Q&A With Prakash Mathew

MATAYA ARMSTRONG | THE SPECTRUM Prakash Mathew has been at NDSU for over 40 years and has held many different roles: graduate student then assistant, hall director, director of residence life and dean of student life. Mathew celebrated his retirement on May 2.
MATAYA ARMSTRONG | THE SPECTRUM
Prakash Mathew has been at NDSU for over 40 years and has held many different roles: graduate student then assistant, hall director, director of residence life and dean of student life. Mathew celebrated his retirement on May 2.

Prakash Mathew has been on NDSU’s campus for 43 years in a variety of roles. He announced his plan to retire last summer. Mathew has influenced the faculty members he has worked with, but most importantly, has built strong relationships with every student with which he comes into contact.

After his time at NDSU, Mathew has travel plans with his wife, will continue to work on his book and will remain active in the F-M area to give back to the community he says has given him so much. With Mathew’s future plans aside, he has left a lasting impression on the NDSU community.

Editor-in-chief Emma Heaton sat down with Mathew to talk about his life and time at NDSU.

Emma Heaton: As VP of Student Affairs, their main goal is to provide services and programs that benefit students directly. What do you think are some of the most important services you have enacted in your time?

Prakash Mathew: I would say that what stands out in my mind the most is the Bison Connection. … The former Vice President of Student Affairs George Wallman went through accreditation process, and went to … one of the universities and found this model and planted the seed with us. So we processed this through the Advisory Board for Student Affairs. Students really liked it, so we put a team of people together, and they traveled to some other universities and looked at the model, and it was the model based on this one-stop-shop concept. … I tell ya, today we were interviewing a candidate from another place for a director of financial aid position, and his first comment was, “Your BisonConnection is the best thing that ever happened to this campus.”

… I remember … when the parents and students and others who attended this university, they had to go to different buildings to get the service. And that has changed. And when they got there, they got good service, but at the same time, you felt like you were getting the runaround. And that is resolved through having this BisonConnection. … Again, location is the key also. It is very convenient for the students, and when they get there, they get tremendous service, and they don’t have to go to different (buildings), unless they have to talk to a specific person. That really stands out in my mind.

The other part is the Wellness Center, what has happened to the Wellness Center. I think it is a showcase in some ways, but at the same time, the whole emphasis about the wellness — the whole wellness aspect, not just working out — the students take that seriously.

… (but) I don’t want any credit for any of those things. I just want to make sure none of these things are my ideas, but happened because of students. I want to give all the credit in the world to the students.

Then the Memorial Union — the whole expansion of the Memorial Union. And it was almost a $20 million dollar expansion, and the students are the ones who are providing the leadership for all this. … In fact, there was a delegation from the University of North Dakota, and they came here for a conference, and they said, “Wow.” In fact, they are going through the process right now to have an expansion there for the Memorial Union, because, again, it’s a showcase. The facility provides a place for students to interact and socialize, study … we call the Memorial Union the living room of campus, and so that’s first-class.

This building here. The first floor of Ceres Hall. Even though this building needs a lot of work, the admissions office, you walk in there and again, the students paid for the first floor of Ceres Hall. Again, this is one impression. Prospective students, when they come here, you give that first impression.

… Those are the physical things we are talking about. Beyond all that, what I think I am so proud of is our relationship with the students, because we say that we are a student-focused, land grant, research institution. But what does that mean? How do we demonstrate that we are student-focused? … If I can see all the great things about it, but the students are not feeling it. … That means we are not student-focused.

… We are also a family. Only in the last decade we have started using the term “family.” I think it probably so happened because of athletics — with the National Championship and all this Bison nation, Bison family — but at the same time, our students are taking that. We talk about that in our orientation program, and we say, “We are a family.” … In order for us to say that it is a Bison family, that means we have to create a sense of belonging. So do the students feel that they belong here? In fact today, I went and had lunch, and I was sitting with some students because there wasn’t a place to sit down. So when I don’t find a place to sit down, I say, “Can I sit down with you?” And then I get to know them and ask the questions. And I said, “Do you like it here? Do you feel like you are member of the family?” “Of course we do, of course we do.”

