By: Zachary Greenberg and Akiva Poppers  | 

Moving Back to Campus: An Interview with Housing Director Jonathan Schwab

With the much-awaited return to campus right around the corner, Jonathan Schwab, Director of University Housing and Residence Life (UHRL), provided The Commentator with an exclusive interview. Schwab gave insights into his YU and life journeys, offered advice for students and Resident Advisor (RA) candidates, and more.

Schwab attended Rambam Mesivta in Lawrence, New York for high school, and Yeshivat Har Etzion for two years following his graduation. While in high school, Schwab delved into the world of science, doing research at Stony Brook University and participating in numerous competitions. During Schwab’s time at Stony Brook, he spent all of his time outside the lab “being Orthodox in a non-Orthodox environment”: organizing Minyanim, Shiurim and Chavrusot for the precisely 10 Orthodox Jewish students in the program. This played a major role in Schwab’s decision to go to YU, as he wanted to participate in extracurricular activities without having to be concerned about day-to-day life as a religious Jew.

Entering YU as a Yeshiva College Honors student in Fall 2007, Schwab intended on following a pre-med track with double majors in biology and chemistry. However, after First Year Writing piqued his interest in English, he enrolled in another English course, taught by Dr. Gillian Steinberg. Schwab’s older brother Ari, an English major whom he looked up to, also took the class, which Schwab thoroughly enjoyed. Having also discovered that he enjoyed attending classes with students who were not considering medical school, he realized that pre-med was not for him. Schwab instead selected an English major with minors in both chemistry and languages, literatures & culture. His unique, now-defunct second minor involved taking two literature classes, four semesters of a foreign language and one course in translating. “I think one other student in YU ever minored in it,” Schwab said. “I fell in love with Jorge Luis Borges’ writings, and took Spanish so I could read all of his books in their original language. I wrote my honors thesis on Borges and even presented research on him at Hofstra!”

Schwab spent four years at YU as a very active student on campus. His positions included senior editor of The Commentator, member of YC Honors Council, research assistant for multiple professors and actor in the YCDS play. Schwab even starred in a viral YouTube video, YU Boys will be Stern Girls. In his first week on campus, Schwab met Esty Rollhaus at a co-ed event for Honors students. It was jokingly advertised as a good way to meet like-minded people from the other campus, which it surprisingly turned out to be, as Schwab married Esty towards the end of junior year. When his time as a student was nearly complete, Schwab found that he enjoyed college so much that he feared leaving YU. He was, therefore, extremely happy to secure a spot in the Presidential Fellowship; he worked in the Office of the President, reported directly to former Senior VP Josh Joseph and often traveled with former President Richard Joel.

About a month before the Fellowship was set to end, Schwab received and accepted an offer to work in the Office of Admissions, where he handled recruitment for the Undergraduate Honors Programs, managed their database and assisted with communications. In January 2013, Schwab and Esty became the campus couple on the Beren Campus, where they lived in Midtown, enhanced the Shabbos experience and made relationships with students. Schwab continued to work in the Admissions Department until late 2014, when he joined YU Global, a new office set to oversee online education. By January 2015, it became clear that YU Global was not a long-term employment option, so Schwab, who sorely missed interacting with students, considered returning to Admissions. Then, Schwab received news that the Director of UHRL, Sean Hirschhorn had resigned. After consulting with then-Dean of Students Chaim Nissel, Hirschhorn, and others, Schwab decided to apply for the opening. In March 2015, he secured the position and began his present tenure as Director of UHRL.

Thanks for taking the time out of your busy schedule to talk to us, Schwab! Can you describe your day-to-day job?

Sure! It totally depends on the time of year. Prior to COVID-19, the school year has largely been spent meeting with students and RAs, and talking about how things are going, both professionally and personally. Many of these students come to me because they have issues with their roommates or with their rooms. And my job is not just to solve the problem. It's also to hear and listen and validate. 

RA recruiting and managing takes up about 25% of my time in a given year. We start recruiting in February, have 2-3 months of interviews, and then start training, all while still dealing with current RAs. 

Summer involves a lot of planning. There is a lot that goes on to get 700 people who apply to housing onto floors in the dorms, ordering stuff that we need, etc. June and July are a little quieter, but not significantly. August is crazy. The one-two punch of RA training and move-in is nuts. Those 15 days are nuts and I love those the most. The experience of moving into the dorms and meeting people shapes students’ college careers. 

What are you looking for in an RA?

There are a few common things we look for when recruiting RAs. 

