The Secret of Our Success

Georgia Fisher encourages students to "become the best people they can be"

Housed in a quiet, understated office in McNeely Hall on St. Thomas’ St. Paul campus, surrounded by books, plants and photos of her grandson, Valentine, is the person many at St. Thomas believe to be the heart and soul of the undergraduate business programs.

As assistant dean and director of the undergraduate programs in the Opus College of Business, Georgia Fisher’s job description is characterized by a list of responsibilities and goals, including administration, forecasting, strategizing, analyzing and reporting. Yet ask Fisher what her job is and she’ll quickly answer: “Helping people succeed.”

Since Fisher joined St. Thomas in 1980 as director of student services, she has been instrumental in not only helping students, staff and administrators succeed, but ensuring that the strategic program goals for which she is responsible are met. As director of student services until 2005, she developed programs, services and opportunities for undergraduate students, from academic counseling to job searches, from freshmanorientation to commencement.

After she was promoted to director of the undergraduate business programs more than four years ago, she took on responsibility for the overall functioning and organization of the undergraduate business program, including marketing the program to prospective students, developing course schedules, implementing Opus College of Business academic strategies and policies, managing records and engaging deans, faculty and staff in setting and achieving program goals.

And don’t forget about the students. As director, Fisher met with and advised every undergraduate student in the business program. “It helped me stay grounded,” she says.

Since 2007, when she was named assistant dean of the undergraduate business programs, Fisher has overseen a staff of advisers who have taken on that role, though she continues to meet every prospective student. “I need to stay on top of what students are looking for, what their challenges and needs are. Meeting with potential students not only allows me to do this but also allows me to better understand the current generation.”

Kyle Reinarts, a current undergraduate business student, has seen Fisher’s work firsthand. “Dean Fisher’s attitude and approach with prospective students is unprecedented. She tailors her information to each prospective student while giving them all essential information regarding the University of St. Thomas and the Opus College of Business. She personally has convinced students to commit to theUniversity of St. Thomas while they are deciding on which college to attend.”

The best job on campusAll this is quite different from what Fisher envisioned for herself. She graduated from Northern State University with a degree in education, and then became a stay-at-home mother after the birth of her daughter. “I hadn’t planned on a career. But I was really feeling it when my daughter started school full time. My husband saw an ad for the director of student services and thought I’d be a good fit because I thoroughly enjoy and thrive on helping other people succeed.

As director, Fisher met with and advised every undergraduate student in the program. "It helped me stay grounded," she says.

“When I told my parents 29 years ago I was going to work for St. Thomas, my dad said, ‘Think of the minds you’ll encounter. Think of the wonderful conversations you’ll have.’” Fisher has never stopped having these wonderful conversations. It’s one of the joys of her position and the primary reason she says she has the “best job on campus.”

One key element of Fisher’s effectiveness in her role is this pleasure in engaging others. She makes certain her staff of 12 shares what they hear from students. She encourages staff to get involved with students… and to get just as excited as students are by the possibilities their education offers. She relishes the opportunity to talk with students who never expected to be where they are – never thought it would be possible to study abroad, to get a professional job or to go to St. Thomas or any other university.When Fisher has the chance to advise students, she is deliberate in her efforts to instill this sense of the wide range of possibilities open to them if they continue their education. The fundamental goal of an undergraduate education, according to Fisher, is to allow students to find a job that will help them become ethical contributors to society where they can support themselves, their families and their communities.

But in addition, she also wants students to understand that the university education theyreceive can help them “become the best people they can be and to get satisfaction in continued learning.”The job of advising students in crisis – whether academic or personal – is a challenge, but one Fisher takes on with a combination of diplomacy and honesty. William Raffield, former senior associate dean for the Opus College of Business, supervised Fisher for many years. “Georgia Fisher has achieved what I consider to be the most difficult balance for an academic administrator – she is able to be totally dedicated to our students and their welfare and achievements, while at the same time meeting the needs and expectations of the university’s goals and policies.

"I have watched Georgia in meetings where students and their parents had to face extremely difficult choices – where students had to deal with the consequences of some very bad decisions they had made. Her ability to combine a caring attitude with firmness on the consequences, and her talent in developing a win-win solution to the issue led students and their parents to accept the consequences, and yet leave the office thanking the dean for her help. I have never seen Georgia treat a problem as unsolvable.”