I went upstairs to the service learning project going on, and I asked the same question to several students. I said, “Talk about NDSU.” And they said they feel they belong here; they love it here. What I’m saying is, those things don’t just happen. We have to create a sense of belonging: getting them involved, and treating them with respect and dignity, and just like a member of the family. No different at all. And I hope if anything happens, that the one thing we have tried very hard to do in the Division of Student Affairs, is create a sense of belonging so that we can demonstrate that we are truly student focused.

Can I keep talking? Can I continue? 

EH: Should we go to the next question?

PM: Sure, sure (laughs).

EH: I know we are talking big picture here, but do you have a certain situation where you impacted one student directly by being student-focused? 

PM: I don’t know one particular student. I probably have hundreds of examples. (pauses for several seconds).

… Any decision we make, we ask the question, “How does this affect the student? How is it impacting the student?” So any interaction I have – if (the) interaction is about a difficult situation or an exciting part, my advice would be, “How is that impacting?” So I will not deliver and give an answer for them instantly, (but) ask the questions in such a way that I always look to see as to how that is impacting his or her development and personal growth.

EH: So you talked about some of the most important services. What do you think your biggest personal accomplishment has been at NDSU?

PM: I’d go back to my relationship with the students. I have to say that would be the overarching thing as to things that happened during my time … our students were able to provide such a leadership, and they were able to see the bigger picture, where the university is going, and supporting the university in their mission and their goals. They were the best advocates, better than anybody on this campus, the students were. I want to believe that happened because of our relationship — the trusting relationship. I have to say trusting relationship … I’ve never used them, never, but simply provided them facts and educated them about things. But they were always there.

In fact, when we wanted people to go to Bismarck, and lobby for us or play an advocacy role for us, the students were exemplary. They were understanding. And they continue year after year, not only this year with Robbie and Erik; it was also happening before, too. I would say where the university is going — they understood better than anybody.

EH: So, I am assuming you have met Timothy Alvarez. What was your first impression of him?

PM: Well, it wasn’t the first time. He is a friend of mine. I have known him for quite a while. He is a good person. I want to believe that he has somewhat of the same philosophy that I have. I believe in the servant-leadership model and the philosophy, and that is what we try to practice in the Division of Student Affairs. I think that’s what I practice.

I don’t know what type of manager he is going to be, none of those things. But I know him as a friend. When I provided leadership for the (an) organization, he was on my board at that time. Now he just got out of the same board providing leadership, so I think it’s a great selection. He is going to take this division to the next level, and I am very, very excited about it.

EH: So you originally got your undergraduate degree in India. This is a question we have asked a lot of students, so why NDSU? How did you choose to get your Masters here?

PM: I met a person, a pastor, from (the) Presbyterian church in Fargo. In 1968, a person, along with a team of people, came to visit India, and the university they came to visit was the place where I was going to college. We had this interaction, and we became friends. He encouraged me to come to the United States and study and do my graduate work. One of the applications he sent to me was from North Dakota State University, so I ended up here at the graduate school.

EH: You first got your undergraduate in agriculture and rural sociology, and then you came to NDSU and got your masters in counseling and guidance. These areas of study are pretty different. Where did you imagine yourself when you first started your undergrad? Did you imagine you would be in this type of position?

PM: I started in agriculture. I stayed in that area for only a short period and time … when you are in the British system — the universities in most of those countries — once you select a major you can never change that major. Also, when you finish a track for undergraduate, you have to pursue that. Here in the United States, you have the freedom to select a major and change the major. So I went to the counseling center here and took an interest in it. A big part of that (was) that I may do much better in people business. So I explored and looked at some of the majors and got into the counseling and guidance program.

EH: What’s something you won’t miss about your job?

PM: Hmm. Long hours. I have a tendency to be workaholic. I put in long hours, but I also balance mine. You know, I work out early in the morning. I get up very early in the morning. I get up every day at 4 o’clock in the morning, and I am one of the first people walking to the Wellness Center, every day, five days a week. There are a few students, and some people there that wait for me in sense. If I’m not there one day — if I’m at a conference or out of town — they always ask me where I was. In fact, I’m the one who always asks them as to where they were.

