3 questions for Sue Lorenson, Associate Dean of Undergraduate Education at Georgetown

dr Sue Lorenson, Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education at Georgetown College of Arts & Sciences, is a close colleague and good friend of Eddie’s. The three of us talked about where our professional worlds cross, a conversation we thought we’d bring to this space. Sue graciously agreed to answer our questions.

Q1: What keeps you and your colleagues at other institutions up at night?

We are all in the business of advancing academic and personal education, but we are also navigating the tensions that higher education currently faces. Our jobs inevitably require that we triangulate between students, professors, and others (parents, support offices, healthcare providers, etc.) when advising on:

I purposely use “and” instead of “versus” here because I firmly believe that institutions with thoughtful curriculum/pedagogic/policy/strategy/support planning can and will find a way to balance these tensions. Flexibility and rigor are not diametrically opposed. A liberal arts education is the ultimate pre-professional education; it can prepare you for any career. Stress is, within certain limits, a natural and productive physiological response. Etc…

The other thing that keeps me up at night is this recurring dream where I have to do the finale for a history class I didn’t know I was enrolled in. I guess that’s what happens when you never leave college.

Q2: Your Ph.D. is in linguistics. How was your career path to your current position and what advice do you have for others who might want to pursue a similar career path?

I was alt-ac before it was a thing! As I finished my thesis and (should) write my dissertation, several things became clear to me: (1) that I was not constitutionally attuned to the hyper-focused, isolated work that a successful theoretical phonologist requires, (2) that I did the interactive work of teaching and mentoring more than research, and (3) that I wanted to live in the same town as my future husband (my college sweetheart; we were distance learning students in grad school). For all these reasons, I have never sought a permanent position in linguistics. Instead, I moved to DC with no job and no plan. I applied to non-permanent teaching positions, linguistics-related organizations, and a variety of university administrative positions. It took me a year to find a suitable position, but when I saw an ad for a position as an academic advisor for language and linguistics majors in Georgetown, I knew immediately I would get the job. Twenty-five years later, I’m still in Georgetown, in a very different position, but still working to support the academic life of the students.

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At some point along the way I realized this might have been written in the stars for me (20/20 in hindsight and so on). At the very small liberal arts college [Swarthmore College] I attended, I unknowingly completed a four-year internship in academic administration. Of course, I didn’t realize that at the time, but I was always looking for work, and college was the only show in town. I’ve done every job that came my way. I led tours for admissions. I took care of the dean of studies. I was an RA. I registered with folx for the alumni weekend. I cleaned the house of the assistant dean of academic affairs. I gave hors d’oeuvres to development parties. I learned a lot about how universities work and how all the pieces of the puzzle fit together.

Q3: In addition to being vice dean of undergraduate programs, you are also a parent of children going to college. How does your work influence your upbringing at this stage? What advice can you give to other parents of current or future students?

Ha! I think maybe a better question is how my children have influenced my work.

My older son graduated from Covid College; his last three semesters were online. Hearing his views on what his school did well (or not) and how its professors adapted (or not) influenced my thinking, although I didn’t always agree with his criticism, which generally knew no bounds. It is not for nothing that the pandemic has drawn us closer. There were days when we sat side by side on the porch and worked side by side for hours. His frustration was palpable; this was a kid who went to a small school because all he wanted was to sit in a seminar and throw great ideas around, but he was freaking out and floundering. I got a front row seat to the student retreat. And yet, at the end of the day, 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 understand (and respect) the complexity of my work. I will be eternally grateful for those days.

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My younger son is studying engineering at a large public university; I’m the Dean of Humanities at a medium-sized private university. His experiences and those of his friends remind me of the blessings and limitations of private elite education. He sometimes doesn’t get the tuition he needs to stay on course and reports that his academic guidance has been patchy. At the same time, he’s living off-campus as a sophomore, planning Costco runs, commuting to campus, budgeting household expenses, figuring out what he needs to do to graduate on time, and generally growing up in a way like me didn’t do it until high school; I am impressed by him every day.

As advice to parents, well, my best advice is a riff on the serenity prayer: Accept the things you cannot change about your children, influence them where you can, and be wise enough to accept the difference between the two. You cannot make a chemist out of an artist, or a musician out of an economist. You can’t turn a lateral thinker into a box checker. But you can encourage your child, no matter who it is or what they enjoy doing, to show up, work hard, ask tough questions, work toward solutions, take care of themselves, and take care of others. Easy right? (smile emoji)