First provost for Vern academics prioritizes community building in first six months

Media Credit: File Photo by Senior Staff Photographer Donna Armstrong

Elizabeth Chacko, the provost for Mount Vernon Campus' academics, said she has focused on building a sense of community on the campus in her first six months in the position.

The inaugural associate provost for the Mount Vernon academic experience has aimed to connect with students on the campus since taking the position six months ago.

Elizabeth Chacko, who assumed the new position responsible for academics and social engagement on the Vern July 1, said she has planned social events like holiday celebrations to improve community among Vern residents and to attract students from the Foggy Bottom Campus in her first few months on the job. Chacko, who also oversees special programs like the University Honors Program, said her planned events are part of a larger effort to improve student life on the campus.

Chacko said she has worked to enhance the Vern’s five living and learning communities, groups of students who live in the same area to learn about a specific topic like sustainability and global connections, since taking the associate provost position. She said she meets with LLC students on a “regular basis” and has formed an advisory committee of student LLC and honors program representatives to improve the programs.

“They can collectively help me fine-tune the LLCs through suggestions, and also by identifying and planning events that would appeal to their student bodies,” Chacko said in an email. “The events and tours geared toward the new LLCs, in particular, were planned and executed through my office.”

Chacko took over the leadership post after Rachelle Heller, the former Vern associate provost, stepped down in 2016 to work as a professor in the computer science department.

She added that she has worked with both faculty and students to “identify areas where they would like to see change,” through student feedback surveys and focus groups. She said the groups and surveys reported that the programs are currently functioning well, but “there is always room for improvement.”

Chacko said she has focused her efforts on community building for Vern residents, which has led to events like a Diwali party that took place in the fall, guest speakers in students’ “areas of interest” and guided tours to sites in both Virginia and D.C., including one to “off-the-grid” buildings in Arlington. Chacko said the campus held a Lunar New Year celebration on Jan. 25, and future events will include a symposium on the link between Jewish history and human rights.

“Next year, we plan to partner with Judaic Studies and offer a mini symposium on human rights and Jewish history on the Vern that we hope will attract students and faculty from the Vern as well as Foggy Bottom,” Chacko said.

Chacko has served in various positions at GW throughout the last two decades, including as the director of the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences Dean’s Scholars in Globalization program and most recently as the CCAS associate dean for undergraduate studies.

Chacko also had a hand in selecting new honors program director Bethany Cobb Kung after the previous director, Maria Frawley, stepped down at the end of 2018.

Gordon Mantler, the executive director of the University Writing Program, which is housed on the Vern, said in the short time Chacko has been in her new position she has already made an impact on the faculty community on the Vern by fostering closer ties with residents.

“I’ve always liked the Vern, but she has certainly added an even greater sense of fun and community,” Mantler said in an email. “Maybe I would have met my faculty and administrative colleagues there anyhow, as the new executive director of the University Writing Program, but she has made it a priority to build closer ties.”

Phillip Troutman, an assistant professor of writing and history, said Chacko has been a “physical presence” on the Vern since becoming associate provost by visiting faculty offices, mentoring postdoctoral fellows and fostering “cross-generational and cross-disciplinary development” between newer and senior faculty members.

“She has provided faculty and staff on the Vern with opportunities to get together, meet each other, have some conversation outside of getting our jobs done,” he said.

He said Chacko hosted a “fantastic meet-up” in Post Hall earlier this academic year, where he was able to meet people from the honors program that he had not met before.

Troutman said there will “always be structural obstacles” to the two campuses given time constraints in commuting between Foggy Bottom and the Vern, but Chacko’s leadership has brought a positive force to the campus and its faculty.

“I see in her someone who understands the importance of the writing curriculum at GW,” he said. “The fact that she now happens to be serving on the Vern, where the entire UWP faculty is housed and teaches, may just be a happy coincidence, but I think it’s a very good thing that the provost’s office has someone with whom UWP faculty have such close contact.”

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