I also know that I do that by choice. The morning is my choice. Evenings I stay longer, because that goes with the territory: the student life work, the student affairs work. That’s when most of the student activities are. (There are) student organizations and different activities going on in the evenings, and you need to be seen there; you need to participate. It is very important to be there to support the students, so sometimes that happens very late. But I never felt like it was work … I may get tired, but while I’m here, I never felt like it was work; I get lots and lots of enjoyment and loved every minute of it.

Are you going to ask me what I am going to miss the most? (laughs)

EH: I have a feeling I know, but yes.

PM: Students. That is the single-most important thing I am going to miss, I think, my interactions with the students. And I love being with them. …They are the love of my life. Everything I do is about the students. We do a lot of good work here, and at the same time, that’s where my energy comes from, that’s where my passion comes from; it’s all because of the students.

EH: That’s great. So, you are going to stay active in the Fargo-Moorhead community. What are some of the things you are going to be involved in? 

PM: Well, I used to be very involved in the church, and I was involved in the community. I want to go back and give back to the community … whether I serve on committees or much more in terms of serving, whatever the organization (is), whether it is the Meals on Wheels program, the food shelter, wherever that may be. With this opportunity for me to serve I think, definitely, my wife and I want to give back to the community. And that also includes the church. I will definitely stay connected to the community. Not only the university, but the community also. People have been so good to us, so good to us. Everybody has. I haven’t had a bad experience here.

EH: At our last meeting, you mentioned you were working on a book. Can you tell me a little about that?

The concept is there; it’s the matter of writing of it. A simple thing: I haven’t had time to do that. It is about what happens when your personal values conflict with the institutional values or organizational values, and what happens to that person. Personal values conflict with organizational values, and if the conflict occurs more than 20 percent of the time, you are at what I call “discomfort zone” or “avoid zone.” That means you are no longer a good fit with the position at the organization … so you need to do something about it. That doesn’t mean you are going to get a perfect fit, a 100 percent match. We are all going to have some struggles; your personal values may conflict with the institutional values or organizational values. But if the match is closer, then that means you are (a) much better fit, and that is what the book is all about. So when you go through the search process, but it is equally important for you to — you may want the job — but at the same time, it is important for to find out what that organization is all about.

Very similar to what we are talking about: we are a student-focused, land grant, research institution. We talked about how we are student focused. I think if someone is coming in here for student affairs, I would hope the new person would ask the question, “How do you demonstrate that?” Somehow we need to see how the people are making the decisions. So if I am coming in as vice president, I probably need to find as to how we make decisions here at NDSU and what are the principles that are important to this institution. And then you will see if that is a match, and if there is a conflict that could happen and how they demonstrate that. So if I ask the question to somebody, they may answer well, but at the same time, how do you know that it’s true? So how do you practice that? It’s much more about if they practice what they preach and that’s what it’s all about, and different variations of that. This is about decision-making and supervision, and it’s about all the components of that. I call it 80/20.

EH: I know you like traveling, too. So where’s the first place you are going to go?

PM: I don’t know where the first place will be, but high on my priorities is the Canadian Rockies — the train ride all the way from British Columbia coming from Banff all the way to Calgary. I drove through the American side … it was spectacular. But now I want to do the train ride and enjoy them, watch them and read a book and see the scenery. That’s someplace very high on my list. Going and visiting my mother – that is very high on my list. She is 92-plus, so that will be a high priority for me to go and see her.

EH: And where is she?

PM: She lives in India with my sister. So that’s important to me, and I need to go and see her. When I do that, I will also stop and visit some other countries. We don’t go to India that often, so when we go we usually pick a country. Last time we went to Singapore.

EH: Now we’re at the more personal questions. So where specifically did you grow up?

PM: Well, it wasn’t a specific place, because my father was a pastor. So we moved from place to place, so we came to the state Kerala. So that’s where I grew up, and then I went to college … I came here in 1971, so I’ve been here a long time — 40-some years. So this is really home for me now, because my wife is from here, my children went to school here. Fargo is my home.

EH: What do you miss most about India? 

PM: … I go there — in the past 40-some years — maybe six or seven times. So, my family.

EH: I have never heard anyone say a bad word about you. Do you have any enemies?

