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Q&A: Dean of Students Marjorie Thomas reflects on her time at W&M

Marjorie Thomas joined William & Mary in 2013 as the university’s dean of students, leading the student success thematic area of Student Affairs. After eight years in the role, Thomas will be leaving the university at the end of July to become vice president for student affairs at the New College of Florida in Sarasota.

Marjorie Thomas (Courtesy photo)A search for the next dean of students will begin in the fall. Mark Sikes, vice dean for student success, will serve as interim dean of students.

“This is surely a bittersweet moment for W&M,” said Vice President for Student Affairs Ginger Ambler in a message to her staff. “As you know, Marjorie has been a remarkable leader within our campus community, and we will miss having her as a university colleague and expert partner in promoting student success. At the same time, we celebrate this opportunity for her to apply her considerable talent to leading a division of student affairs.”

W&M News recently spoke with Thomas about her time at the university and how those experiences, including the challenges of the pandemic, have shaped her as she takes on a new position. The interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

What's your philosophy for working with students, and what are the values and goals that guide your approach?

My philosophy is centered around how we support students through their journey here at William & Mary. We should be a place where, when students are uncertain or have questions, that while we may be able to share resources that they can tap into, we are also collaborating with university partners to make sure that we are referring students and appropriately intervening on their behalf. That's really what we're about. We're navigating access for our students. We're navigating how we retain our students so that they have a robust college experience. And we are also making sure that we are  finding opportunities for students to engage and connect to a number of the resources and services that are available.

And so even if a circumstance doesn’t fall within the realm of something “serious,” the general idea is to engage students around issues that are going to help them grow and develop during their time here and to do that when there's a network of support, where we're helping them navigate that process. Whether their questions are academic in nature, personal in nature, or they are just having difficulty navigating the institution for whatever reason, what I find is that we lead with care. That's the bottom line. Sometimes we're navigating serious and/or critical situations. And for me, and for the team I work with, it is really about how do you lead with care and how do you — even in difficult conversations or difficult decision making — make sure that we are looking at the whole student, the impact of their current circumstance and identifying the most appropriate service intervention or program.

What have been some of your favorite parts of the job and what were some of the biggest challenges?

One of the things that I love about this job is that no day is the same and the fact that I have a really unique lens into the level of resilience of our students. While there are a lot of things I can never share with anyone or any members of our team can share with members of our community, every day we experience students rising above their circumstances. I think what we went through during the pandemic was a perfect example of this in action. There were a lot of things we all went through during the pandemic, but I can't tell you how many unique circumstances many of our students navigated and, wow, how proud I am that they were able to get to the other side — and with such a sense of strength and accomplishment and more awareness of their ability to navigate something difficult. Similarly, I cannot express how many times during Commencement, I'll see a student walking across the stage and reflect about a circumstance they were in — to see them crossing that stage in spite of their previous circumstance, that's the most amazing feeling.

In terms of difficult times, I think when we see our students struggle and/or deal with loss, that has been hard. But I do believe that the approaches that we take as a community have helped offset some of that. Even with challenges, there is definitely a sense that we can get through almost anything together.

We really appreciate the level of engagement our faculty have here and how they support students. Our faculty do not expect that students can only succeed in the classroom a certain way and be a certain kind of student; they really care about them. We have also had a great champion in Ginger (Ambler, vice president for student affairs). She has been our biggest cheerleader. For example, within my first year, I was like, “Ginger, we're going paperless.” And she understood not only our commitment to being sustainable, but what it meant for our students, for us to be more efficient and have more accessibility to our services. Within 18 months of my arrival, students went from having to fill out forms, make copies and drop them off in the Campus Center to submitting petitions online, which provided a lot more ease and contributed to students’ ability to navigate issues with more privacy.

In your role, you often have to make hard decisions and take tough stances. How do you approach those kinds of difficult situations?

