By Debbie Psihountas, PhD, associate professor of finance and director of MBA program at Webster University MO
Last year I had the opportunity to work as an ACE (American Council on Education) Fellow, a prestigious fellowship program started in 1965.
Primary among the program’s learning opportunities was spending a year at a host institution, working closely with the president to learn first-hand about academic administrative leadership.
Selecting a host school is a defined research process. We research their Carnegie classification, the history of their existing president, institutional facts and more. Then each fellow works one-on-one with the ACE program director to help narrow the focus and select their top three choices. It’s not unlike the search and strategy used in the draft pick process in professional sports!
Being a single mother further complicated my search and ultimate choice. My then-12-year-old daughter Melina would accompany me, becoming an 8th grader in a new school in a new city.
Having worked at a private school for many years, I wanted to learn about the workings of a public school, which meant our leaving the area.
Initially I focused on Ohio. My mother still lives in Cincinnati, where I have more family and friends, including my best friend who lives in Dayton. I applied to schools in Dayton, Cincinnati and Columbus that fit my desired criteria, but no luck.
ACE program director Dr. Sharon McDade suggested I consider Indiana, close enough to Ohio for family for backup childcare, where many public schools had strong presidents who might meet my criteria. Another preference was to work with a female president, if she was at a public school and had a good background in both advancement and strategic planning.
She suggested Ball State University, which met all of my criteria and was reasonably close to Ohio. I could make it easy for my mom to help with my daughter when I had to travel for meetings at ACE.
Ball State had a highly regarded female president, Dr. Jo Ann Gora, who was extremely strong in both strategic planning and fundraising, and had been president there for eight years. She met the ACE criteria of being an experienced president not planning to retire soon, and had even been an ACE fellow herself.
I applied, had phone and campus interviews, and received an offer to work in the president’s office for a year.
Not only did this become an incredibly important leadership development year for me, but it was an equally important leadership development experience for Melina.
Our first weeks were an adjustment. We had moved from St. Louis, with close to three million in its metro area, to Muncie, a city of 60,000. Melina and I wondered aloud how we would survive in such a small city.
In the first weeks of school, Melina was the “star celebrity,” a new experience for her. The Burris Laboratory School in Muncie consisted of grades K-12, all under one roof; many students had been there since kindergarten. As a new face, she instantly became an object of much interest and curiosity.
She found it cool that in St. Louis, she would have been one of about 300 eighth-graders and known only a fraction of them. But after only a few weeks at Burris, she had met all of the about 45 eighth-graders there.
I launched into a heavy meeting schedule at Ball State, trying to learn the many areas of campus. An early project for the provost involved my interviewing each of the academic deans on campus, so the relationships brought me even more mentors.
Our early weeks were filled with the usual back-to-school business, buying supplies and starting homework. We also took in many evening activities.
We went to the freshman welcome, held at the huge basketball arena with athletic teams, coaches and cheerleaders so the new students could meet them, where President Gora and the pep band taught them the school song.
We attended our first football game, having been invited to sit in the president’s box. Unsure whether she wanted to watch the game, Melina had brought some side activities. While I mingled with key alumni, donors and others in the box, she busied herself with snacks and her activities.
Imagine my surprise when I found her in an animated discussion with Hollis Hughes, president of the Ball State Board of Trustees. As we left, my first question was, “What were you and the board president chatting about so earnestly?” Her answer? He was intrigued by her crochet project and asked her all about it!
We attended the freshman book event, for which all freshmen were expected to have read a particular book in advance, where the book’s author spoke. Both Melina and I had read the book, so we had a great time at the event. Later in her school year, she brought up the book and shared key aspects of its message with her classmates, surprising her teacher.
The learning experience was underway, and not just for me. But it was often subtle, obvious only in retrospect.
What did we learn?
I joined many sessions on advancement. The VP of advancement recommended books and articles on the topic, so I read up on how to cultivate donors, establish a campaign and run it. I also learned a lot from a “development for deans” conference held on campus by CASE, the higher education organization for advancement.
I attended several training sessions on strategic planning in higher education, offered by SCUP, The Society for College and University Planning; I was invited to participate in the meetings for the strategic planning committee that spring.
Melina learned a lot too. A big highlight for me occurred later in our year. Leaving an event, she told me, “I think I’d like to come to college here.” I was thrilled!
As a college professor and life-long learner, I had been saying, “when you go to college” since she was old enough to understand speech. But it was quite different when, for the first time, it was her bringing up college and talking about “when I go.” They were exciting words to every parent, but even more so for me as an educator.
