Kathleen McMahon currently works as Dean of Students at Roger Williams in Rhode Island. She has previously worked at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), Boston University (BU) and Marlboro College in Vermont. McMahon is looking forward to having new experiences and new challenges at Cal Poly this winter.
MN: Why do you want to work at Cal Poly?
KM: My husband and I used to live in California; when I was at UCLA, I loved my time there. When I saw this position posted, and it being in San Luis Obispo, it just really caught my eye. We weren’t looking to move at this time, but I couldn’t pass up this rare opportunity of the perfect job in the perfect place at this amazing school with all this incredible Learn by Doing.
It just seems like everything was coming together for an amazing opportunity. I really love the Dean of Students role; it’s a role I had at two different institutions now. And it’s one I embrace, just advocating for students.
I was super excited to learn more about Cal Poly and everything that was going on, and the more that I learned, the more I fell in love with the place. I’m just so pleased that it’s worked out and I’m really excited about it.
MN: How do you think your past experiences have prepared you for this job?
KM: I’ve been working in student affairs for about 25 years and I’ve worked at four different institutions, each very different. I’ve worked at private and public, large and small and medium: UCLA, BU, Marlboro College and here at Roger Williams.
I think the benefit of working at diverse types of institutions is that I won’t be stepping into this job and saying, “Well, this is how we did it at my past school and this is how we should do it here.” I’ll be really drawing on diverse experiences and looking at how challenges have posed themselves in different places and how we solved them.
I think it gives me a broader scope to draw on, in terms of problem-solving and working with people, and not just trying to put my square from the past into this square. I’m very adaptable and I learn quickly, and I think that having worked in such different institutions has given me a lot to draw upon.
With that being said, having worked at UCLA I know what it’s like to work in California at a state school with a very strong student body. Roger Williams actually has a similar organizational structure to Cal Poly, it has six schools and a graduate program. The organizational structure will be familiar to me, but now it’s larger.
MN: How do you think your transition will be from Roger Williams University to Cal Poly? (4,000 students to 20,000 students)
KM: I think I’ll have to do a lot of listening and learning and talking to students about what their concerns are, and talking to the staff and faculty about what is a priority for them. However, because I’m pretty adaptable and I learn quickly and I have a pretty strong work ethic, I think I’ll hit the ground running.
It will definitely be a challenge starting in the winter, so it’s not an ideal time to start a job, but I think I’ll learn as much as I can, as quickly as I can and I expect it to be fun and interesting, and I bet it will go well.
MN: Why do you think the position of Dean of Students is important?
KM: Typically students have a lot of things that are important to them, and they need to go to a person that will listen and be an advocate for them and help them have their voices heard by the upper-administration. It’s just a role that I love in terms of working very closely with students. It’s not my goal to move up the administrative ladder so I can be closer to the hierarchy; it’s my goal to always work closely with students about the things that are important to them and help them have their voices heard.
College was a really important time for me in my life, and for some reason I find it really interesting to work with college students. It’s something that keeps me stimulated and vibrant and I hope to do it for a long time.
MN: What are your plans when you come to Cal Poly with the programs you are going to be overseeing? Any changes you’d like to make?
KM: I think whenever you start a new job you have to spend a certain amount of time just listening and learning. My plan would be to meet with a lot of different groups, get myself out there as much as possible, to let people learn about me so I can learn about them. Do some trust building, relationship building and really identify what’s going and what might need some support.
I’ll be listening to staff about what’s going on and what their needs are and it’s possible organizational changes will be popping up as an important need for people. Nothing would be immediate; it would be a lot of learning at first.
MN: How do you plan to work with greek life? Any changes you’d like to make?
KM: I think Cal Poly has got some challenges with the greek system right now. I can see from Mustang News, students have some frustrations and I want to listen to what those are. I have not worked directly with the greek system, but I have a lot of experience with things related to greek (life).
For instance, leadership development — I wrote my dissertation on college student leadership development. I have experience working with high-profile groups and conflict resolution. When I was at UCLA, there were some very large public events around the football team and we did some restorative justice there. I have a lot of experience with alcohol prevention and sexual assault prevention, which are two of the highest areas of concern for people outside the greek system.
So, I’m just excited to come in and learn about what people see as the benefits and how I can support the great things they’re doing, and then listen to what the challenges are and look at where we stand and where we want to go. It’s clear to me the greek system means a lot to the Cal Poly campus, and my job would be to listen with fresh eyes and ears and help support mediating where it needs to go next.
MN: Anything else you’d like to add?
KM: Well, I can tell you my family and I are super excited to come to (San Luis Obispo) and part of that is I really love the outdoors and I love hiking. When I was visiting, I ran up the beautiful trail up by Poly Canyon Village. One of my favorite things to do is to run out there in early morning, and when I was out there I saw some deer and I thought, “This is where I want to be.” So the students can bet on seeing me running in the morning and experiencing the nature. My son is really thrilled and because he went ATV-ing in Pismo Dunes and I think he experienced bliss in that moment. So we’re just going to be loving the area and all the things we can do there.