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Humans of the Hilltop: Tom Coy

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In 1994, a freshman English major at Grand Valley State University began his college career, unsure of what the future held for him.

Initially, he faced many difficult decisions. Should he join a fraternity? Should he be openly gay on his dormitory floor? Was an English major something he was truly passionate about?

While the questions were many, what was even greater was his sense of self-confidence and determination he had. Twenty-one years later, he said life can’t get much sweeter.

As Bradley’s director of student activities, Tom Coy is a daily advocate and champion for the students, but he said it took a while to find his way to the Hilltop.

In 1996, Coy walked into the Student Activities Office at GVSU and asked a simple question: How do I do this? He wanted to work in the student affairs field.

Switching from English to public relations and advertising, Coy began to find his niche and took a job with Wright State University (WSU) right out of college in order to both jump-start his career and get his master’s degree in Educational Leadership. As a founding father of his fraternity at his undergraduate, Coy continued to remain involved in the organizing and counseling of greek life.

His second job out of school took him from WSU in Dayton, Ohio to the University of North Texas (UNT) in Denton. There, Coy served as the assistant dean of students, working especially closely with greek life. However, after two years, it was on to the next one.

“Within this field, to move up financially and in terms of responsibilities, it requires you to move,” Coy said. “Most jobs you’ll be at two to three years. You don’t necessarily create a life at one institution. To move up, you have to move and uproot your life.”

Following UNT, Coy moved on to Penn State – Altoona, where he spent the next five years as director of student life. There, Coy made a friend who, unexpectedly, would bring him to the Hilltop almost 10 years later.

Jesse Koch, a student at the time, was also a member of the greek system and quickly became friends with Coy. When Coy moved from Pennsylvania back to GVSU in Michgan to take a position as assistant director, Koch followed him to the graduate program.

“[Koch’s] first job out [of graduate school] was greek life [at Bradley],” Coy said. “When the director of activities position opened up, he told me to apply so I could get back to that smaller school experience.”

Coy said, while he learned immensely from the big school environment, it often lacked the student engagement that encouraged him, not too many years before, to go into the field.

Now, after just over two years on the Hilltop, Coy said he’s found more than just a job he loves, but a greater passion for inspiring students.

“My big focus has been to tell any student organization that they can do it,” Coy said. “If you have a dream or idea or concept, we’re here to help you meet that goal.”

Coy said, more than anything, the importance of the Student Activities Office (SAO) is to empower students to take control of their out-of-classroom experiences.

“I truly believe some of my favorite experiences have been the alternative spring break leadership service immersion trips that I’ve led,” he said. “Hands-on service like going to West Virginia to help former veterans, or build homes for Habitat for Humanity, or work at soup kitchens in Chicago, or work with individuals with HIV in D.C., these alternative trips are some of the more rewarding experiences that I’ve had in the past and enjoyed.”

Coy said beyond his vision, the student affairs field is constantly changing and moving in new directions.

“There is [a] focus on partnering with academic affairs,” he said. “Things we do have to be intentional. In the past, it has been okay for things to just be fun, but now it needs to have an educational component or takeaway as well.”

Coy said part of the reason he was attracted to Bradley was because of the balance between the fun of the activity and the educational components.

“Seeing students as freshmen come to Bradley and develop into an adult by senior year, leading the charge and making decisions, that’s what’s so great,” he said.

Coy’s work at Bradley, so far, ranges from the restructuring of the awards process and digitalization, to working on philosophical changes such as questioning the “why” of certain activities and making sure a certain value is added. He said newest to the SAO this year, per request of the students, will be a week-long Homecoming Week as opposed to the five-day weekend.

Just as was done for the changes in Homecoming, Coy said it is vital that students be advocates for themselves and ‘wave banners’ for their causes.

“I went to college in 1994, and I had to choose whether or not I was going to be openly gay on my floor,” he said. “It’s something I did know would cause some controversy, but I had to make a choice. I think, especially today, the choice is no different. Students need to question when they’re not getting the services they require and be an advocate for themselves.”

Coy said the importance of students finding their voice and advocating their needs is what makes student affairs thrive and move forward, and it is what has made him so happy to work in the field.

Citing examples such as Bradley students’ push for a veteran affairs office or the #BlackLivesMatter peaceful die-in, Coy said passion is not lacking among Bradley students. He, as a result, said he has found himself in a place that constantly challenges him and the university to be better.

“There is more than just going to Speak-Up with the president,” Coy said. “If you’re not feeling heard, wave the banner for your cause.”

After 21 years in the field, Coy said he never tires of advocating for his students.

Coy currently resides in Peoria with his husband, Archie.

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