CMC's new dean of students, Mary Spellman, just marked her first two weeks on the job (she started Jan. 4) and is already, as she likes to say, "in the thick of things." Spellman arrives by way of Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York, another small liberal arts college also known for its personalized education, where she was dean of student affairs for the past five years.
Before that, she worked in a variety of academic positions, all catering to students at various colleges, including a four-year stay at St. Mary's College of California in Moraga. The cumulative years working through the ranks of liberal arts schools could only put Spellman that much closer to understanding the CMC culture, thus making her a good fit for the College. But even beyond that familiarity (not to mention her Californian roots), she is a consummate professional, cares deeply about students, andmore importantly, adds colleague Jefferson Huang, CMC's Vice President of Student Affairs"she's a really nice person."
Huang tells a story illustrating Spellman's professionalism. When the two of them had dinner last week with the Athenas basketball team, the question of which college they would next play came up. Coincidentally, the answer was Occidental: Spellman's alma mater. "There are a lot of ways she could have had a poor reaction to that situation," Huang recalls. "But being the consummate professional she is, she wished the CMS women much luck in beating Oxy, and she genuinely meant it. At the same time," he adds, "she couldn't be baited into saying anything negative about her alma mater. That level of tact and positive attitude toward both institutions was classy.
"She's also taught me about how things have been handled differently at other institutions, some of which might present improvements to student life at CMC," he added.
During her busy days of transition (which have included meeting people and then drafting lists of more people to meet), Spellman was gracious about taking time out of her schedule to share some of her first impressions of CMC. Q: What was your opinion of Claremont McKenna, coming into this new role? MS: I have always regarded CMC highly. My sister is a CMC alumna, and I seriously considered applying to CMC when I was a senior in high school. I know it is an institution of the highest caliber and one with which I am proud to be associated. Q: What are you most looking forward to as you delve into the job? MS: I am arriving at an exciting time The spring semester tends to be quite busy. I look forward to seeing campus life in full swing, and to meeting and getting to know students, faculty and staff; to jumping in and getting to know CMC in the thick of things. Q: Would you mind describing your specific role at CMC? MS: Dean (Jeff) Huang has served as both vice president for student affairs and as dean of students for many years. My arrival allows for the separation of the two roles.
Dean Huang will focus on his vice-presidential duties and the oversight of the many areas that report to him as vice president. As dean of students, I will oversee the daily operations of the dean of students office and serve as the upper-class dean.
My role is to serve students directly in the day-to-day aspects of their lives, and to help them navigate CMC and college life, while Dean Huang will be engaged in the bigger picture and the behind-the-scenes work essential to the overall quality of student life. Q: A dean of students is an interesting rolesome might consider it a disciplinarian, while others might equate it with the role of a confidante and counselor/advisor. How have you handled that dichotomy with students in the past at Sarah Lawrence, and elsewhere? MS: There are disciplinary aspects of the dean of students job at CMC, and at other colleges. But that's all part of the educational process that colleges are engaged in. There is so much more to our work. I balance these many aspects by respecting students and being someone they can talk to and hopefully trust, to help them through whatever situation they are encountering. Q: How do you hope CMCers will perceive you? MS: I hope they will see that I truly care about students and want to help them make the most of their CMC experience. That I listen and involve others in the process; that I am a person of principle who does the right thing even when that is not the popular choice; that I have a sense of humor and can laugh at myself; that I love what I do; and that I bake really good chocolate chip cookies. Q: You've spent a career involved in student affairs at various educational institutions, what is the most challenging aspect (if any) of the "job" that all those positions share? MS: There are always bumps along the way as students test limits and figure things out. The challenge is helping students when the bumps are bigger than they can handle, especially when the student is resistant to help. But this is all part of the developmental process and part of why positions like mine, and those in the Dean of Students office, exist. Q: How did you choose a career in the field of higher education? MS: In many ways it found me! I was involved as an undergrad and there were many amazing people who profoundly influenced me. They took an interest in me as a person and when they introduced me to higher education as a career choice I remember thinking, I can do this for a living? and, I can do what these folks have done for me, for someone else. I was hooked, and have been doing this work ever since. Q: What do you enjoy about working in higher education? MS: Every institution has its unique culture and student population. But ultimately, regardless of the institution, college is about finding yourself and your passion, developing into adulthood, and becoming a responsible and contributing citizen.
As dean of students it is both my duty and my privilege to walk with students through this journey. I encourage students in pursuing their interests and celebrate their many small and large successes. I listen and hold their hands (figuratively and literally) through the struggles and trials they will face along the way. What an incredible job to get to do every day! Q: Any hobbies? MS: Bakingespecially chocolate chip cookies and apple pie. And travel, both in the U.S. and abroad. Oh, and did I mention chocolate?