In addition to leading with care, by always being open and flexible to share with students the context behind the decisions that are being made. Our goal is not just about accountability for punitive reasons. It is grounded in this idea of what can be learned and how to convey to students that difficult situations are part of life and that we're trying to provide tools that are going to help them. Life is not easy. Everything that you need or want may not be accessible at your fingertips. And so what does it mean to understand processes or timelines or rules and regulations? And while there may be situations that happen that are either difficult or unexpected, they may have to be navigated a certain way and there may be certain consequences. It does not mean, however, that we don't care about you. But it may mean that we are going to have to work through either difficult conversations or situations together.

I think for me at the end of it, what I'm really proud of is I work with a team every day that is willing to make that investment in people and retain the students that we support so that wherever that student lands, they know that we are willing to make the investment in them having those tools for the future, in working through what opportunities can even come from challenges. I honestly can't tell you how many emails and letters we get from students, who, upon reflection, say, “Wow, when I was going through that, I was not a fan of yours, but I get it now. You guys helped me get through it, and either I'm moving on or I'm ready to re-engage now.” I think it's something that we work on every day: How do we make what we do approachable so that students know, no matter how difficult the circumstance, we are here to help you work through it and we are going to connect you to resources you need?

Speaking of difficult situations, what kind of experiences did you have at W&M before the pandemic that helped prepare you for the challenges of the past year?

The way we all interact and support each other has just helped us really know how to tap into resources to better serve students. I think there's just been an ability for us to communicate what we need and to have partners that are all-hands-on-deck to help us meet the needs of students. The challenging part for us, beyond the pandemic, has always been about how we ensure that students realize that we are community-centered and are focused on their well-being. Yes, it's amazing that you're here, it’s amazing that you are a brilliant person, it's amazing you're going to be able to contribute to society once you leave our corridors. But while you are here, are you familiar with resources, are you familiar with opportunities, are you familiar with where to go if you face challenges?

Our best resource in navigating challenges have been our campus partners. Whether it's with our colleagues in Arts & Sciences, the school of business, education, law, etc., or administrative units like Financial Services and the University Registrar, they get what we do. When you're part of a community where people are all on the same page, it just really does help foster getting through challenges with more ease. While the pandemic was an example of that, it has also been the case when we have experienced loss in our community. People come together. That “one family” mantra is true, and when we are going through difficult times, it's an even stronger bond.

Did you learn anything new about the William & Mary community through the specific challenges of the pandemic? And did you learn anything new about yourself?

I have learned that we'll do whatever it takes to make sure that our students are well, that we'll do whatever it takes to make sure that our community is strong and prepared. And that's been awesome to experience. There wasn't a lot that was great about the pandemic — there was fear and a lot of uncertainty — but truly what I garnered from this experience is that our people make this place. It was really beautiful to see people just jump in and say, “How can I help? How can I serve?” I had an opportunity to observe that we are filled with servant leaders within our community, so that's been an awesome take-away for me.

I realized that I'm a lot more resilient than I thought. I realized that I am a lot more creative than I thought. In a very short timeframe, we were able to come up with ways to serve and access our students. This is a perfect example of partnership. Within two weeks, we were able to join with IT and Procurement to put 25 laptops aside for students and provide access to funding to provide students with grants so that they could purchase what they needed. When students would contact our office, they'd say, “I don't have a laptop” or “I need this kind of laptop or program for my course,” and we would prep their hardware and just ship it. It was amazing because that's not what I do — I'm not an IT person. But IT was supporting us, and we were supporting a need from students. It was a beautiful example of, within a short timeframe, communicating a need and being able to call a partner and make it happen for our students.

What do you hope your legacy will be able at William & Mary? How do you want to be remembered here?

That's a hard one. I would want it to be that I worked hard to better serve our students, that I did whatever was necessary, asked important questions and created new opportunities for student success. Our systems now better serve our students — that, to me, is the legacy. But there's no way that I could articulate that without also saying the team that I work with every day is my legacy — the ways we have been able to build upon how we serve our students and serve them with care, but also the fact that I can say that I have been able to work and grow a team that will continue that. While that might evolve into bigger things, I really feel like we have set a foundation and established a trajectory that will continue to serve our students and have their best interests at heart.