in a great position to keep in contact with four decades of alumni. Watching how they have impacted their corner of the world through their Otterbein education makes me proud to share their achievements. They are my Cardinal family.
Bob: I have four, Dean Van, President DeVore, President Krendl, and this lady right here beside me. It didn’t take me long to figure out Becky was very special. So I’m glad she’s stayed here and been a part of my life for the last 38 years.
Becky: It’s mutual.
Bob: The four people I named all had one thing in common: they were all very student-centered. They would always ask, “How can we make the students’ experience better?” In my position, that’s a gift. A lot of my peers at other institutions don’t have that. We talk about what’s stayed the same, and it’s the student is at the center of what we do. It’s not about teaching, it’s about learning in the classroom. I think that’s core to everybody, it’s student success. It’s not good enough just to get the students here, we need to see them walk across that stage.
Becky: And to keep them engaged as alumni as part of the Otterbein community in a way that fits into their lives.
Bob: I’ve gained more from students than I’ve ever been able to give. I’m the lucky one.