Category: Staff Profiles

Building Brilliance With … Monita Mohammadian Gray: An academic assist

Monita Mohammadian Gray ’92 is dean of academic success at Lawrence University. (Photo by Danny Damiani)

About this series: Building Brilliance With … is a periodic Q&A in which we shine a light on a Lawrence University staff member whose work helps support Lawrence’s students and the university’s mission. 

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

Monita Mohammadian Gray ’92 returned to Lawrence in 2016 as the school’s first dean of academic success.

Her position was created as Lawrence launched the Center for Academic Success, an initiative aimed at increasing support for students at every step of their academic journey. She has overseen the substantial growth of the program over the past five years, including its recent move to the second floor of the Seeley G. Mudd Library, renovated via a $1.5 million investment that was part of the Be the Light! Campaign.

In addition to more cohesive office space for the center’s staff, students can now find a modern classroom, a testing room, a conference room, a general tutoring area, a remodeled Help Desk, and a computer lab, all easily accessible and smartly connected to other available services in the library.

Find other staff profiles here.

We caught up with Gray to talk about the excitement surrounding the Center for Academic Success as her staff looks forward to again working in-person with Lawrence students.

What excites you most about the work you do with students?

Honestly, the best part of my work is to watch students we support transform into more confident individuals while they find their best academic selves.

How has the renovation and relocation of the Center for Academic Success changed the way it can and will be utilized by students?

The renovation and relocation of the Center for Academic Success took place at a time when all of our services were virtual. We have not had the opportunity to showcase the new space yet, but have plans to highlight our services for fall term. In our new space on the second floor of the Seeley G. Mudd Library, students have ample study and tutoring space, a centralized space for meetings with staff, a semi- private waiting area, an active learning classroom, and more reduced-distraction and isolated testing spaces for students with accommodations.

The decision to move our space into the library allows students to take care of more academic needs in one space. They can find resources, talk to a reference librarian, address technology questions with IT, use the MakerSpace, and stop in to our office to ask questions or find out how we can help them with any academic challenge.

Did the pandemic change the demands on you and your staff? And were there lessons learned that will be beneficial going forward?

Most students struggled with the shift to online learning, which led to greater demands on our staff to offer more support to students. Sometimes that work came at atypical work hours to help our students in time zones across the world. I am grateful for our staff’s commitment to our students’ success. Many students struggled with their own health, the health of their loved ones and friends, or other family obligations on top of their academic work. This combination creates a tricky balance to find academic success.

We are rewriting our policies, procedures, and website to be clearer and more transparent in their explanation of who we are, what we do, and how we can help students. We want there to be clarity about what resources are available to students, or what academic choices or options they may have.

As we prepare for our return to a fully in-person fall term, we have begun to evaluate how we deliver our services. We do our best to meet students where they are. We may be able to offer students virtual meeting options to suit an immediate need. 

What work or life experiences led you to this role at Lawrence?

I am a Lawrentian, through and through. I spent my undergraduate years studying psychology and served in various leadership roles on the tennis team and in my sorority. I served as an RLA (now community advisor or CA) my senior year and studied at the London Centre. I learned how to navigate different peoples’ expectations and find solutions to challenging problems.

Several years after I graduated, I returned to Lawrence, where I worked in the admissions office for over eight years. From the beginning of my career in higher education I believed it was important to consider student success in admission decisions. At another small, private institution, I worked in career development, orientation, transfer student services, retention and student success, and the Dean of Students office. I earned a Master’s degree in Educational Policy and Administration and a Ph.D. in Organizational Leadership and Policy Development from the University of Minnesota.

My commitment to Lawrence remained strong in the years I worked away from Appleton. I served as a board member of the Lawrence University Alumni Association for five years, served as chair and as a committee member for multiple reunion planning teams, and have kept up with Lawrentians from my era and those I have met through my friends and work over the years. It is wonderful to connect with other Lawrence graduates, to hear stories about their time here, or welcome friends back when their children are looking at Lawrence. Most importantly, it is truly wonderful to have the opportunity to support our students’ success as Lawrentians every day.

What is one thing you do away from campus that helps you recharge your batteries or otherwise brings you joy?

