‘We grow the most when we face those moments with open eyes’

4 questions with new Dean of Students Dianna Graves ’98

Dianna “DT” Graves ’98, CMC’s new Assistant Vice President and Dean of Students, shared thoughts on her years at CMC and her desire to make sure every student gets the most they can out of their campus experience.

Previously CMC’s Assistant Vice President for Strategic Initiatives, DT has worked at CMC since 1999, when she returned to her alma mater as head women’s volleyball coach. As a CMC student, DT earned 11 varsity letters, was a head resident assistant and won the Dickinson and Berger prizes. A biology major, she spent a year after college as a cancer researcher at City of Hope, and holds a Ph.D. in education from Claremont Graduate University.

1. What is your approach to being the Dean of Students?

At so many schools, the Dean of Students office is somewhere students go only when they’re in trouble or facing a significant challenge. At CMC, our size and our mission make the Dean’s office a place where relationships are built as we coach and support students to achieve their goals. At CMC, academic life and student life are integrated. Life in the residence halls, internships and work, research opportunities, clubs and organizations, athletics, and so many other experiences complement and often reinforce a student’s academic work, and the academic work shapes a student’s interests beyond the classroom. When academic life and student life are in sync, not in conflict, students maximize their learning and usually have a far better experience at CMC.

There is no one type of path through CMC that is superior to others.  Our job is to help students make meaning of their many experiences and to be thoughtful in how they choose opportunities to support their goals.  We help students keep as many doors open for as long as possible, and to take full advantage of their liberal arts education. We encourage students to think about their personal and professional résumés not as a series of bullet points, but as a series of powerful experiences that create a rich story about who they are and what value they can bring to any environment.

2. You were about as successful as a student could be at CMC. What did you struggle with?

My biggest struggle initially was being homesick. I’m the oldest of five, and it was so hard to leave my siblings behind in Colorado. I met amazing people here, but those first few weeks were a very hard adjustment.

I was also a bit too focused for my own good. Like many of our first-year students, I was very ambitious when I started college. I approached David Sadava [Pritzker Family Foundation Professor of Biology in the Joint Science Program, Emeritus, 2009], and told him I had an idea about a three-year thesis project I wanted to do with him. He looked at me, smiled, and said, “Well, I’m really excited to work with you,” then paused and said, “in three years.” I was shocked and a little embarrassed by his answer, but I came to understand that there was still so much that I didn’t know.

Having a professor tell me to slow down and enjoy the process was an important thing to hear. I was really focused on the end goal, and hadn’t given much thought to the journey.

I struggled with re-calibrating what academic success looked like. I learned that it isn’t just about the grade, but more about the effort I put into the learning. Science didn’t really come naturally to me, but I was fascinated by biology, and I was willing to work hard at it. The effort you put in is the real value.

Once I realized that, I was able to make the most of my CMC experience. I took the most challenging classes I could find, knowing I probably wouldn’t get the grades I got in high school. I turned in papers that I thought were pretty good, but I would get them back completely marked in red pen. I would have to revise and revise, sometimes writing an entirely new paper, but I learned to love that process and to value the relationships built along the way.

Dr. Sadava later helped me get my first job after CMC, and just last week, he emailed to congratulate me on this new position. He is one of many faculty and staff who invested in my success. I think that’s an amazing thing about this place, and I never lose sight of that.

3. How has your time at CMC taught you to work with students from many different backgrounds and sets of experiences?

Everybody is experiencing the college in a slightly different way. There isn’t a right way. We each come to CMC with personal stories and identities that have shaped us. In my case, college was a big adjustment. Neither of my parents went to college. My parents worked hard as a postal employee and day care provider, and CMC’s generous financial aid allowed me a shot I would never have had otherwise. I’m so grateful for that, and yet there were times it felt really hard.  I think to some extent, all students are grappling with how their deeply valued personal identities — on all kinds of dimensions — fit in their new college environment. I try to approach my work with students with an open mind and open heart. I don’t assume I know the full picture of anyone’s situation. I don’t pretend to fully understand or claim the experiences of the students I work with.  I try to listen, and hear, and grow in my understanding and support where I can. Life is messy and its lessons can be harsh. I think we grow the most when we face those moments with open eyes.

Jodie Burton, head women’s golf coach, has played an important role during my time here. When I was a student, she was the basketball coach, so she gave me tremendous mentorship when I needed it. She also allowed her team to be a part of her “outside-CMC” life. When her husband David Wells [former men’s basketball coach and Director of Athletics] was so sick with cancer, they never closed the door on us students. Instead, they and their three young boys opened the door and said “come in and see what it looks like to fight cancer and to be a family unit and continue to exist and continue to work in the world.” The lessons my teammates and I learned in those years were so powerful.

Watching people face tragedy, or anger, or fear, can be scary. There’s a tendency to disengage or turn the other way. I see students struggling with all kinds of things, their own cancers, the deaths of their parents, people in their lives suffering from addiction, broken relationships, isolation, rejection. These are real things. We cannot disengage, from reality or from one another. It’s a part of our education, and it’s essential to our community. Every CMCer deserves respect, support, and the opportunity to excel.

4. What would you tell your student self today?

I would tell my student self that it’s okay fail, even miserably. That’s okay. Really stay open to opportunities that are vastly off-track from what you thought would happen to you. Sleep a little more, because I was pretty tired. Be attentive to your health. Don’t worry so much. There is no “right way.” Just be true to yourself … and DT, you can do it!