Q+A: On 43 Years at Georgetown

On the occasion of her retirement, Anne Sullivan sat down with Georgetown College to reflect on her time at the university. The above video was shared with a group of colleagues, friends, and family at a dinner hosted by the College on April 22, 2015.

April 28, 2015—Senior Associate Dean Anne Sullivan will retire this summer after 43 years in the Georgetown College Office of the Dean. Prior to joining Georgetown, she earned an A.B. degree from Radcliffe College and an M.A.T. degree from Harvard University and worked as a high school English teacher in Washington, DC. Throughout her tenure at Georgetown, Sullivan has worked with four College deans, advised countless students, and watched the university evolve. On April 22, the College held a reception and dinner to formally recognize Sullivan for her service. We sat down with her just before the event to hear more about her time at Georgetown as well as her plans for the future.

Georgetown College: What lead you to pursue academic advising?
Anne Sullivan: I wanted to be a sainted inner city high school teacher—I lasted three months. I could not command discipline in the adolescent classroom. I ended up at Georgetown in the lowest rung of academic administration in the College Dean's Office as a recorder. I certified that each senior had earned his or her degree against the catalogue requirements, pouring over the transcript. A Dickens clerk. I have stayed at the university ever since, earning promotions up to a title of senior associate dean, but the work has been very much the same—advising students, clearing their degrees (now entirely computer-driven by a system I and others maintain), running the commencement ceremony each year. Along the way, I have worked with a program of academic support for first generation to college students admitted from over-stressed public schools (inner city, small town), introducing these students to the "life of the mind" and the writing standards for college prose. My professional life has been deeply rewarding—the insight I first had that it would be "thrilling" to be involved in educating students has held true for me. It turned out I wasn't a teacher, but rather a counselor and administrator. A shift, but not a fundamental one.

GC: What do you think is important about university positions like yours?
AS: I have worked for 43 years in the College doing academic counseling with students while also carrying out administrative duties behind the scenes. I am one of many peers in middle management who are smart, can laugh, and work very hard. Collectively, we work in service so that our faculty and students can be about the business of teaching and learning. J. Alfred Prufrock was afraid that he had “measured out my life with coffee spoons.” A life so steeped in minutiae that it was without shape or meaning. There are days when I sometimes think that I am measuring out my life in mouse clicks, waiting for the system, the screen, to blink and allow me to proceed to the next mouse click. But I steadfastly assert that the reality of our work here is so much richer and more fun than these dark computer screen moments. We care about this place—our students, our faculty, the enterprise of learning. We don’t want any mistakes to go uncorrected and if we can get problems solved before things break loose, we are happy indeed.

GC: What have you most appreciated about your career?
AS: The most rewarding work I do each day is direct contact with our students. Young people are remarkably kind. I work in a profession where students write to thank you over time. There are deep emotional rewards that come with this work.

In the last decade, however, this “contact” is increasingly an e-mail correspondence and I must say this is less satisfactory than face time. When a student is in my office, we can let the conversation wander and take a few side paths—it doesn’t all stay transactional the way e-mail tends to be fact-driven and dry. Our students are full of lively quirks and edges—I regularly ask about the senior thesis if a senior is writing one and am amazed by the range of their interests and even more about the “why” of the topic chosen. 

GC: Where do you hope to see Georgetown in the future?
AS: The university is working to invent a future that is nimble and flexible and adaptive to technological and other challenges. I think it behooves our faculty, deans, and administrators to keep a keen eye and a tenacious hold on what is deeply valuable in our residential model for undergraduate education. We are excited to see the new changes that are being adopted. At the same time, we must keep within these new formats what we would assert are timeless values that our best faculty have provided our students through many years. How do we keep at the forefront the influential role that our faculty play in the value formation of our students, the very shaping of their (becoming adult) selves, the learning that will feed their souls, their private lives, as well as their professional competencies?

GC: How do you plan to celebrate your retirement?
AS: In anticipation of plans to go to Italy for three months this fall with my husband, I have been limping through Italian lessons. I offer a line from a composition I wrote in which I had to use the future tense: 

Io e mio marito si sederemo in piazza. Noi discuteremo dove mangeremo pranzo. Questo sarà il grande decisione del giorno.

Roughly translated:

I and my husband will sit in the piazza. We will argue about where to eat pranzo. This will be the big decision of the day.

—Melissa Nyman