Exercise and movement. I love riding my indoor cycle to a virtual workout. I tend to exercise in the morning when my excuse game is not as strong, and enjoy starting my day with an intense workout. After that, I feel like I can handle whatever comes my way. Alternatively, I love taking long walks while listening to a favorite podcast or new audiobook; it grounds me by giving me peace of mind. Fresh air paired with a soul-filling book—nothing compares for me.

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: ed.c.berthiaume@lawrence.edu

Building Brilliance With … Mike O’Connor: A new era of career planning at Lawrence

Mike O’Connor has driven the refresh of the Career Center in the two years since he arrived at Lawrence. Staying active outdoors keeps him at the top of his game, he said. (Photo by Danny Damiani)

About this series: Building Brilliance With … is a periodic Q&A in which we shine a light on a Lawrence University staff member whose work helps support Lawrence’s students and the university’s mission. 

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications 

Mike O’Connor arrived at Lawrence University two years ago with a mission to reimagine how the school guides students in planning for the life that awaits after graduation. 

He wasted no time after settling in as Lawrence’s first Riaz Waraich Dean for the Career Center & Center for Community Engagement and Social Change. He and his staff have accelerated career conversations for all Lawrence students, beginning with first-year students arriving for Welcome Week. They’ve launched the Viking Connect online platform to facilitate interactions between alumni with experience in a particular field and students exploring related opportunities, and they kick-started Career Communities to better organize and deliver information and resources for students. 

The Life After Lawrence initiative, supported by a $2.5 million gift from J. Thomas Hurvis ’60, was a key component of the recently concluded Be the Light!  Campaign

Have you met Lezlie Weber, director of off-campus programs? We featured her in a Building Brilliance With … profile last month.

O’Connor, director of the Career Discovery Program at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, before coming to Lawrence, said the explosion of activity surrounding career planning, mentoring, and access to experiential learning opportunities has been amazing to watch. We caught up with him to talk about all that and more.  

What excites you about the work you do? 

Two things come immediately to mind. First, working with our incredible students and alums—Lawrentians are brilliant yet deeply humble people who want to make the world a better place.  

Second, our team. Every team member has leaned in to support one another and the broader institutional goals. We’ve grown and leaned on each other so much since COVID hit, and everyone has stepped up, pivoted, and flexed in so many ways. We care deeply about making opportunities more equitable and accessible, and we push one another to make that a reality. Working with them raises my bar and makes me strive to be better.  

How have the changes and new initiatives in the Career Center impacted the life after Lawrence conversation for our students? 

Great question, and there are so many directions I could go here. But I’d say we’ve made a few changes that have, broadly speaking, made for a better student experience. 

First, it’s the focus on early engagement. Last year, we managed to work with 93% of first-year students—not bad, considering they’re not required to work with us. Generally speaking, earlier engagement leads to more focused outcomes, so I’m particularly proud of our efforts there. 

I’d also point to Viking Connect. We’ve actualized a group of 900-plus alumni volunteers to act as mentors and connectors to students in career fields of interest. To date, over 3,000 messages have been sent on the platform; a number we hope to increase substantially in the years to come. 

Then there’s the funded internships. Thanks to the incredible work of our colleagues in Development/Advancement—most notably Cassie Curry—we’ve been able to fund more student internships than ever before. Our funding sources are quite varied and broad and allow students to access different levels and types of funding to support their living expenses and needs.  

And, finally, the Career Communities have changed the conversation. Each of our advisors manages two Career Communities and acts as the advisor/specialist/connector to opportunities within said fields. Students who sign up for a Career Community get a bi-weekly newsletter of internship, service, programmatic, and funding opportunities connected to their fields of interest, along with specialized content, potential alumni advisors, and more. The focus on Career Communities has helped us specialize more deeply, and offer more targeted advice, opportunities, and support. 

What work or life experiences led you to this role at Lawrence? 

Quite honestly, I never pictured myself living in the Midwest. In fact, I hadn’t stepped foot in Wisconsin prior to my Interview. But, as small worlds go, the recruiter for the Riaz Waraich dean role and I had some mutual friends—so I took his call to learn a bit more about Lawrence. At the time, my wife and I were both happily employed at great schools and expecting our second daughter, and the thought of moving halfway across the country wasn’t on our radar. But when I saw the work Mark Burstein, who I’d heard great things about, the trustees, and the working groups were doing with the Life After Lawrence initiative, I became intrigued. After talking with the search committee, I got really excited. 