The ability to advocate for students while representing the university has become more critical as each new generation of undergraduates arrives with its own set of experiences and expectations.

“Students today are much more competent, globally aware and ready to travel. They arrive with a sense of confidence that they will succeed – they expect to succeed. If they don’t, it’s more difficult for them to accept that,” Fisher said.

Often when meeting with students and their families, Fisher tries to avoid generalities, isolating the root of the problem by asking questions and, more importantly, listening to students’ answers.

Through these conversations, Fisher has developed her own sense of the St. Thomas student. “The typical St. Thomas student does what needs to be done and doesn’t expect a handout. I think this may be vastly different from the external perception that we are a private school that caters to the well-off. We do have students from affluentfamilies, but the majority of our undergraduates are working their way through school.”

A strong woman with influenceFor the last few years, Fisher has spent some of her free time reading biographies of Queen Victoria. Reaching the throne at the age of 18, the queen reigned at a time when Britain was already a constitutional monarchy, so she had little real political power. Instead, she relied on her ability to persuade and influence, learning as much as shecould about a particular subject, asking questions and listening to those around her. During her reign, the British Empire grew exponentially.

“I identify with her, I think. I can suggest and influence, even though I don’t have any real authority,” reflects Fisher. Whether she has any real authority or not, it is clear that Fisher has had a significant impact on those around her, from the staff she works with each day to the students she has advised in one capacity or another since she joined St. Thomas almost 30 years ago.

Raffield tells a story of a man who came into the old McNeely Hall asking to see Fisher. After he introduced himself, he thanked her for working with him more than 12 years earlier when he had been a St. Thomas student. Now in his 30s, he had just received a very prestigious promotion and wanted to come back to the Twin Cities to thank Fisher and let her know about the promotion. She had not had any contact with the young man in the intervening years, but her impact and influence was such that, of all the people he had known at St. Thomas, she was the one person with whom he wanted to share his success.

In the three decades Fisher has been part of St. Thomas, both her role and the university have changed greatly. In 1980, the College of St. Thomas had one campus, undergraduate business majors were served by a centralized administration and graduate and undergraduate business programs were offered in McNeely Hall.

Since then, the college has become a university, with campuses in Minneapolis, St. Paul, Owatonna and Rome, Italy. A new McNeely Hall with state-of-the-art facilities was built in 2004. And the undergraduate business program has seen a continued increase in the number of students it serves; today, business students represent nearly 40 percent of undergraduate enrollment at the University of St. Thomas.

A note of nostalgia creeps into Fisher’s voice when she talks about old McNeely Hall. “McNeely Hall – both old and new – has always been one of my favorite places on campus,” she says. The old hall was the hub for undergraduate business. Small and cramped though it may have been, those features allowed students, staff andfaculty to stay connected to each other. Fisher saw faculty members every day as they walked by her office to collect their mail, stopping in to chat about matters both personal and academic.

The new building and additional campus in Minneapolis makes this level of intimacy more difficult to achieve. “Getting to know people is more challenging, especially learning about faculty specialties,” Fisher notes. “It’s also more difficult to transmit the DNA of the organization to new employees because of the size of the college, its complexity and the distance between the Minneapolis and St. Paul campuses.”

But Fisher is quick to add that she doesn’t long to return to the old days. “You have to balance old values with new opportunities and strengths,” she says. “You can’t focus so much on the past you forget to live in the present.” She also believes that you can never stop learning, no matter what your age or academic credentials. Fisher’smother was an elementary school teacher and the importance of remaining open to new ideas and information was a common thread in her family. Her father, owner of a large family retail business in Sisseton, S.D., consistently stressed the importance of listening to other people and accepting their ideas. With her daughter’s family she has had the opportunity to travel abroad, learning how other people live and what matters in their daily lives. These philosophies and experiences have guided Fisher in her career and personal life and have had a direct impact on the staff and students she comes intocontact with.

“I’m so proud of this place and all it stands for,” Fisher says. And because of her commitment to helping others succeed, a generation of St. Thomas students, staff and faculty can say the same.

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