M.L. ‘Cissy’ Petty Reflects on Enhancing the Student Experience at GW before Her Departure Next Month

The vice president for student affairs and dean of students, who is retiring from the university on June 30, put the personal touch with students at the forefront of her leadership.

Cissy Petty retirement
Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students M.L. 'Cissy' Petty, seen here in her District House residence with her dog Jazz, is retiring from GW next month to move to Louisiana after getting married last December. (William Atkins/GW Today)
May 23, 2022

George Washington University Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students M.L. “Cissy” Petty has announced her June 30 retirement from the university after a more than 30-year career as a senior student affairs professional at five colleges and universities.

“This moment feels both poignant and celebratory,” Petty told GW Today. “I am leaving a community for which I care deeply to move toward the person I love the most,” referring to  her move “home” to Louisiana after getting married in December 2021.

Transition plans will be announced before Petty departs.

As she retires from the day-to-day innerworkings of student life, Petty is reimagining how she can contribute her passion and expertise in new ways. She is exploring opportunities to teach in Louisiana State University’s higher education administration program and looks forward to volunteering with reconciling ministries with the Methodist Church.

Hired as the inaugural dean of the student experience in May 2018, Petty assisted GW in redefining the student experience. In September 2019, she was promoted to vice president for student affairs and dean of students. While serving in her leadership roles in the Division for Student Affairs (DSA), she partnered in overseeing the transformation of the student dining experience, the live-in staff in residence halls initiative, the transition of Lerner Health and Wellness Center from athletics to DSA, and brought both medical and counseling services to the Mount Vernon Campus on a permanent basis.

In September 2021, she became the “Dean Down the Hall” when she moved into the District House, noting that life at the university doesn’t stop at 5 p.m. and that students need assistance at all hours of the day. This was just one of the many initiatives Petty and her DSA team pursued during the COVID pandemic to focus on the safety and care of students and emphasize the importance of staff well-being.

“Dean Petty’s leadership at the George Washington University has had a very positive impact on enhancing the student experience,” President Mark S. Wrighton said. “I am deeply appreciative of her many contributions to our university.”

Before she begins her next journey, Petty discussed her time at GW and what legacy she hopes she leaves behind with GW Today.

Q:  What accomplishments during your time at GW bring you the most pride?

A:  Without a doubt, my relationships with our students and their families. Many may not realize this, I give out my cell number to families I meet during orientation and move-in. They are always surprised, but the truth is it’s important for them to know that there is “someone” who can—and will answer—in an emergency. This generosity I have extended has never once been overused! 

Also, I have a sense that our student leaders have come to trust that they will get straight answers from me, and they know that even when we disagree, that I care deeply about each and every one of them.  

Finally, I would be remiss if I did not mention my stellar student affairs team. I have witnessed time and again as they have dedicated themselves to our students. I am proud of how they worked through one of the most challenging time periods of their personal and professional lives and through it all put our students first. The success of our return to campus operations is largely due to the capable hands and leadership of the teams in Counseling and Psychological Services, Campus Living and Residential Education, Lerner Health and Wellness, Student Life, Student Rights and Responsibilities and the Colonial Health Center.

Q: What was it like to navigate coordinating student life during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially as many students were not on campus during the 2020-21 academic year?

A: The Student Affairs team was amazing during this time. In March 2020, which seems like a lifetime ago, this team quickly pivoted to get 6,500 students packed and headed home so that our students and our community could be safe during uncertain times. This was an enormous task, and it required immense patience and resilience. Rightly so, everyone was nervous, the pandemic was new territory.

Then, as we entered our “new normal” during academic year 2020-21, the staff went right to work to rethink our traditional and beloved programs like Midnight Breakfast and chalk-in into virtual formats. I’m glad we were able to deliver these #[email protected] moments to our students. As I reflect on these past two years, I will always remember the lengths our faculty, staff and students went through to stay connected to each other so that our GW community would remain strong. 

Q: You have done some things outside the box with moves such as the community coordinators program, reimagined dining experience and you yourself moving into the District House. Why have you been willing to take risks on behalf of students? 

A: I have never thought about taking ideas to my colleagues as something to be afraid of doing.  It’s our job to push boundaries and not stay tied to any one way doing something. Thinking outside the box is fun, strategic, and usually it’s a good return on satisfaction. I have to be honest…living in District House as a resident this academic year has been so much fun. When I walk the hallways, I love that the students are not afraid to call out, “Good morning, Dean Petty.”

When I arrived as dean four years ago, I spent a couple of days and nights in residence halls on both Foggy Bottom and Mount Vernon campuses to get the lay of the land. Those personal and impromptu hallway interactions with the students enabled me to see firsthand what they experience living on campus. And now, fully living an immersed on-campus experience, which has included a few fire drills and leaving my GWorld card in my room, essentially locking myself out, has given me an even deeper respect for our students. I will never forget calling the area coordinator on duty at 1 in the morning to help me download Mobile ID to my phone to virtually unlock my door. But in the end and truth be told, I know who was the real popular one in District House….it was my dog Jazz and always Jazz!

Q: What sets GW students apart, and what has it been like working with them and on behalf of them? 

A: I find our students happy, sad, glad and mad. They express all their emotions, and I love the conversations that happen as a result. They are a combination of curious, sensitive, open and political, while caring deeply about the environment and equitable treatment of all persons.  There is never a dull moment in a crowd of students, which is what gives our campus a sense of vibrancy. It’s not a secret…they know that I love a good demonstration, too.

Q: What do you hope your lasting impact will be at GW? 

A:  Our focus on the student experience and being with and for students has been embedded in the culture of the Division for Student Affairs. I believe the personal touch, the showing up for students, the invitation to events, the casual conversations, the assurance that someone is listening and cares—both for students and their families—will continue.

University News

News

Cissy Petty Becomes Dean Down the Hall

October 25, 2021
GW Vice President of Student Affairs and Dean for Students recently moved in to District House to fully immerse herself in the student experience.

M.L. “Cissy” Petty Named Vice President of Student Affairs and Dean of Students

August 30, 2019

The new position elevates students’ voices as part of the university’s commitment to improve the student experience.

Cissy Petty Named Inaugural Dean of the Student Experience

May 24, 2018
Nationally recognized student affairs leader will join GW in July.