Making an Impact in Higher Education

March 18, 2016

By Jessica Swanson

Life is all about making an impact, and for Michelle Gaffney, associate dean of students at the University of Mount Union, higher education has always been an outlet for her to do so.

Gaffney's passion for students began during her time at American University in Washington, D.C. While pursuing a degree in justice, law and society, she had many mentors in higher education, as well as various leadership positions as a resident assistant and orientation leader that paved the way to her own future working in higher education.

"Immediately after graduation, I started working as a resident director at Wittenberg University in Ohio," Gaffney said. "While I was in that position, I met the director of residence life at Michigan State, which at the time had the largest housing system in the country."

The director at Michigan State offered Gaffney a position as graduate resident director at the University. She was tasked with watching over multiple residence halls, one of which held over 1,600 students, whilst pursuing her masters in college and university administration.

Her leadership positions did not end there. After receiving her master’s degree, Gaffney took on the role of resident director at Temple University in Philadelphia. Her job duties seemed similar to what she was tasked with in previous positions, but because the university was located in an area with frequent crime and gang activity, Gaffney was asked to do much more. 

"Only a few weeks into the job, a riot involving a few of my students broke out on Broad Street," Gaffney said. "It made me realize how many challenges my students were faced with day to day, and it was my job to support them; it’s all about figuring out what people need."

Living in cities for most of her life, Gaffney was accustomed to the normal hustle and bustle and crisis situations like these, which is why the transition to working at Mount Union was not an easy one for her.

“I definitely had culture shock when I first moved here, which may seem odd to some people,” Gaffney said. “The sounds of birds and chipmunks actually kept me up at night. I was used to sleeping in the middle of a much more urban environment, where sirens, traffic and frequent middle of the night phone calls were more the norm.”

Facing such difficult situations in the past has given her great insight on how to handle situations and job duties for her title now. Gaffney has oversight for of a multitude of things on campus including residence life, student involvement and leadership, Title IX, student conduct and drug and wellness education and counseling services. She feels one of her greatest responsibilities in higher education, however, is working with and mentoring students.

“I’m a firm believer in exposing yourself to different cultures, ideas, perspectives and people,” Gaffney said. “I enjoy encouraging and challenging students to explore new ideas and try new things, all the while supporting them to move outside of their comfort zones.”

Gaffney holds much pride in her students. From day one of preview to four years later at graduation, watching her students’ accomplishments over the years is Gaffney’s favorite aspect about working in higher education.

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