KAYLA DRAKE | Multimedia Producer
Donna Filkins has lived in a dorm for most of her adult life.
She started in the Residential Life Office at Lindenwood in her mid-30s as a break from clerical work. Twenty-two years later, she has made it a career, but she said it hasn’t felt like a job.
“Even parents come in and tell me they can’t do what I do,” she said. “I think that when I took my little break, I just stepped into what I really enjoy doing.”
Filkins spent 21 years living in McCluer Hall and managing Stumberg Hall (now Human Resources offices) and Eastlick Hall (now faculty offices) halls. Now she resides at the Linden Lodge as its area coordinator.
When she first started at Lindenwood, two senior citizens were in charge of Cobbs and Parker Halls, but soon after, all of the dorms transitioned to have graduate students over them, making her the oldest employee living in the dorms.
Since Filkins started, she has seen the campus evolve from no visitation to 24/7 visitation. She’s witnessed the construction of the dorms and Hunter Stadium on the horizon side of campus. She has watched generations of students and presidents cycle in and out of the university.
“It’s crazy isn’t it?” she said.
I think that when I took my little break, I just stepped into what I really enjoy doing.
KCLC general manager and Lindenwood 2008 graduate Chad Briesacher met Filkins as a student when she sat down to eat lunch with him and his friends one day.
“Back when the faculty and staff had meals… they would all stay to an area, kind of isolated, not sitting with the students,” he said. “And then there was Donna, always sitting with her students. Always with her little entourage of her RDs.”
Filkins is originally from Maplewood, Missouri, just under 30 minutes away from St. Charles, but she has had residents from all over the world: Sweden, Ghana, the Caribbean, Zimbabwe, Haiti, Germany, Poland and Russia.
“It’s been fun meeting people from all over the world, and a lot of the students that I had, as alumni, they still stay in contact with me,” she said.
Through her students, Filkins’ world view has broadened. Her first assistant resident director was from Haiti. Filkins learned that in Haiti, residents buy chickens alive and then have to kill, de-feather and cook them to eat meat. Her assistant director also told her that sometimes villages have to share a single bathroom.
“It’s eye-opening to think that there’s people who actually live like that and think about the things that I take for granted every day, which to them is a extreme luxury,” she said.
Filkins said her grandma would have her recite what new countries she had students from every time she saw her.
Briesacher said in the early 2000s, Filkins was the only permanent resident director, and every other dorm had a temporary graduate student overseeing it.
“They still had a parent around to give advice and life wisdom, and we didn’t,” he said.
In the 22 years Filkins has been at the university, she never married or earned a degree, but she said if the university had a chef degree, she would major in that.
Filkins loves to cook and either bakes or buys cookies from Dollar General and sets a plate on the front desk for the men at Linden Lodge to eat.
“This is Linden Lodge family,” she said. “McCluer was McCluer family.”
Briesacher said Filkins is a “mother figure” in the residence halls.
“She’s the last of the kind,” he said.
The most rewarding part of the job is seeing students transition from adolescence to adulthood and “come and enter their own self-confidence,” Filkins said.
After spending two decades in McCluer Hall with women, Filkins said she was apprehensive of how the men at Linden Lodge were going to receive her.
“But once I got in here, it’s not weird,” she said. “It’s not like they’re running around in their underwear. Thank God.”
Being a part of Residential Life has pushed her to form community within the dorm.
“I feel like people are very welcoming, and in other cases, I feel like it teaches other people to appreciate everybody for who they are,” she said.
Filkins said it’s bittersweet to watch students leave after graduation, “especially when they’re internationals, because it’s not like you can run across the street or the states to see them.”
For the time being, Filkins plans to keep cooking and see the premiere of “Aquaman” in December.
“Maybe someday they’ll put stoves and kitchens in all the dorms,” she said. “We would like that.”
Filkins said after she retires, she plans to leave the country for the first time to visit international students she has met and see the places she’s imagined from stories first-hand.