3 Questions for Sue Lorenson, Vice Dean for Undergraduate Education at Georgetown
Sue Lorenson, vice dean for undergraduate education at Georgetown’s College of Arts and Sciences, is a close colleague and good friend of Eddie’s. The three of us have been talking about where our professional worlds intersect, a conversation we thought we’d bring to this space. Sue graciously agreed to answer our questions.
Q: What is keeping you and your peers at other institutions up at night?
A: We’re all in the business of encouraging academic and personal formation, but we’re also navigating the tensions facing higher ed right now. Our jobs necessarily demand that we’re triangulating between students, professors and others (parents, support offices, health providers, etc.) as we advise on:
- Flexibility and rigor
- Liberal and preprofessional education
- Agency and advocacy
- Anxiety and adrenaline
- Academic freedom and inclusive learning environments
- High-touch and high-tech
I intentionally use “and” here instead of “versus” because I truly believe that with thoughtful planning in the curricular/pedagogical/policy/strategy/support space, institutions can and will find a way to balance these tensions. Flexibility and rigor aren’t diametrically opposed. A liberal arts education is the ultimate preprofessional education; it can prepare you for any career. Stress, within limits, is a natural and productive physiological response. And so on …
The other thing that keeps me up at night is that recurring dream where I need to take the final for a history class I didn’t realize I was registered for. This is what happens, I suppose, when you never leave college.
Q: Your Ph.D. is in linguistics. What was your professional path to your current role, and what advice might you have for others who might want to explore a similar professional trajectory?
A: I was alt-ac before it was a thing! When I finished my grad coursework and was (supposed to be) writing my dissertation, a few things become clear to me: (1) that I was not constitutionally disposed to the hyperfocused, isolated work required to be a successful theoretical phonologist, (2) that I enjoyed the interactive work of teaching and advising more than research, and (3) that I wanted to live in the same city as my future husband (my college sweetheart; we were long distance in grad school). For all of these reasons, I never pursued a tenure-line job in linguistics. Instead, I moved to D.C. with no job and no plan. I applied to non-tenure-line teaching positions, linguistics-adjacent orgs and a bunch of university admin jobs. It took a year for me to make a match, but when I saw an ad for a job as an academic adviser to language and linguistics majors at Georgetown, I immediately knew that I was going to get the job. Twenty-five years later, I’m still at Georgetown, in a much different position, but still working to support student academic life.
Somewhere along the way, I realized that this may have been written in the stars for me (hindsight being 20/20, and all that). At the very small liberal arts college [Swarthmore College] I attended, I unwittingly pursued a four-year internship in academic administration. Of course, I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was always looking for work, and the college was the only show in town. I did whatever jobs came my way. I led tours for Admissions. I babysat for the dean of students. I was an RA. I registered folx for Alumni Weekend. I cleaned the house of the associate dean for academic affairs. I passed hors d’oeuvres at development parties. Along the way, I learned a lot about how colleges work and how all the puzzle pieces fit together.
Q: You are not only a vice dean for undergraduate education, you are also a parent of college-going children. How does your job influence how you parent at this stage? What advice might you have for other parents of current or soon-to-be college students?
A: Ha! I think the better question might be how my kids have influenced how I work.
My elder son graduated from COVID College; his last three semesters were online. Hearing his perspectives on what his school did well (or not) and how his professors adapted (or not) informed my thinking, even if I didn’t always agree with his criticisms, which generally knew no bounds. Not for nothing, the pandemic drew us closer. There were days when we sat next to each other on the porch, working side by side for hours. His frustration was palpable; this was a kid who went to a small school because he wanted nothing more than to be sitting in a seminar kicking around great ideas, but he was Zooming and floundering. I got a front-row seat to student disengagement. And yet, at the end of one of those days, Jack said, “It seems to me that the people you work with rely on you a lot.” That stuck with him; for the first time, he seemed to have an understanding of (and respect for) the complexity of my work. I’ll be forever grateful for those days.
My younger son studies engineering at a large public university; I’m a dean for liberal arts education at a midsize private university. His experiences, and those of his friends, remind me of the blessings and limitations of elite private education. He sometimes doesn’t get the classes he needs to stay on track and reports that his academic advising has been spotty. At the same time, as a sophomore, he is living off campus, planning Costco runs, commuting to campus, budgeting for household expenses, figuring out what he needs to do to graduate on time and generally adulting in ways I didn’t until grad school; I’m impressed by him every day.
As to advice for parents, well, my best advice is a riff on the serenity prayer: accept the things you can’t change about your kids, influence them where you can and be wise enough to accept the difference between the two. You can’t make a chemist out of an artist or a musician out of an economist. You can’t make a box-checker out of an outside-the-box thinker. But you can encourage your kid, no matter who they are or what they love doing, to show up, work hard, ask hard questions, work toward solutions, take care of themselves and look out for others. Simple, right? (smile emoji)