A single beanie stood out among the endless sea of identical caps worn by Springfield College first-year students at the New Student Assembly on August 30. Its physical appearance may have matched that of the others, but unlike the beanies worn by the students, it was tucked under a mortarboard. That mortarboard belonged to first-year and the first-ever Springfield College female president Mary-Beth Cooper, who wasted no time aligning herself with Springfield College’s traditions. For Cooper, wearing the beanie served an even larger purpose than just paying respects to a tradition.
“I thought that in a way to connect with the students, wearing the beanie would be novel and also a signal to them that I’m one of them. I do think in many ways that the Class of 2017 and I will always have a common bond because I started with them,” Cooper said.
It is this awareness of building a bond with students that perhaps sealed Cooper’s position as the 13th president of the institution. For a large part of her career, Cooper has been directly involved with students. Before coming to Springfield, she served as the Senior Vice President of Student Affairs at the Rochester Institute of Technology for 12 years. She also served in various dean of students and student affairs’ positions at the University of Rochester and St. John Fisher College. Cooper greatly values the perspective and voices of students, something that she hopes to stress in her early days in office.
“My goal in at least the first six months, if not the first year, is to go out and meet as many current students [and] alumni, talk to parents, and speak a lot with faculty and my leadership team to determine what is our best path moving forward,” Cooper said.
In order to give students the chance to voice their opinions, Cooper hopes to make herself both approachable and available as much as possible to the student population. This includes immersing herself in the college culture by such simple tasks as working out on a routine basis at the Wellness Center, learning the flow of Cheney Dining Hall and attending athletic contests. Although she holds an esteemed position on campus, Cooper freely admitted to feeling more in sync with the beanie-wielding first-year students that had to find their way early on.
“I think it’s very similar to our first-year students in terms of I literally came a day before they did,” said Cooper, whose official start date was August 28. “I went to orientation. I went to Pre-Camp. I tried to mirror my experience to theirs.”
Although her mirroring efforts were mostly intentional, Cooper found herself mimicking the first-year students’ experience unintentionally in situations as well, such as her first meal in Cheney.
“I didn’t know where to put the plates,” Cooper said. “You’re watching somebody else do it, and trying not to look like you don’t know what you’re doing – but you don’t know what you’re doing.”
There may have been some slight confusion in Cheney, but when the presidential position was open after former president Richard B. Flynn announced his retirement last school year, there was no confusion on Cooper’s part. She knew that it would prove to be a good match for her abilities and aspirations. For 14 years, Cooper was heavily involved as a volunteer at the Greater Rochester YMCA in Rochester, N.Y., the site of her previous college RIT, and is still currently serving in a mentoring role to the new elected chair of the Board of Directors in Rochester.
The YMCA proved to be Cooper’s link to Springfield because of the college’s strong connections and history with the organization. Cooper recalled meeting a plethora of Springfield graduates at the General Assembly of YMCAs in Philadelphia, Pa., and was blown away with the feedback she received.
“Every last one of them talked about how amazing their experience was at Springfield,” Cooper said. “I have never met so many people at a college, or alum, or parents that have spoken so favorably of the college experience, and what it has meant to them.”
Appointing a president is as much about how the president fits the college as it is about how the college fits the president, and after being intrigued by the YMCA connection, Cooper examined the open position further. She discovered that Springfield’s mission of educating spirit, mind and body closely aligned with her personal and professional goals, and felt strongly that she could enhance the college without eroding any of its core values.
Doug Coupe, the Chair of the Board of Trustees, felt the same way.
“What impressed me the most was her high energy and level of enthusiasm for the opportunity to lead Springfield College. All of this complemented her complete understanding of the mission of Springfield College,” Coupe said in an email.
Along with her husband Dave, her son, Calvin, who is a junior at the University of Delaware, could not agree more.
“He was my biggest champion when we were looking to make this move. He was like, ‘Mom, you’ve got to go for it.’”
Cooper did more than just go for it. She made an immediate impression on Student Trustee and senior Ariel Zaleski, who was the only student on the Presidential Search Committee.
“She was so gung-ho about the college and so passionate about it and about our mission. I’ll never forget she was like, ‘…when they’re looking for experts in the field I want them to turn to Springfield College,’” Zaleski said. “I knew instantly that she was going to click so well here.”
Trustee John Odierna, who served as the chair of the Presidential Search Committee, shared a similar reaction.
“Dr. Cooper made a very favorable first impression. She immediately conveyed a sense of being a ‘people person,’” Odierna said in a statement via email.
Odierna noted her career-long involvement with students, superb academic credentials and commitment to lifelong learning as factors that helped Cooper stand out amongst the candidates. Cooper is fully embracing her new position and responsibilities as the steward of the institution, but she is not the only one in the family enjoying the new surroundings. Dakota, the family’s 8-year-old yellow lab, has made himself right at home.
“He’s got a big yard to play in and it’s all fenced in. He did jump over the little fence and went into the water and got into that nice lake,” Cooper joked.
As Springfield College’s first-year president continues to transition into her new position and tackle its accompanying responsibilities, she appears excited about the opportunity to pick up where Flynn left off.
“I am very excited about being here, and I look forward to getting to know the students, faculty and staff, and I just hope together we can continue to make Springfield an even stronger place,” Cooper said. “I feel like I’ve walked onto a campus that is unique, and so I’m grateful for the opportunity.”