I am in my third year as Dean of the College of Health and Natural Sciences at Franklin Pierce University. When I reflect on my current role in higher education, and the very circuitous path I’ve traveled to reach that position, I am reminded of people along the way who offered support, sustenance and education to help me progress. Some of those folks were mentors, while others were advocates and sponsors, each playing an integral but different, role. I am very thankful for the opportunities I’ve been presented with, as well as the mentors and advocates who have helped me recognize and seize them.
Taking the Long Road
Many people find it interesting that I ended up in higher education, as that was not my original professional path. I am an attorney by practice and loved practicing law for many years. When I left the workforce to stay at home with my young children until they were in school full time, I was fortunate enough to be able to take time to think about what I wanted my professional life to entail before returning to the workforce– the hours, the stressors, the potential to change lives. Having always loved science, I found myself drawn to explore that as a possibility. After volunteering on my local ambulance squad and becoming certified as an EMT, I ended up enrolling in a Post-Baccalaureate Pre-Med program to see if science (because it related directly to healthcare) still stoked my interests the way it had in college. It did indeed. At the end of that program I had two choices. I could go to medical school and be finished with my fellowship when my kids were leaving home for college. Or I could go to physician assistant/associate (PA) school and be back out in the workforce in only a couple years. I chose the latter, and it has been an amazingly fruitful journey from that point forward. Mind you, I never gave up my law license, as my goal was always to find a way to complement my legal skill set with my medical skill set and use that combination to make positive differences in the world.
While practicing medicine as a Colorectal Surgery PA, I was invited to lecture for a local PA program. I accepted the invitation, as I loved the prospect of being involved in academia and helping to shape the minds and futures of students looking to pursue a career in medicine. I then became a guest lecturer, and soon after became an adjunct instructor. Subsequently, I became the director of the same PA program where I had my first full-time foray into the world of higher education administration. After four years in that role, I was promoted to Dean of the College in which my PA program, two other PA programs, and all the healthcare training programs and related undergraduate majors for the University are housed. That’s my professional home today. It has been an amazing journey of listening, learning, and evolving.
Thankful for Shared Words of Wisdom
Throughout my journey from undergraduate to law school to PA school to becoming a Dean, I have often questioned many of my own decisions and wondered if I had “the right stuff” to be excellent at whatever job I was assigned. That was particularly true when I became a Dean, given that my pathway was not the traditional ascension from the ranks of full-time faculty. Instead, I moved from a full-time medical practice into the Program Director/administrator position then into the Dean role. Because of my atypical trajectory, I am eternally grateful to have met others who acted as a mentor and/or an advocate for me as I was finding my way in such challenging leadership positions.
While there were many such colleagues, one comes to mind more vividly than others. He was my prior supervisor (actually, my supervisor’s supervisor). He had achieved a great deal in his decades in higher education and was always willing to share lessons learned and impart words of advice and wisdom when I encountered new and challenging issues. I recall key conversations when he would comment on my past words or actions and connect them to a future I had never envisioned for myself: being a Dean. I remember moments of advice and insight that allowed me to view situations through eyes and experiences more battle-tested than my own. And I remember his encouragement and coaching about how to face the difficult moments head-on – because, as he said, there would be many of them. He saw and heard something in me that I had not noticed in myself. That support was pivotal for me because it gave me the courage to wonder “what if.” What if I could achieve more than I already have? What if I could make a greater difference than I already have? What if I could create pathways for people like me, with dormant seeds of leadership that just need to be watered and nurtured to bloom? It’s one thing to ask yourself those kinds of questions; but it is a wholly different thing to have people in your life who help you answer them. As I look back on those years, I am so grateful for the mentorship, the leadership, the encouragement to envision a pathway larger than the boundaries of my limited past experiences.
Paying it Forward
In my years as Dean, I have had the opportunity to supervise several graduate and undergraduate programs. As anyone in higher education these days is aware, we are in the midst of trying times. Resources are often stretched, team morale sometimes wanes, and a culture of collaboration and caring can seem like a fairy tale. As a leader, I often recall the moments that benefitted me most as a mentee when I encountered those situations, and I actively endeavor to extend mentorship and support to members of my teams when they encounter those times. From words of advice in difficult situations, to lending an empathetic ear when a colleague just needs to feel heard, to helping devise action plans to address challenging situations, I see my role as a mentor and leader as one with a duty to serve the needs of those whom I lead. I must admit that the ability to do so has not come easy—not for lack of want, but for lack of know-how. Leadership is, in some ways, a learned skill that takes years and years to perfect. I am thankful to have had such a strong example in the mentor I described above. I have committed to learning about and developing my own leadership style to be one that represents my innate self (which represents who I inherently am) and my learned skills (which represents who I am choosing to be)—one who is attentive to the concerns of my teams, empathizes with them, and nurtures them to develop their full capacities. I received that kind of mentorship, so I know firsthand that it can make all the difference in the world.