“Designing Women” by Gail A. Cole-Avent

What term would you use to describe the individual, outside of a family member, who has had the most significant influence on your professional life? Some may use the terms role model, coach, advisor, or mentor. My word choice is architect – “a person who designs and guides a plan or undertaking” (Merriam-Webster). I want to share my experience with the individual who served as the architect of the first phase of my professional life. 

 Dean Joan Nelson was an extraordinary woman who mentored countless individuals. She was admired by many, and loved by more. She was the Associate Dean of Students at the University of California, Los Angeles. As a prospective graduate student, I had an opportunity to interview with her for an assistantship position. I was instantly drawn to her energy, passion, and honesty.  I remember going home and praying that I would be matched with her.  Thankfully, my prayer was fulfilled and I began working with her in 1999. At the time, I thought that I would learn a lot from her, but I had no idea how influential she would be in my professional and personal life. 

 Why did I choose the word architect instead of the other terms? All of my professional roads lead back to my time with Joan. She had a vision of what I could achieve. She designed my initial steps and was always present in the planning of each move afterwards. I always joked that my path would have been different if she didn’t tell me “no.” My first professional offer was in residence life. I remember sitting in her office and telling her about the interview. I was apprehensive because I was used to the big city and this was a small town hours away from a major city. I was 80% certain about taking the job. She told me “no!” She believed that I was too young and too single to be isolated. Where did I need to be? She envisioned a position located in a vibrant city, where I had the chance to travel, and enjoy being a young adult. In other words, she envisioned Atlanta working as a traveling director for an honor society. Often an architect has to change the design or draw a different line. That initial “no” really was the beginning of my career. Since then, each professional decision has been a result of that first move.     

 She believed in my potential and she genuinely cared. For the last decade, every time I traveled home, we would spend time together. We’d meet on campus, in the city for lunch or dinner, or she’d come to my family Christmas party. I can only count a couple of trips where we did not see each other. We shared a love of travel, a friendly sorority rivalry always pointing out who made the “wrong” decision (the eternal Delta/AKA debate), and we talked about life. She always said, “Are you ready to come back to California? I’m waiting to retire so that you can have my position.”

 Exactly a year ago, I received the news that Joan had passed away after enduring cancer.

 It has been quite a year. As I’ve looked to the future, it’s been challenging not being able to call her or sit down face-to-face. I miss her dearly; but, for eleven years, I was blessed with this most amazing and caring individual in my life. Similar to my mother (they became friends when my mother pursued her doctorate at UCLA), Joan understood and always knew how to inspire me.

 My gratitude and love for her will never be fully expressed.  When I work with graduate students and new professionals, I always try to approach those interactions similarly to how Joan worked with me. I want to share the architectural lessons that I learned from her.

 When working with others, consider:

1.      Sharing your professional passion with others. What’s more inspiring or encouraging than witnessing someone’s passion for a profession? It makes you believe!

 2.      Sharing your network. Take the time to introduce your colleagues to a mentee and vice versa. I attended my first NASPA conference with Joan. She took me everywhere. By the end of the conference, I had a larger network of individuals that I may not have met on my own.

 3.      Staying in Touch. Communication is important. Face-to-face is key (lunch, at conferences, on skype). We always remained connected even though we were 3000 miles apart.

 4.      Being encouraging and celebrating milestones. She would always send flowers for big occasions including new jobs and when I defended my dissertation.

 5.      Being engaged in the continuous improvement of another professional. It doesn’t help to sugarcoat your observations. The way individuals learn and grow is to provide honest feedback. 

 6.      Promoting personal and professional balance. We know that student affairs can be demanding and often a seven day a week responsibility. How did Joan determine if I was balanced? She would always ask me how I was doing on the boyfriend front 🙂

 Whether you are a mentor, advisor, or architect, a great relationship takes time to develop and it takes a commitment. The end product can be magnificent.  

 Thank you for allowing me to use this forum to share this special relationship. Joan truly helped me plan my professional future and served as a wonderful architectural guide.  I’ll end by sharing my dissertation acknowledgement. “It was at the University of California, Los Angeles that I was exposed to the academic and practical components of student affairs. Although my time there was short, I gained the richest experience from the relationship that I established with Dean Joan Nelson. At that time, she served in the role as my supervisor; now, I am truly blessed to call her my mentor. She was my first professional student affairs role model and continues to be the one that I try to emulate. She taught me how to harness my professional excitement and turn it into administrative productivity. Go Bruins!” 



Joan and Gail




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8 responses to ““Designing Women” by Gail A. Cole-Avent

  1. Great advice Gail & a powerful tribute to a true shero! Thank you for sharing the power of “no”. T

  2. Great read, Gail. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Oh and I love the Architect metaphor. You carried it off like an expert writer. Considering a career change?

  4. Karsten Cash

    This is incredible Gail. Thank you for sharing. This reminds me of one of greatest ‘architects’ I’ve known, Bro. Dr. Julius Thompson. He too told me what I needed to know and always celebrated milestones with me. Let’s celebrate our architects by continuing to spread the good word they way they did for us. Peace and Blessings. Karsten…

  5. Powerful and beautiful, Gail!

  6. Danielle Howard

    This is amazing and could not have been written any better or more heartfelt. Loved it! So happy to be working with you 🙂

  7. Jemilia

    What a meaningful piece for so many reasons. As the author’s “self-declared mentee”, I have benefited greatly from having someone like her to guide me along the right path. We spend a lot of time investing in our students and sometimes we forget to look into the office beside us and invest in our co-workers and the future of our career. We shouldn’t be exempt from getting the plus one reasoning from someone farther along the journey than we are because we are being that person for others. My perspective has truly been impacted by a story similar to this one cause of the role Gail has played in my life. Yay mentor! 🙂

  8. I’m a first year grad student in Student Affairs and I absolutely love your blog. Is there someone I can email to chat more about some of these subjects? Thanks!

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