I tell people all the time, you never know when life-changing opportunities will present themselves, and you have to be ready to respond.      

What is one thing you do away from campus that helps you recharge your batteries or otherwise brings you joy? 

I’m a big believer in the healing power of nature. Being outdoors and exercise are incredible outlets, and I try to experience both every day.  

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: ed.c.berthiaume@lawrence.edu 

Building Brilliance With … Lezlie Weber: Putting a focus on global experiences

Lezlie Weber (Photo by Danny Damiani)

About this series: Building Brilliance With … is a periodic Q&A in which we shine a light on a Lawrence University staff member whose work helps support Lawrence’s students and the university’s mission.

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

Lezlie Weber joined Lawrence University as its director of Off-Campus Programs not long before the coronavirus upheavals began.

As COVID-19 was headed toward global pandemic status and study abroad programs began shutting down in early 2020, Weber and her team were working to bring Lawrence students home quickly and safely. It was a wild way to begin a new job. Weber was commuting at times from her home in Waukesha while preparing to move to the Fox Valley.

“I remember sitting at my dining room table at about 9 p.m. on a Friday night and seeing alerts going out about the conditions in Italy and about how program providers were starting to evacuate students,” she said. “I had dealt with emergencies in the past but nothing quite like this. For the next several weeks, our office was working on evacuating students around the clock. I remember responding to urgent emails at rest stops on the way to work early in the morning. Hundreds of emails, phone calls to students, parents, and leadership. There were Lawrence students in many parts of the world and some with trickier evacuations than others.”

That led into a Spring Term in which most international and non-essential travel had ceased and very few study-abroad programs were in-person. A number of Lawrence students signed up for virtual programs, including via the London Centre, but for most, study abroad was on pause.

Some of that has since returned, including 10 students at London Centre during the current Spring Term, with pandemic protocols in place. Weber is looking with optimism toward the coming Fall Term, when more of the off-campus programs are expected to return, both internationally and in the United States.

“We know students are ready to explore and have transformational experiences again,” Weber said. “Students are starting to dream about future travel, and we are excited about what’s to come.”

Study abroad at Lawrence. See details here.

Weber arrived at Lawrence with a deep love of travel and an unwavering belief in global and cross-cultural study. She came to LU from Carroll University, where she served for four years as assistant director of cross-cultural experiences.

As an undergraduate at State University of New York at Buffalo, she studied studio art in Australia through an exchange program. She earned a master’s degree in international education from SIT Graduate Institute, and later lived and worked in Lima, Peru. 

We talked with Weber about her work in Off-Campus Programs.

What excites you about the work you do?

Working closely with staff in our office in Appleton, the London Centre, faculty, and other departments on campus, as well as partners from all over the world, I get to help students define their personal goals and find, apply, and engage in meaningful experiences off campus. That can mean helping them travel to our own London Centre, participate in a research-based science program on the East Coast, or go overseas to learn at a university in another country. We do everything from advising on which program to choose to re-entry back into the U.S post program. A day in the Off-Campus Programs office is never the same. It’s what keeps it interesting and fun.

What’s the current status of the programs, including London Centre?

We currently have 13 students abroad on off-campus programs and one student taking a virtual domestic program. Students who are attending the London Centre had to quarantine for 10 days upon arrival, start their classes online and continue that for another few weeks until they could take some classes in-person. A lot of the time is spent in small groups outside, using London as a classroom. There are 10 students and Jeff Stannard (associate dean of the Conservatory and professor of music) at the London Centre right now.

How do you approach your job to best serve students?

First, I like to learn what the students’ goals are for both their off-campus program and plans after graduation. They don’t always have the life-after-Lawrence piece figured out, and that is completely fine. In fact, it’s a good reason to go off campus—to explore existing and new passions and interests. I try to support students through problem-solving and helping them break down the logistics of international and domestic programs, which sometimes seem overwhelming—knowing that being supportive and encouraging means different things to different students.

What work or life experiences led you to this role at Lawrence?

During my sophomore year of college, I studied abroad as an undergraduate student and have since worked in educational travel in many different capacities, including a position in Lima, Peru. My favorite part is watching students grow and learn through new experiences and develop their intercultural skills. I have worked in international education for the last eight years and was so excited to join Lawrence. I am a strong believer in the liberal arts, and I love how creative the Lawrence community is.

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: ed.c.berthiaume@lawrence.edu.