PM: I don’t think so. (laughs) I think you go by disagreement and conflict. If you go on the principle that you treat people with respect and dignity … and also treat people the way you want to be treated, I don’t think you are going to find bad in people. They are also going to treat you with respect and dignity. I have been treated very well by people. And you are saying good things about me, but I have to say people have been good, not only to me, but to my sons (Trevor and Christopher) … and my wife. They will all say that, I think; they have had a great experience. That was very kind of you to say that though; tears come to my eyes.

EH: What was your family’s reaction to your retirement decision? Was it a decision you made together?

PM: It was a decision my wife and I made together. She was a long-time teacher — a high-school teacher, a special-education teacher — for 30-some years, and she retired three years ago.

I knew that at a certain age I was going to retire. I am not one of those people who stay forever, because I think life is too short. My wife may have some concerns about it, because of how active I am. She doesn’t know if I’ll be able to just stop like that. So I need to be involved and do something. Making the decision about retiring was not a difficult one, because that’s how I make my decisions. I make the decision, and once I have made (it), then I’m fine. I’m done. I’m done, and I never look back. That is for all the decisions I make. I know it was a good decision.

EH: Other comments?

PM: It was important to me that even my work with staff that I will not ask them to do anything that I will not do. I can have the best philosophy, the best standards and principles, and I can preach about it, but if I don’t practice what I preach, then I am not effective at all. I hope I have done that for them.

And I talked about the importance of relationships. …Thirty-eight years ago, I started something I still do to this day. Every Friday, if I am in town, I take about two hours — even my schedule for this Friday, every Friday, is blacked out for office visits. So we have 20-some departments. I take two or three departments, and I go to their office, desk to desk to desk, and talk to the employees, greet them, and see how they’re doing, and see how I can be of support to them. Now, if I delay…they will say, “Oh, we haven’t seen you.” … So the value of that is unreal.

And that is not only the offices. If I go to dining services, I will not skip going into the dish room. I had a woman there who used to work in the West Dining Center. She worked there almost 38 years. I remember when I walk into that dish room — you can just imagine, hot and steamy, and her glasses were fogged up — and when she sees me, she says, “Prakash!” And oh, bless her heart. (pauses, tears up)

People have to be treated right. It doesn’t matter, being top level or a dish washer. They all play a very crucial role … they all play a vital role. If you don’t have clean dishes, it doesn’t matter how fancy and how good the food is, OK? So they play a vital role.

Again going back to that relationship. I don’t think she ever looked at me and though, “Oh, here’s the vice president.” She never did. I was Prakash for them. People give back, and again, that connection you make with them is so important. …

In addition, something I did … every Friday, once or twice a month, at 8:30 we have an outreach breakfast. We take about 17 to 20 people – we have approximately 400 employees – and we randomly select them. One round takes about two years to accomplish. So you bring them there, and we talk about the family, we talk about the students, and we also talk about a family concept of the employees. So there, we talk about what we believe in. We talk about highlights … we go around the table, and I ask them. I may know just about every employee by name, I do. But they may not know. Someone who works in financial services or admissions office may not know someone who works in residence life or someplace else. So I may have people from all these departments, and I will tell them, “If you truly believe we are a family, these people who are sitting across from you are your siblings. So when you leave here, you will learn 20 people’s (names).” So, we have to build that relationship within our own area before we can demonstrate that relationship with others.

I remember when I began when my first position in residence life, I used to have all the RAs and all the hall directors — approximately 100 people. And right behind my desk, I had pictures of those 100 people. You know why I did that? … I will go to different places, and I would practice them. So if I was going to Pavek Hall or someplace, then I will … look at the pictures and memorize. And I will go there, and then I will call them by name. And I (challenged) them in the early days. I will know every single one of you within in a month, so I tell them, you get to know the students, not just the name but everything about them, within the first month. Even though I am not living with you, I am going to know every single one of you. That was not difficult for me, and I practiced and practiced … Then the students I worked with on the leadership program, student government, RHA … and I started calling them by name. And people loved it. Those students are parents now, and they are bringing their children to the orientation program. They come to me and say, “Prakash, do you remember me now?” And because, again, people loved to be called by name … that is the No. 1 step for building relationships: call people by name. And then get to know them. Through the relationship, establish trust. I think, what we have with the student leadership is one step farther. It’s a trust and a trusting relationship.

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