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Focusing on students

Michelle Garfield Cook has been named UGA vice president for student affairs. (Photo by Development and Alumni Relations)

Michelle Cook chats about her new role as vice president for student affairs

Michelle Cook officially starts her tenure as vice president for student affairs on Oct. 1 after the retirement of Victor Wilson. Columns recently chatted with her about her vision for the division and the values she’ll bring to her new role.

Columns: What are you looking forward to most in your new position?

Michelle Cook: I’m looking forward to the opportunity to spend every day directly supporting our students, their engagement and their success. I’m also looking forward to the opportunity to work with the outstanding team of professionals in Student Affairs.

Columns: What are three goals you have for the Division of Student Affairs?

Cook: My goals are simple—to provide a world-class level of service and engagement for our students; to support the work, well-being and professional development of our amazing Student Affairs team; and to be the best Division of Student Affairs in the country, a model that others seek to emulate.

Columns: What challenge will you take on first?

Cook: The first set of challenges is to listen and learn. I’m excited to spend time with students in their spaces, getting to know them and learn how we can continue to better our services and our programs. In addition, there are 16 departments within the Division of Student Affairs, and each department employs a talented group of amazing individuals. I need to spend some time meeting these folks and learning more about what they do and how they contribute to the success of our work.

Columns: Student Affairs is such a large division—how will you work to ensure all of those departments are aligned?

Cook: I’ll rely heavily on established systems of communication within the division to share a vision of shared values and the interconnectedness of the work that we do. I want everyone, regardless of their function or level, to understand and appreciate the critical role that they play in the success of the division and most importantly in the success of our students. Everyone matters, and we would not be who we are, if they were not on the team.

Columns: How will you incorporate students into your decision-making process?

Cook: There are numerous formal and informal ways that I plan to engage students. For example, I’ll continue the advisory boards and formalized spaces that Student Affairs has used to connect with students. I’m particularly excited to work with SGA. The current administration is awesome. I have enjoyed getting to know them and I am sure that they will accomplish great things this year. I also plan to host informal opportunities to engage with students, particularly when there are decisions to be made that have a direct impact on them. Our students are amazing, and they are an incredible resource for the division in thinking about the work that we do. Our programs and processes must be relevant and relatable for our students, and they will be able to inform and advise us on initiatives.

Columns: How do you see your approach to leadership changing as you shift into this new role?

Cook: My leadership will not change as much as it will adapt. I value accessibility, accountability, authenticity and adaptability. In this new role, I’ll continue to lead with these values. I’m very aware that with the size of the departments and number of employees in the division, I’ll have to be conscious about how I model and communicate those values to everyone. This is a responsibility and an opportunity that I am truly looking forward to. I’m also cognizant that I need to lead with my values in my work with students. They are leaders in their own right, and it is really important that I am intentional in how I engage with them as co-leaders in student engagement and success.

Columns: What excites you about being vice president for student affairs?

Cook: This is a dream position for me. It includes all that I love about higher education. And the opportunity to serve in this role at a place that I love, is simply overwhelming. But to answer your question, I am excited about the students. #forthestudents represents a genuine focus for the division. Therefore, to spend my days thinking about how to better serve our students is a privilege. This is not a job—it is a vocation and an honor.

Columns: You’ve spent most of your time at UGA on North Campus—are you looking forward to a change of scenery on Central Campus?

Cook: Yes! I’ve worked on North Campus for my entire 25-year tenure. I have worked in New College, Old College, the Holmes-Hunter Academic Building and now the Administration Building. I’m sure that there will be days when muscle memory will send me to the North Deck, but I am excited to be in the heart of the campus, where students are. I’m looking forward to walking around, meeting students and connecting to the energy that our students bring to that area of campus.

Columns: Is there a Student Affairs event or tradition that you’re excited to be part of as vice president?

Cook: There are so many programs and events that I am excited about. Be Well Week was amazing, and I enjoyed connecting with students and student organizations. But I will say that Welcome Week is one that I am particularly excited about. The excitement and expectation that new students provide each year is invigorating. It’s also an annual reminder of the importance of our work. I’m looking forward to being on Dooley Field to make the “G” next fall!

Columns: What is one thing you’d like to accomplish in your first year?

Cook: I understand that the departure of leaders such as Vice President Wilson can be unsettling to the division and to our student body, and I hope to establish a sense of continuity and purpose by building on the incredible foundation he has laid. I’ll feel that I have been successful in this first year if I am able to truly connect with the students and if they realize that I am their biggest advocate, supporter and fan.

Columns: What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned from Vice President Wilson that you’ll carry forward during your tenure as vice president of student affairs?

Cook: Vice President Wilson is a true mentor and friend, and I have learned so much from him. There are many lessons that I plan to take into my role as vice president for student affairs, but perhaps the biggest lesson is to put the students first. He has been a model of leadership that is student centered and student focused. As a result of his leadership, the focus on students has been a defining characteristic of our institution. I hope to continue that legacy in my work.