Marie Dieffenbach is the senior undergraduate student services administrator for the Mechanical, Aerospace, and Nuclear Engineering department and this year’s Poly Person of the Year. Her office is located in the Jonsson Engineering Center in the second floor lobby.
I’ve had a very hard time trying to sum up Marie’s impact on campus; it’s not a high-profile, headline-grabbing major institute advancement or an “off-duty meter maid saves entire bus of orphaned puppies from the grip of Mt. Vesuvius” headline. It’s much more subtle than that, and in many ways more profound. Okay, saving an entire bus of puppies is pretty profound, but we’re getting off topic. In the simplest terms, Dieffenbach is there for you. Whether you’re a MANE student or not, undergraduate or graduate—it doesn’t matter if it’s in her job description, she’s there to help.
It sounds a little sappy, but if you’ve already met her, you know that’s a pretty apt characterization. If you really get to know her, you might also say “motherly,” but the type that’s not afraid to tell you like it is—in my case, that no matter how much I liked my shirt, four days in a row was not okay. Or, in another case—not me—that the unfortunate combination of lederhosen and pink t-shirt made a fantastic birth-control suit, if that’s what he was going for, but if not, he should probably change into something more “come-hither” and less “run away.” Sometimes the truth hurts, but sometimes it’s hilarious.
What I love about this campus is that there are many staff and faculty members that form close bonds like this with students; it’s not an isolated occurrence. What really sets Dieffenbach apart, though, is that you don’t have to get to know her first in order to go to her for support. You can wander right up to her desk for advice, grab a spot at the table to work, or just seize a few pieces of candy and without a word scuttle off to class (or your office). It’s all there for you, and it doesn’t matter who you are or what department you’re in.
It’s also important to point out that this isn’t some sort of departmental initiative or policy; this is her (and JoAnn Gagliardi’s) policy. That isn’t a shot at the MANE department, as they fully support Dieffenbach day-to-day, as well as for huge events like the holiday cookies. They are awesome for doing so. But Dieffenbach and Gagliardi are the ones who come up with and make these things happen for the students on top of their workload. Their belief is that being there for the students means being around the students, so much so that they specifically arranged their office to fit multiple study tables, a couch, and a computer workstation—all for the students. It’s not unusual to walk by the office and see it standing-room only. You would think it might make doing actual work, like answering e-mails or phone calls, difficult, but it doesn’t seem to hold them back at all—they love it.
On a day-to-day basis, it’s the little things that make the biggest difference for students. More often than not, Dieffenbach is helping someone get through with those life-ending bureaucracy snafus that everyone has at least once here at RPI. Lost forms, past the deadline, or filled required courses with one semester left? Dieffenbach has seen it before and knows what you need to do. And speaking as someone who has had all of those things happen, I know I would not have graduated on time without her. Demystifying registrar forms is ironically something I’ve never had happen at the registrar, but Dieffenbach is the expert.
In addition to the day-to-day help, Dieffenbach comes up with annual events for the students to sort of distract from the college routine. Perhaps the best known is hot cocoa and cookies before finals. There are hundreds of cookies from The Cookie Factory for everyone, and she dresses as Mrs. Claus and coerces multiple faculty and staff members to dress as Santa for photos with the students. It adds in a little bit of holiday cheer at a time when the workload is doing its best to make everyone forget that vacation is just around the corner.
If you go to the office today, you can see that all along the windows of her office are those stickers that people put on their minivans to show the people in their family. Naturally hers are Star Wars-themed, but there are multiple sets, all with the names of students who call the office home (I’m the Jawa due to my predilection for dumpster diving). Now, I have graduated and long since departed from campus, but every time I go back to visit, there are more names and figures on the window. And from this, I know that the office is the same and that more and more students call it home. I guess all I can really say is that more than anyone else, Dieffenbach is who made my experience at RPI something that I look back on fondly. And I know I’m not alone in that sentiment.