Leading With Kindness

Leading With Kindness

Karen Donaghue

Karen Donoghue ’03 returned to Fairfield University in 2014 and was appointed vice president of Student Life in 2018.

Karen Donoghue ’03, was the first woman FUSA president. Now, as the first woman vice president of Student Life she is guiding students through Covid-19.

Having a woman in all conversations is a necessity, and having diverse people in all conversations is equally a necessity as we move forward. So my advice is to be proud of your voice, know your voice counts, and make sure you’re finding spaces to share that voice.

— Karen Donoghue ’03, Vice President of Student Life

In February 2002, Karen Donoghue ’03 had her first run-in with history when she was elected president of the Fairfield University Student Association (FUSA). Winning the title by a mere 11 votes, Donoghue became the first female president of the student governing body since Fairfield University started admitting women undergraduate students in 1970. The victory was so significant that The New York Times interviewed her for a story that ran in print the following month, giving her the moniker “B.W.O.C.,” which stands for “Big Woman on Campus.”

Donoghue is still a “B.W.O.C.” at the University, currently serving Fairfield as the vice president of Student Life. She earned yet another “first” in this role, becoming the first female to occupy the position. With every mile- stone achieved along the way – and in the midst of unprecedented stresses on student life due to Covid-19 – Donoghue forges forward with the values instilled in her as an undergraduate: the importance of building a strong community, and the significance of leading with kindness.

You won the 2002 FUSA Presidential Election by the small margin of 11 votes — did you think you could win?

I guess the answer is maybe? [laughs]. There were moments when I thought, ‘Yes, I think we can do this.’ And then there were moments of self-doubt since women had run in the past and never won. But, I had enough people support- ing me, and I had great friends and mentors encouraging me to really try this and do the best that I could. Janet Canepa ’82 (assistant vice president for Alumni Relations) was someone who whispered a bug in my ear pretty early on — she herself had run when she was a student, and she supported me from the beginning. Today, as colleagues, she’s still encouraging me to try new things, so I am very grateful to her. 

Did being the first female FUSA president give you an added sense of responsibility when assuming the role?

I think being the first put me in spaces that a female student leader had not been in before, having to connect with senior leadership and the Board of Trustees. Being the first female president was something that was mentioned every time I was in the room, because it was so monumental at the time. There was defi- nitely a tension placed on me to succeed in these spaces, which was a good thing. The institution was proud of me, and for that I was thankful, and with that came the pressure of wanting to be successful, not only on behalf of the students that elected me, but for the admin- istration at the time.

What was next for you after your 2003 graduation?

I went on to Rider University in New Jersey, for a master’s degree in education. I also had an internship working in student leadership and leadership development, which is an area I still focus on today. I had a lot of fun working with students while taking classes, and I was applying my work in my classes and vice versa. Once I graduated, I worked at Penn State University in their Office of Residence Life department. I was in a location that I never lived in before – I had to make new friends, I had to meet new colleagues, and I had to learn an entire big-campus system, and that put me into a nice space to learn again. Then, I was at a professional development conference and I bumped into Mark Reed ’96 — also a former FUSA president — who at the time was a vice president at Fairfield in the role that I now have. He encouraged me to apply for an open- ing in the Office of Residence Life; I did and it brought me back here. I then went from the director of Office of Residence Life at Fairfield to the position of dean of students, and am now vice president of Student Life. 

As the vice president of Student Life, what did you learn as an undergraduate FUSA president that still informs your role today? 

I like to look at my year as FUSA president as the ultimate internship for what I’m doing today. It gave me a taste in two spaces that I don’t necessarily have access to now; as the student government president, you definitely have a lens and a voice to and for the student body. It also gave me a taste of what working in higher education would be like, and I enjoyed it; I knew it was something that I potentially wanted to do for the rest of my life. So it gave me a foundation for my master’s and my future. But my goals then are still my goals now: you want students to have the ultimate experience at Fairfield, and that means an amazing aca- demic and cocurricular experience. Now, I am in charge of that cocurricular side. Now, I have to realize that students are constantly changing — students are not the same as when I was a student here, but listening to students is still the same. I have to have open ears and take their pulse to try to create that cocurricular experi- ence that complements their academics in a really transformational way. 

The video conferencing tool Zoom allowed for “face-to-face” connection while continuing courses remotely.

