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Vice president of student affairs reflects on time at Saint Mary’s

| Friday, October 5, 2018

Vice president of student affairs Karen Johnson began her work at Saint Mary’s in 2006, after spending 20 years as the dean of students at a Catholic university in Texas. Although she was initially hesitant to apply, Johnson said her interview made the decision to work at Saint Mary’s clear.

“When I came for the interview, it was sort of like what students say — they came on campus and they just knew this is the place they needed to be — and for me, I just knew this was the place I needed to be,” Johnson said.

After 12 years of service at Saint Mary’s, Johnson is retiring effective Saturday.

Johnson said the opportunity to work at an all-women’s college was a big draw for her initially.

“The thing is I was most struck when I first came here and heard the student body president speak at orientation, and how confident she was and how well-prepared she was,” Johnson said. “And I said, ‘Wow, these are women that are going to do something.’”

Prior to coming to Saint Mary’s, Johnson said she had only worked at co-ed institutions. Due to this experience, she found there to be a difference in the attitude students had toward one another.

“Women tend to take care of each other and reach out to each other,” Johnson said. “I mean there’s always bullying and little stuff going on — little, teeny stuff — but in the end, they tend to take care of each other and they tend to want everybody around them to be successful, and they pull people along with them to be successful.”

Working with all women lends to having to pay more attention to women’s issues. Johnson said one of her highlights of working at Saint Mary’s was the work she did with sexual assault — and specifically, securing a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to open the Belle’s Against Violence Office in 2009.

“Working on all the Title IX and sexual violence things were really important for Saint Mary’s at the time that it happened and I felt really good about that,” Johnson said.

Another project Johnson said she is proud of is the completion of the Angela Athletic and Wellness Facility, which required large amounts of additional fundraising to come to completion.

“When we started out we talked about $14 million, and when we got it done it was $26 million,” Johnson said. “And you know, the College was able to raise the funds for that, but being able to put everything in there that we wanted to put in there.”

Johnson started the College parent Facebook pages during her tenure at Saint Mary’s, and has enjoyed the opportunity to be up-to-date on the concerns of parents and their daughters, she said.

“It really keeps me on top of what the parents are thinking about,” Johnson said. “I can be one step ahead of them, and they also tell me how their daughters are feeling and what’s going on.”

Although she has made a lot of improvements, Johnson said there have also been some challenges along the way, mental health being one of them.

“The mental health issues that we deal with on campus have become more of a challenge over the years as I’ve been working in this field,” Johnson said. “Students come to us with more issues, but they’re also more used to getting help, which is a good thing.”

President Jan Cervelli said in an email that Johnson has been an asset to the College community, and especially to students.

“Karen provided Saint Mary’s with exemplary service in her role as vice president for student affairs,” Cervelli said. “She continually improved processes and policies, helped to increase support for students and worked to develop a wide range of programs and activities to boost student well-being and overall satisfaction. Her contributions have made tremendous positive impact on Saint Mary’s students’ quality of life, and we owe her a debt of gratitude as well as congratulations on her successful tenure with the College.”

Johnson also spoke of the progression during her time at Saint Mary’s.

“We’re much more progressive in how we help young women prepare for the world beyond helping them prepare for the workplace. … We’re just a better college overall over the last 12 years,” Johnson said. “It’s been constant growth and development as opposed to just sitting still in one place.”

This “constant growth” is necessary to the College community as the world continues to change, Johnson said.

“We have to change,” Johnson said. “We have to keep moving forward and we have to keep evolving as time changes.”

“Given what’s happening in the world today and the climate about women today, we have to be in the forefront of saying what’s right for women and how we are helping women grow and develop,” Johnson said. “Because, you know, even today I listened to some things in Congress that were being said and I’m thinking, ‘No, it’s time for women to run the world. And if any women are going to run the world, it needs to be the women from Saint Mary’s.’”

After her retirement, Johnson said she plans to take time to explore different activities. She also plans to attend the class of 2019’s Commencement.

“I’ll be around for a while and I promised some seniors I’d come back to commencement, and I am just going to do some things that are fun that I want to do. …  I’m just going to take some time and see what happens,” Johnson said.

Johnson said she looks forward to seeing the impact Saint Mary’s women have on the world.

“I love the students at Saint Mary’s, and they’re great young women,” Johnson said. “I’m going to miss everybody here, especially the students. But I know they’ll be in good hands and be well taken care of. But, I expect big things from the women here. I want to read about [them] all.”

As for students, Johnson said she hopes the memory left behind is of her desire to help the community.

“I hope that people remember when I helped them, as opposed to maybe when they got in trouble or something,” Johnson said. “But I hope people know I’m here to help them, and that’s what I did.”

While Johnson said she did not initially plan to spend 12 years at Saint Mary’s, she thoroughly enjoyed her time here.

“When I look back now, I can’t imagine what else I would have done with my life,” Johnson said. “And, I have absolutely no regrets about being in student affairs and working with students every day. It’s been the best part of my life.”

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About Jordan Cockrum

Jordan Cockrum is a senior at Saint Mary's studying Communications and Humanistic Studies. She currently serves as Saint Mary's Editor.

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