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Gratitude, Relationships, and Mentorship in Student Affairs

Health, Safety, and Well-being Supporting the Profession AVP or "Number Two" Senior Level VP for Student Affairs
December 2, 2022 Marcella Runell Hall Mount Holyoke College

"To be seen in this life, truly observed without judgment, is what it feels like to be loved." — Cicely Tyson, Just as I Am

"Devote a slice of your energies toward making the world suck less every week." — Shonda Rhimes, Year of Yes

This is a time of year when I allow my usual daily practice of gratitude to be more visible and prominent in my life, especially at work and at home. Thanksgiving is a complicated holiday because of the racist, violent, and colonial history, but it does bring a more intentional and public invitation to reflect on gratitude as a practice and concept. My primary focus for this blog is to think and reflect on gratitude as it relates to student affairs and relationship building. 

I am currently serving on the conference leadership committee for the 2023 NASPA Annual Conference in Boston. The last time I attended a NASPA conference in Boston was 2002. I was working as a new professional in my first job in student activities at New York University. I had fallen in love with student affairs work during my undergraduate experience at Ramapo College of New Jersey, and I had attended NASPA regularly since that point. That first Boston conference was notable to me because I developed a "tradition" that year; one that I had no idea would stick with me throughout my entire career. I was able to share resources so that a graduate student working in my office was able to attend her first NASPA conference. Twenty years later, we are still attending NASPA together. Michelle Van-Ess is now the Dean of Students and Assistant Vice President at Hofstra University. As recently as NASPA in Baltimore, we were sharing a room together; we even attended together virtually in 2021. We have brought our young children to NASPA (they all loved Los Angeles), and we have visited friends and family in various locations (Orlando!), and over the years we have become more than colleagues and friends, we have become family.

Gratitude is a conscious, positive emotion one can express when feeling thankful for something, whether tangible or intangible. - Paulina Cal y Mayor Galindo

I wouldn’t have known about NASPA as a professional home if not for mentors during my undergraduate experience. And once I did learn about NASPA, I wouldn’t have been brave enough to attend on my own or had the resources to attend when it was in New Orleans or Phoenix or Tampa (places I wouldn't have gone otherwise as a new professional), if not for mentors and colleagues along the way who helped make it available for me. The relationships I built going to NASPA opened doors for me to present and publish, to serve in volunteer leadership roles, to win awards, and to get nominated for and achieve professional goals and opportunities. I am beyond grateful for all of those incredible milestones that I have experienced AND the role of mentors and colleagues that made that possible cannot be understated.

I know I am not alone in treasuring the people I have met along the way, and the precious moments of connection: the students who are now in the field, the retired mentors sharing wisdom, the peers who are still in the trenches and most especially the colleagues and friends that are no longer with us. This past NASPA in Baltimore was the first NASPA of my career without Marijo Russell-O'Grady. Marijo was my first supervisor as a graduate student at NYU. She helped shape my career as a Dean of Students and she made 1:1 time for me at every single national conference I ever attended. We shared our lives over laughter and sometimes tears. There was something so comforting knowing that this professional relationship was a journey and a lifelong commitment to one another. Marijo embodied what it meant to be a mentor, colleague, friend, parent, and partner. I admired her and I treasured our time. I was always especially moved when she introduced me as her peer and friend and not just as another "dean of students."

How many of us carefully plan how we will spend valuable time in between meetings and sessions to meet up with friends and colleagues for coffee, lunch, or even a quick in person check in or hug? Those moments at NASPA are a lifeline to our humanity, to the connections that sustain us. As life milestones happen, graduations and dissertations, marriage and divorce, babies and teenagers, caring for sick family members or even experiencing profound loss, it has been my experience that sharing those moments with beloved student affairs colleagues carries a particular weight and context. Only someone who knows the significance of going into labor at the end of a parent welcome event during orientation or experiencing a student crisis when you are also caring for a loved one can truly understand that our student affairs gratitude runs deep, and our connections definitely help make the world "suck" a little less.


Runelle Hall_BlogMarcella Runell Hall serves as the vice president for student life and dean of students at Mount Holyoke College and is a member of the NASPA James E. Scott Academy Board.