Student welfare dean keeps students safe

by Brook Gardner-Durbin

When he moved to Bozeman, Aaron Grusonik planned to take a one-year internship as he finished his degree before moving back to California. That plan, however, quickly fell apart.

This semester marks the beginning of Grusonik’s sixth year with MSU, and all signs point to him remaining firmly entrenched in his current position as associate dean of students and director of student welfare. Books line the walls of his small basement office in the SUB — Plato’s “Last Days of Socrates” and Malala Yousafzai’s “I am Malala” have a shelf to themselves — and black-and-white Ansel Adams prints sit beside a bright portrait of a colorful sunset, a surfer silhouetted against the waves.

“The whole goal is to be a resource of the students,” he said, describing his job. “If people ever need anything, come see us, and we’ll point them in the right direction.”

While the Dean of Students office has a team atmosphere and any of the staff can respond to a given crisis, Grusonik is the official in charge of matters relating to safety. He has been the director of student welfare since president Cruzado created the position for the 2013-2014 school year.

One of his first acts after moving from the counseling office to his current position was pushing for greater awareness and training among both staff and students, to help them recognize problems among students as they began developing.

“We’re focusing on getting to problems when they’re a struggle, not a crisis,” Grusonik said. “We’re finding out about situations as they’re happening, rather than after.

Grusonik also helped rebuild the Dean of Students’ website, making it easier than ever for anyone to report a concern about a member of the MSU community. Concerns can range from financial or academic difficulty to suicide threats or substance and alcohol abuse.

So far, Grusonik believes his efforts have been successful. The office received 150 reports last year, up from 100 the year before, which he attributed to greater awareness and use of the reporting system, not an upsurge in problems.

“We’ve received more reports in the first week this year than all last year, but that’s because we’re more public,” he said.

Despite his efforts, however, Grusonik said that not all students get the help they need. Between 12 and 15 students made “serious attempts” at suicide last year, he said, and unfortunately, three succeeded. He also confirmed that several students had attempted suicide so far this school year, leading to a number of hospitalizations. He believes that none of those students, however, were in contact with campus resources.

“Students that get plugged into resources very rarely harm themselves,” he claimed, adding that MSU has similar rates of attempted suicide and other issues to similarly-sized schools throughout the Northwest.

When not working, Grusonik enjoys spending time outside in his adopted state. “Snowboarding, skiing, fishing, hunting … you can’t beat it,” he smiled. Snow sports were a natural shift for Grusonik, an experienced surfer of the California coast.

Though he enjoys Montana and doesn’t give California much of a thought these days, he admitted it still held some appeal, saying “I miss the beach … I miss the ocean.”

Grusonik and his wife Laurie, an education advisor with MSU, used to drive an hour to the coast to go surfing on Friday nights until the sun went down. The two began dating soon after meeting during their freshmen year of college and have been married for 13 years.

After receiving his undergraduate degree, Grusonik got a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy. Thanks to his time as an athlete through high school and college and working as a coach for several teams, Grusonik initially planned to get into sports psychology. He moved into counseling after realizing how hard it was to get started on a career in that field.

He returned to school to pursue clinical psychology after practicing for several years thanks to a mentor’s encouragement. He earned his doctorate in clinical psychology, focusing more on applied practice than research so he could continue working with patients and forming relationships.

 

“I don’t have as deep a connection with students, and I miss that,” he said, thinking back on his days as a counselor when he would often see the same clients for extended periods of time. He added that this was largely made up for by the pleasure of working with many different students.

Grusonik’s position was created with temporary funding and on a trial basis, but he has high hopes it will be made permanent when reviewed at the end of this year.

“The goal is to help students,” he said, “and if they decide that the money (for my position) can be used better, I would encourage them to cancel my job.”
He paused a moment, thoughtful, then added, smiling: “But all signs are looking good.”