Retiring Executive Director of NASPA Helps Students ‘Be All They Can Be’

For years, Gwen Dungy’s mission has been to help universities maintain the best possible environment for all students to learn and grow.

But she’s especially passionate about helping one group — service members — be all they can be.

Dungy retired last month after 16 years as executive director of the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, or NASPA. Before that, she spent decades in student affairs and on the academic side of higher education.

Even with retirement looming, she’s still thinking about what people in the profession should be paying attention to.

Service members need the right kind of help, she says. “If a student comes back [from serving in the military], they may be 20 or in their 20s — but they must be treated as adults,” says Dungy, who has spoken to troops here and abroad.

They may have had different experiences from the average student, says Dungy. And they want an education that is “as quick and meaningful as is possible.”

Student affairs can play a vital role in such cases, Dungy says. She stresses that people in her field — who, depending upon the institution, focus on career services, financial aid, student government, alumni, veterans, study abroad and other areas — should be seen as educators. They are partners with academia, she says.

At NASPA, Dungy has striven to raise their game. She has worked on issues including promoting ethnic diversity at universities, preventing campus violence and coping with budgetary constraints. She has pushed NASPA’s role in student learning and assessment, professional development, public policy and research.

She wants more minorities to go into student affairs and for people to want to go into it for the right reasons. “I’ve always heard people say, ‘I just sort of fell into it,’ or ‘I just stumbled into it,’” she says. There are now mentoring programs for undergraduates eyeing it as a career.

Dungy has brought to her job a persistent curiosity about the world, a head for strategy, strong organizational skills and genuine warmth toward people that’s reciprocated, according to those who have worked with her.

“She has an amazing capacity to listen well to people she’s around and translate big ideas into practical steps,” says Caryn McTighe Musil, senior vice president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, or AACU.

Dungy’s parents didn’t go to college. They knew education was a way to get ahead, but there was no money for it. After attending high school in Chicago, Dungy enrolled at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston on a teaching scholarship. She worked as a switchboard operator, tutor, and in the dean of women’s office to make ends meet. Unable to afford a dorm room, she lived in a boarding house with other Black students. The university was virtually all White. Being there was a “bittersweet” experience, recalls Dungy, who was named “Distinguished Alumnus of the Year” in 1995.

After graduating, she taught English in high school, then taught and worked in student development at St. Louis Community College at Meramec in Kirkwood, Mo., for nearly 10 years. She later held various positions for 13 years including director of counseling at Catonsville Community College in Maryland, instructional dean and dean of student development at Montgomery College in Rockville, Md., and dean of humanities and arts at County College of Morris in Randolph, N.J.

Changing gears, Dungy joined the AACU in Washington, D.C., creating plans and programs in diversity and curriculum and faculty development, before becoming executive director of NASPA.

Dungy holds master’s degrees in counseling and guidance and in English literature, and a doctorate in educational policy making and administration. She is a nationally certified counselor and career counselor.

She says a highlight was spending time with troops in Germany, Bosnia, Azerbaijan and Spain while on a Department of Defense tour in 2004. Her take on veterans is they might want their own center on campuses and may need help managing finances and other practical matters. Women’s needs may differ from the men’s. And having veterans help veterans would be a good thing.

Also, they “don’t all come out with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder),” she says.

Dungy is retiring after a stressful time in which NASPA and the American College Personnel Association considered merging. A proposal to do so, voted on by the groups’ members, didn’t pass.

“She handled it [the situation] masterfully, but felt the timing would be right to leave — she felt she would leave regardless of the vote,” said Mike Segawa, vice president of student affairs and dean of students at the University of Puget Sound.

Dungy, 67, hopes to spend more time with her grandson. And write about her life. In light of where she came from, Dungy says, “There’s no way I should have achieved what I have achieved.”