With Ellie O’Mara ‘24 (right) and Tushi Patel ’22 (left), Donoghue (center) says it’s important to “have open ears” in order to create the best Fairfield experience for all students.

What did your role as FUSA president teach you about leadership?

First, if you have a strong team committed to a shared goal or vision, you can succeed much more than individuals trying to achieve their own personal goals, and I think that’s some- thing that we try right now to do in Student Life. Another thing that I learned and still learn now is that effective communication is essential, whether it’s through emails and in- person meetings with my staff, the student body, or parents. Role modeling behavior is also very important, and I think we all try to be better every day. I think this is something very prevalent in Jesuit teaching — no one is perfect, but we give thanks for the graces we have each day, and when we do make a mistake, we have to acknowledge it, ask for forgiveness, and then try to be better the next day.

Now you have the added challenges of helping to lead through a public health crisis: Covid-19. Tell me about what this experience has been like.

Covid-19 is a huge disruption in higher edu- cation and at Fairfield University. We had to pivot, and we had to respond, and I had to acknowledge to the students that the Fairfield experience is not the same. And it can’t be the same when you’re in the middle of a global pandemic. The core of a Jesuit Catholic insti- tution is still here. But the Fairfield we all know and love cannot operate in the exact same space because it’s no longer safe to do so. So that’s where there has been a lot of listen- ing. We’ve created, to the best of our ability, an experience focused on putting protocols in place to keep the student body safe. And now we’re living it. And we have to be open and authentic, and acknowledge that maybe this isn’t ideal, or maybe we can look at this from another angle and try to adapt.

Using technology to reach students in a different way is something that I don’t think will ever go away, and I am so thankful for, because you can connect and communicate to a larger audience using technology such as Zoom or Google Hangout. That’s something I think we will take away as a positive, because the ability to have human interaction on a larger scale at a moment’s notice is pretty cool and so valuable.

What has leading through Covid-19 taught you?

I am a mother of two small children, and I think what this pandemic has showed me is that all mothers, including myself, are amaz- ing. Working mothers are amazing, and I would give a shout out to every working mother through this pandemic. That’s the first thing I learned — my own capacity to balance so many different things at the same time. I think other mothers, and any parent, probably has experienced the same thing.

Over your career, you have shown specific interests in Title IX and women’s advo- cacy — how did this come about?

When I was in my FUSA presidency, [Assistant Vice President] Jim Fitzpatrick ’70, handed me an article about Title IX and gender equity, and he said it was a big deal. Lo and behold, it was a big deal, and it’s still a big deal today. It was like he was foreshadowing the next 15 years of my life by handing me this one article. Later on, I had opportunities to serve on the town advisory board of the Center for Family Justice, to work very closely with Fairfield’s Title IX policy development, and to support our students who may have been victims of sexual assault. I’ve also become a trained self-defense teacher, in particular for women, through the R.A.D. (Rape Aggression Defense) programs.

In every role I’ve had a Fairfield, I know that I pay attention to any group of students that might be considered marginalized. I always encourage students, especially females and those of any underrepresented population, to run for high leadership positions. That includes our students of color and especially our women of color. I also try to encourage our women students to go into fields that are still predominantly male. Sometimes, it just takes someone saying, ‘Hey, have you thought about an accounting major?’ or ‘Have you ever thought about engineering?’ People put ideas in my head as a student, and that’s a role I now like to serve.

What would be your best piece of advice for women students at Fairfield who aspire to leadership roles?

Having a woman in all conversations is a necessity, and having diverse people in all con- versations is equally a necessity as we move forward. So my advice is to be proud of your voice, know your voice counts, and make sure you’re finding spaces to share that voice.

From your undergraduate years through the present, how would you sum up your entire Fairfield experience?

With one word: blessed. I am extremely for- tunate to have been given these opportunities from my first year at Fairfield all the way to now. I am beyond blessed to have colleagues who are friends, and who are with me on a daily basis, supporting my development and growth, and helping me when I fall. I truly believe this is a community, and I am so thankful that I am part of it.

Other Articles in the Winter 2020 Issue

50 Years of Firsts

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Alumni Profile: Joe Sauvageau ’79

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Alumni Profile: Colleen Gibson '09

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First To The Big Dance

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The Age of Personalization

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They Got Game

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Letter From The President

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