“Well, you don’t see the studying and the work parts of it, you realize, just the fun events,” I reminded her. “But if you don’t do the work well, you can’t stay and you won’t be here to enjoy the fun events!”
Later in the year, after I realized she was making other important discoveries, not because of me but in spite of me.
For instance, Melina realized that while it was nice to know everyone in your class, there were also drawbacks to smaller environments. This became painfully obvious when you annoy one person of the 47, and all of a sudden, all 47 of them know the whole story and are glaring at you.
Although an extremely bright 12-year-old, she didn’t point out the great life lesson she’d learned about the disadvantages of being where “everybody knows your name.”
Yet the message and lesson came through loud and clear; I could see the wheels turning as she longingly recalled being in that larger environment where not every one of your comments follows you for a week because “everyone” has heard about it.
Some unexpected bonuses of the year included my spending more time with my daughter, and her having more time with her grandmother. Being closer to Ohio, we got home for weekends more regularly, so we connected more closely with family than we had in many years.
My pace of life in Muncie was very different from that in St. Louis. Instead of driving hundreds of miles weekly to and from work and our many activities, I walked five minutes from my furnished rental home to my office. Melina’s school was a short walk away as well. I arranged for college students to walk home from school with her in the afternoons, when I had many meetings.
Since I didn’t have all of the friends and activities from home, I enjoyed many evenings of “couch time” with her.
In spring, I took part in budget planning meetings. I also visited the State House of Indiana, where President Gora addressed the House Ways and Means Committee and other legislative bodies, pressing the need for increased state funding for Ball State.
This was exactly what I’d wanted to see. Being unfamiliar with that type of meeting, I learned about performance funding formulas, critical to public school funding but irrelevant at private schools.
This year was about taking the bull by the horns, leaving my comfort zone, leaning in— all the phrases you hear over and over about actively managing your life and career. My daughter was learning and leaning in right beside me.
Melina also expanded her comfort zone. Out of the blue she announced that she was trying out for cheerleading. Perhaps being in a smaller environment emboldened her. Although she didn’t make the team and was upset for a few days, a couple of weeks later she announced that she was going out for girls’ basketball, an even bigger surprise!
As a youngster, I had been involved in judo, gymnastics, dance, piano, swim team and more. Likewise Melina has taken up karate, soccer, swim lessons, dance and more, but quickly moved away from most athletic pursuits. During this fellowship year, I found myself looking at her and thinking, “Who are you, and what have you done with my daughter?”
Unfortunately there were not enough players so after a few practices, the athletic director cut the team; even though another girl had signed up at the last minute, he was unwilling to reconsider his decision. (Would he have been so hasty and stubborn with a boys’ team?)
Again she picked herself up from a letdown and soon joined the pep band. She practiced two evenings a week and played at all home basketball games that winter. I was delighted that she had successfully pursued her own choice of an activity.
Another high point of the year was when the David Letterman series came to campus. Letterman is Ball State’s most famous alum and a past donor.
This prestigious series had been in place a number of years, with former guests including Ted Koppel and Rachel Maddow. This year’s invited interviewee was none other than Oprah!
As guests of the college president, we had tickets in a great location, without having had to sleep out in the ticket line the night before. Melina was also excited to see Gayle King sitting in the row right in front of us.
The lecture furthered my daughter’s interest in communications and broadcast journalism as a future major, another unexpected and positive benefit.
Back home to St. Louis
The year flew by. Before we knew it, we were packing up to return to St. Louis. We were both sad to be leaving Muncie. It had grown on us. Once back home, we’d miss the friends we’d made and the time we’d spent “chilling” together.
Reflecting on my experience and the many things I’d learned over the year, I realized that my daughter had grown and developed too.
Melina was talking about college and even thinking about what field she’d choose. She learned that she could start over and make new friends. She’d figured out how to get around new impediments, such as making one small faux pax and “everyone knows about it.”
And she’d seen her mom take a risk and face the unknown in the hopes of learning new things and growing, and she too had developed the courage to face new challenges and to grow.
It hadn’t taken a trip to Europe or a far-flung adventure to teach significant lessons to my daughter and me. Even a small town like Muncie, Indiana, can be a huge opportunity for personal growth and development—for both mom and daughter.
Reach her at:
Psihountas, Debbie. (2013, November). In her own words: Leadership development 101: Mother and Daughter. Women in Higher Education, 22(11), 24-25.