Dorm geek, unsung hero

Dorm geek, unsung hero

STUDENT COUNSELORS AT FRONT LINE OF UNIVERSITY TECH SUPPORT

By Lisa M. Krieger
Mercury News

It is a rite of fall almost as familiar as Homecoming: Excited Stanford students decorate their new rooms with desktop computers, laptops, printers, game consoles, wireless routers and assorted electronic gizmos built at home over summer vacation.

Then something breaks. Or freezes. Or takes down an entire dormitory's network.

Their salvation is, increasingly, fellow students. The unsung heroes of modern academia, these youths are hired by universities to respond to the proliferation — and diversity — of electronic emergencies. At Stanford, Santa Clara University, the University of California-Berkeley and dozens of other campuses across the United States, they are the first-line responders to tech trouble.

Trained in both technology and psychology, they live in the dormitories and are on call, day and night. They're part geek, part crisis counselor — and extremely popular.

“Students panic. And they're not very patient,'' said Brandon Smith, 23, a residential computing consultant, or RCC, at Stanford University, one of 101 students who serve as computer crisis managers for $170 to $190 a week, about the cost of a dorm room. “They need the file — now. The computer — now.''

Each incoming class of college students is more “wired'' than the last, with higher expectations of speed, access and convenience. Gone are batik bedspreads and Che posters; instead, many rooms resemble the showroom at Fry's Electronics.

Stanford sophomore Steve Nguyen, a 20-year-old RCC technician, knows all about the challenges of creating a high-tech dorm room. He has squeezed seven computers into his small shared room. He left three at his San Jose home.

One of those in his room is for studies, video-editing and Photoshop. Another, an electronic file cabinet, stores friends' music and photos for a dorm yearbook. He has a second-hand Mac, rescued from a life as a doorstop. His sentimental favorite was built at home with his brother. A few others are “loaners.'' Then there's the laptop he takes to class.

A recent Stanford survey shows that 99 percent of students have at least one computer; 9 percent have two or more. More than half of Stanford's undergraduates use a computer more than four hours a day.

But many of these digitally dependent students are users — not fixers.

“Most students don't understand how unreliable these things are,'' said Ethan Rikleen, Stanford's network and systems administrator for student computing.

The hired students help handle the growing workload. In a system first created 20 years ago, Stanford recognized that RCCs, supported by a staff of professional technicians and administrators, offered a practical solution to a growing problem. Smart and empathetic, the students offer peace of mind. And they prevent parental interference. In one tale, perhaps apocryphal, a well-meaning father hammered cables into phone jacks on an entire dorm floor.

The ideal candidate isn't necessarily a tech wizard, said Jennifer Ly, manager of Stanford's Residential Computing. While plenty of RCCs major in computer science and engineering, others study subjects like biology or philosophy.

“We look for attitude,'' she said. “We seek someone with an appetite for problem-solving who can provide excellent customer service, and who is willing to learn.''

Each RCC gets a four-day training course. Then, back in the dorms, they educate their fellow students.

The problems they encounter run from the mundane to the disastrous.

During one recent lunch break, RCC Dana Nguyen, 21, got an urgent call: A student couldn't get her e-mail.

“They consider it their right to be connected,'' said Nguyen, bemused. She rushed through lunch, and in 10 minutes, was back in the dorm, helping.

Unable to free a printer's massive paper jam, worsened by a student's ripping and tugging, RCC Todd Norwood, 20, resorted to a low-tech tool: his pocket knife.

Brandon Smith fixed a dysfunctional computer with an illegal copy of Windows software, recently serviced in India. The client was a new student on campus, and “all she knew was that classes started tomorrow,'' he said. He reinstalled a new version of Windows — and also helped her find the location of the nearest bank and Wal-Mart. Proud to help, he said “the RCC is often their first introduction to Stanford and sometimes to the U.S.''

Some problems are more complicated.

One of the biggest problems is created by computers that have been overseas and not protected from malicious viruses and worms, said Stanford's Diana Gentry, 23. Worms can flood a network with so much traffic that it slows, even stops, a dorm's Internet access.

“People often don't realize they have a problem until I tell them,'' she said. “They say: `Oh, that comes up all the time. . . . I just click it and it goes away.' ''

Custom-built computers bring their own special headaches. “People build complicated systems, then find little problems with the Stanford software that a normal person wouldn't,'' said RCC Xuan Smith, 20, of Inglewood.

Students in non-technical fields tend to have fewer problems than engineers and computer scientists. “They're not tinkering,'' said Gentry.

Improperly configured wireless routers can wreak dorm-wide havoc. Said Rikleen: “Someone will set it up wrong, plug it in — and take down the entire residence.''

But a lost file is the most common catastrophe for the average Stanford student. Many RCCs tell tales of frantic late-night knocks on their door.

“Once I was woken up at 2 a.m., because someone's hard drive failed — then again, at 6:30 a.m., because someone else had a PowerPoint presentation to give that morning and she couldn't find it anymore,'' said Xuan Smith.

But students say there are payoffs far beyond their modest $170- to $190-a-week salaries. For one thing, they acquire instant popularity. There are gifts of brownies — or beer.

“One of the perks is that people are always really happy to see you,'' Steve Nguyen said.

And there are new friendships, forged across cultures and disciplines.

Checking cables in a dorm basement wiring closet, Brandon Smith got help from a doctoral student in electrical engineering.

“It takes awhile to work through all the steps and isolate the problem,'' Smith said. “You have to be precise if you want that chance of saving what you have.''

And most of all, he said, you have to be patient.

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