1) A passion for learning and growing. Something I learned early on from some not-as-good RAs is that I accepted a bunch of people who could do a great job and had great experiences, but didn’t have a desire to learn and grow from the job. I didn’t see eye-to-eye with these people. I would rather students who want to grow and will gain something from this learning experience. If your attitude is “I can do this job great on day one,” you won’t get as much from it as someone who will be challenged and grow.

2) Do I see myself wanting to work with this person. I spend lots of time developing a relationship with RAs. I’m still in touch with a lot of former RAs.

3) I keep in the back of mind that there’s real value in having a diverse team. Diverse does not mean superficially diverse. Diverse means different styles of leadership, and different strengths and desires for the job. One of the ways RAs learn a lot from the job is by learning from each other. I’m looking for diversity in personalities. There’s something magical when everyone feels that they are part of one joint goal, but have different perspectives.

Which YU job have you liked the most? 

This one, because of the constant interaction with students. I’ve been in UHRL for a while, and I love seeing the things students do post-college, having witnessed the path they took to get there. Watching that trajectory of students is so enjoyable. Seeing students come in on day one, and then eventually working with them as RAs and watching them be leaders in the outside world, makes me feel fulfilled. 

I’ve seen my long term vision come to fruition. I built the RA program into something better than I thought it could have been. In 2018-19, I came to the full realization that this is what I love doing. That’s why I decided to apply to NYU, where I’m currently working on completing a doctorate in education.

Last November, after a significant number of student complaints regarding the YU cafeteria’s new plan, you led the Meal Plan Town Hall on Wilf Campus to discuss the situation with students. How did you learn and perfect your empathy skills which were clearly on display at that event, and should the fact that you were chosen to present at the Town Hall be seen as an indication of the administration’s confidence in your abilities to relate to students?

It was a touchy subject with a lot of strong feelings. Students wanted someone who could listen to and validate those feelings. Listening might be the most important skill which people can learn. Know where someone is coming from. Put yourself in their shoes. 

I've thought about this for a long time. I participated in the Big Brother Program at Gush, and was a big brother to a kid who had a complicated home life. My job was to spend time and understand and listen to him. That was when I was exposed to “How to Talk so Kids will Listen & Listen so Kids will Talk.” I often discuss this with Esty, who is a psychiatrist and has taught courses as an adjunct professor in both YC and Stern.

Listening and empathy are among the most important skills which RAs can have. I think by practicing over and over, doing it more and more, you get better at it. But you need a starting point, a mentality that you really want to hear what someone has to say. One of the most powerful things you can say to someone is “sounds like you're in a lot of pain.” That really works. 

People feel a lot better when they come out of one-on-one meetings and events like the Town Hall. The focus isn’t on the solution; it's on how we make sure that we hear that students are frustrated, and make sure that they feel like we are listening to them.

Ben Strachman, one of the past Head RAs, used this during improv sessions of RA interviews as well. The situation would be something along the lines of “I’m a resident who comes to you and there's a mouse in my room; what are you, the RA, going to do?” Oftentimes, the aspiring RA would try to come up with a solution about how he’ll call pest-control or buy traps for them. Ben would say “No. The first thing you tell the resident is ‘I'm really sorry that there’s a mouse in your room. That’s awful,’” and not go straight to solving the problem.

Do you have any shareable fun facts about yourself that people don’t know?

The 7 Up, 7 Down section of The Commentator is my invention. I came up with the idea, the title, and wrote the first five or so. It’s very fascinating that in my 13 years at YU, arguably the most lasting impact I’ve had was creating 7 Up, 7 Down.

If there’s one thing you would like students to know about you and the housing department which might not be common knowledge, what is it?

The department and I are here for the students. There is no issue that students cannot come to my office with, no one who I would not be happy to listen to. I hope that this is common knowledge. More broadly, I have worked with a lot of people on a lot of things, and I see that as part of my position at YU, to assist students in any way that I can.

Another really important tip: be as specific as you can possibly be on your application. For students who say “I want to be on the right side of the third floor in Rubin,” I am more than likely to accommodate that request. There are many lessons that I’ve learned from working under Dr. Chaim Nissel, but this was a really important one I got from him. I was arranging an event and he told me not to submit an order for “6-8 chairs” because it wasn’t specific enough. “Decide what you want,” he said, “and then request that. Don’t have someone else decide for you.” This was really good advice, and it applies in a lot of situations.

Lastly, when I think about empathy and about helping people, my guiding belief is that, if a student or someone else is telling you something, assume that it is true for them. Almost 100% of the time they are telling you something that they firmly believe to be true, and if you start off with that understanding, you’ll be in a better position to help them.

Photo Caption: Jonathan Schwab
Photo Credit: Yeshiva University