First student experience dean to prioritize residential life, health services

Media Credit: Donna Armstrong | Contributing Photo Editor

M.L. "Cissy" Petty, the first dean of the student experience, will prioritize issues in the Colonial Health Center and residence halls in her first semester on campus.

At first glance, M.L. “Cissy” Petty has more posters than blank wall space in her Rice Hall office.

Signs featuring quotes like “Be nice or get out” and “I stand with my students,” along with a framed photo of Petty and former President Barack Obama, are just a few of the pieces displayed in the office of the inaugural dean of the student experience.

For Petty, the “aesthetics” of a place make her feel most at home, which is why she spent three hours pointing out the outdated TVs in Thurston Hall and crooked signs in Mitchell Hall during her first tour of freshman residence halls two weeks ago.

“I want students to have something I would want in my home,” Petty said. “I want furniture that matches, I want it to be clean and comfortable, I want students to have TVs that work.”

Since she stepped foot on campus July 23, Petty said she spent the past month visiting residence halls, major dining hubs and the Colonial Health Center to note small things the University can tackle immediately to improve the student experience. She has also been making rounds with students – asking for their opinions on the state of student affairs at GW – and meeting with key administrators, like University President Thomas LeBlanc.

These conversations will continue over the next few months, and will inform her first priorities in her new role, she said.

Petty, who previously served as the vice president for student affairs and the associate provost of academic affairs at Loyola University New Orleans, will oversee the CHC, residential life, housing and student organizations. Petty is the first official to take the title of student experience dean after officials restructured GW’s student affairs departments amid an administrative push to prioritize the student experience.

Petty said as the first to fill the position, she is able to figure out the “nuances” of campus life with a fresh pair of eyes, both in meetings with students and administrators and during campus tours.

When she met with Student Association members Thursday, Petty said each student wrote what they love about the University on an index card – the first in a collection of student sentiments she will continue to compile throughout the year.

“I like being the first because then, as you make change, there aren’t barriers,” Petty said. “There are things that you can just start fresh. I’m looking forward to that.”

Petty said one of the first issues she will tackle will be weekend hours at the CHC. She said data shows that “no one comes” on the weekends – but it could be because the center is only open from 9 a.m. to noon on Saturdays for urgent care only.

“I think it’s not being used because the hours aren’t right, and maybe it’s not being used because it isn’t convenient – we’re doing research so we can get the hours right,” she said.

Petty added that she will delve into GW’s dining program and explore the vendors where students eat most often on campus. She said she is also looking into more financial literacy programs to help students spend their GWorld allocations more responsibly.

SA President Ashley Le – who gifted Petty a “welcome” sign last month featuring photos of students and Commencement speakers, which now hangs outside of the dean’s office – said Petty will enable the SA to “redefine our relationship with the dean as well as other high-level administrators.” Le said she anticipates having weekly meetings with Petty.

She added that unlike past SA administrations, Le will bring SA senators with her to meetings with Petty and other administrators, depending on what is on the meeting’s agenda.

“Regardless of how this relationship has looked previously, we are now excited for a much more direct communication,” she said.

Student leaders had a role in hand-selecting Petty as dean after officials established a 15- to 20-student committee last spring to interview candidates for the position.

When former SA President Peak Sen Chua, who co-chaired the administrative committee that oversaw the interview process, first met Petty in April, he said she had to fly back to Loyola for an annual dance marathon – a depiction of her “general energy,” he said.

Chua didn’t discuss specific conversations in the committee, citing a confidentiality agreement, but added that the group was looking for a candidate with experience in issues like diversity and inclusion and someone who could “understand the student body sentiment” about topics like housing and dining.

“She was really energetic, and we could tell she really cared about students,” Chua said. “She was willing to engage in conversations about some of the challenges at GW and potentially how she could fit into the culture of GW and mold it for the better.”

Sydney Nelson, the SA’s former executive vice president who co-chaired the student-led committee, said she “appreciated” that Petty was eager to address “larger, systemic” issues the University often faces, like questions about financial aid, diversity and inclusion.

“Sometimes students feel like they’re talking to a brick wall rather than someone who’s really willing to engage with them and respond to what they’re going through,” Nelson said. “I wanted to see someone that was not only there for the smaller questions, like FixIt.”

Dani Grace contributed reporting.

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