Compassionate. Caring. Intelligent. Effective. Hard-working. A strong leader. "A whirlwind of energy," said former Vice President of Campus Life Gail Hanson.
Those are the adjectives people have used to describe Fanta Aw, Ph.D. In her more than 30 years at American University, dating back to when she was an undergraduate student, Dr. Aw has been an influential figure on camps. As she steps into a new challenge, the position of Interim Vice President of the Office of Campus Life, she took time to sit and discuss the new role.
How are you Dr. Aw?
I am quite well. Thank you.
What was your reaction when you learned Dr. Gail Hanson was retiring?
I knew that day would eventually come, but I did not think it would be so soon. I had to ask her, "Why, and why now?"
She told me, "You know Fanta, I think it's time. This summer I will turn 70, and I think it is time for a new chapter in my life."
When I heard that, I then said to myself, "This is not about being selfish, this is about being happy for Gail." I'm happy that she has put so much sweat and blood into this university and in the field of student affairs. It is only fair that she gets to decide when she wants to do something else.
A few weeks later, you would get the call that you were to be Dr. Hanson's successor. Can you describe your feelings when you were appointed as Interim Vice President?
Oh boy! When I was offered by Dr. Kerwin this amazing opportunity to serve AU, my alma mater, it was a hard one to turn down. AU has been the place where I found my intellectual and professional home. It has been the place where I earnestly feel I have found my purpose, which is to be an educator.
I was really comforted by the hundreds of emails, calls and texts I received from the community, from alumni who are far away, and from former staff who had worked with me 15 years ago. I received many messages of congratulations but, more importantly, messages of encouragement. That reaffirmed for me the fact that I came to this place to build a career, and I hope during the time that I have been here that I have given something back to the institution.
What are your first priorities in this new position?
One of the things I have been very fortunate in my 25 years working at AU is that there has been a change in my role every two to three years. So change has been the norm for me, and in this work, it has created new challenges and opportunities. Each time I have been challenged with change, the first thing I did was listen—and listen a lot.
People that know me know that I am a people person. I really believe in the power of people coming together in common interest and wanting to do collective work. My first assignment is to spend a lot of time listening and observing. I want to know what is working well and what we can do as students, faculty and staff to really improve day-to-day experience at AU. That will help me identify some priority areas.
You have a very close relationship with the students of AU. How will that continue to influence your work in this new role?
I will have an open door, and students are critical to that open door. I need to keep close to the pulse of the students. I am talking about the students I see who come because they are figuring out how they are going to stay at AU and the students who come who are figuring out their purpose and meaning while here.
I always say, it's hard to ask your staff and team to do work if you are not willing to roll up your sleeves and do the same work. And I am a roll-up–your-sleeves person.
I have heard from our students about the challenge of belonging at AU, something that is near and dear to my heart. And it is something I do believe we can make progress on. But I think that progress is not something we can do alone. We are going to have to work with and empower students to know how they can shape that. This is not for students to do this on their own, and they should not have to carry the burden on their own, but I want students to see themselves in a leadership role as educators, as students and as members of our community who want to invest in that community.
In a few weeks, the university will be welcoming Sylvia Burwell as its new president. What do you hope to achieve while working with her?
I am extremely excited about her coming on board. Everything I have read about her indicates that she is an extraordinary leader, and I am excited to work under her leadership. One of the things that was said about her is that she is a listener. I think listening is an incredible skill in leadership.
I am looking forward to introducing her to the AU story—and the AU story is through the lens of the students. In Campus Life, we are in a unique position to provide that. I want her in front of students having candid conversations on their experience here at AU, the good and the bad. I always see those as opportunities for us to grow and be better.
I want to help her understand the AU story from the ground up and also understand why Campus Life matters at AU— our role and how much can we contribute to the transformation of AU.
And lastly, critical to me is wanting to tell the Campus Life story. I think Gail has done a very good job of helping to position Campus Life in both its credibility and its scope. I think what we can do next is tell the powerful story of our work—and how our work can be transformative for both our students and this university.
This transcript was edited for clarity and brevity.