I get a tremendous amount of personal satisfaction and even a sense of spiritual renewal from the great outdoors – including hiking, yardwork, and gardening. Part of that comes from just being in nature; it’s always been a big part of my life. As a kid, I loved hiking and camping. My first jobs included doing yard work at our house and for my relatives. By high school I had a job at a local nursery, and during the summer after college, I was doing landscaping, including pouring concrete pool decks and light construction. So, you could say I’ve always liked helping build and beautify the environment around me.

While I won’t say I have a green thumb, I did get the gardening “bug” from my father, who could really make just about anything thrive outdoors. He loved to tend to our yard, and I learned a lot just by watching him while playing outside. Since I’ve owned my own home, gardening and landscaping has always been a part of my life, particularly during the spring and summer months.

When I look at my yard today, we actually have a bunch of fruits growing, such as pears, figs, blueberry, blackberry, raspberry, and concord grapes. Annually, we also plant tomatoes, squash, eggplant, and a few types of herbs.  While I don’t always have the same luck as my dad, thinking about how I can help these crops thrive has become a big part of my summer.

The opportunity to be in the yard a lot in the final weeks of summer started me thinking more about what it takes to nurture and develop our student community the same way I tend to my garden. As we embark on the academic year, I’ve been contemplating how we truly help our community thrive. Let’s ask ourselves: what are we putting into the environment to support and sustain our community, allowing it to bloom?

In Student Affairs, our work is integral in helping students learn and grow. Are we prepared for the responsibility to help students tend to their development like a gardener would tend to their plants? Do we realize our capacity to nurture and support – both to ground students and to provide support as they begin to flourish? What fertilizer or weed prevention do we offer that helps them grow vigorously?

As I’ve watched my own garden grow this summer I know it’s taken lots of attention, water, TLC, and time - but now things are flourishing. While I’ve had to nurture some plants more than others, while some plants are thriving, others have withered and wilted. Despite that day-to-day challenge, for plants and students alike, our work can play a big part in helping our students truly bloom through careful, thoughtful execution of our work.  I’m hopeful that as you begin to settle into the fall semester, a time when we normally think of the harvest, you, too, have found some ways to see the vital role you play in helping our students reap the benefits that come from our support.  

GWgraduates sit on the National Mall in front of the Washington Monument.

Commencement Synonyms: beginning, start, opening, outset, onset, launch, initiation, inception, origin

Though we are wrapping up commencement season and another academic year, in fact, it’s not actually the end. By definition, it’s just the beginning. This summer, we’ll go through another commencement, as we wrap-up the presidency of Dr. Steven Knapp and begin a new administration under Dr. Thomas LeBlanc. This new start has me reflecting on the importance of commencement, as we look forward to a fresh start, and as we plan for the arrival of the Bicentennial Anniversary Class of 2021 this fall.

I’m eager to see the 2016-2017 academic year come to a close.  It’s been a tough one for our community, with many difficult issues in politics and society arising on our own campus, and with the recent challenges that our community has faced, including issues of student leadership, civility, inclusion, and sexual assault.

As one who considers myself a continual learner, I’m always interested in stepping back to ask a question: what else could we be doing to be more mission oriented, in supporting our students and families?

While we strive to help our students learn and thrive, we’re equally dedicated to improving our operations every day, to make the GW experience better for our students—who become our alumni.

In reflecting on the academic year and in starting to set goals for the future, I’m asking everyone to answer a few questions: What’s the commitment we can make to our community? Or, in marketing speak, what’s our brand promise to our constituents?

What if every GW student…

Was supported any time they faced a challenge?

Felt connected and engaged in a community on campus?

Had the resources to be healthy and well on and off campus?

Was challenged to grow and take risks in a safe, supportive place?

Was prepared for success in life and learned healthy habits for life here at GW?

Could explore new and different experiences, people, and perspectives?

Experienced love, care, respect, joy, happiness, and laughter every day?

I know these are all aspirational statements, but as we wrap up one academic year and commence our summer planning in Student Affairs, I’d like us to think more and take some time to talk about how we create the unparalleled experience to help our students achieve their academic, personal, and professional aspirations. As you have some time to think about the future, ask yourself: Are we doing all we can to deliver on that promise of a quality education and experience for our community every day and in every way possible?

If not, please let me know what else you think we can be doing to achieve our vision to fully support the learning and growth of our students.

As we wind up the academic year, I’ve been thinking a lot about the future. As many of you know, we’ve begun to engage the division—starting with our Leadership Team and managers, but soon to include all DSA staff members, our students, and university stakeholders in a process that identifies our strengths and the opportunities on the horizon while being self-critical in diagnosing our weaknesses and the challenges facing our division, higher education, and the student affairs profession as a whole. We’ll continue to talk about this more in the coming weeks and months, including at our next DSA Staff Forum on Monday, May 8th, 2-3pm, which will focus on the future of higher education and student affairs. Completing a SWOT Analysis for DSA is a first step in our quest to embrace the GW value of learning and continuous improvement.

Our most recent DSA Staff Forum that showcased conference and academic presentations and papers allowed me to reinforce some of the recent research that I completed with Mallory Bower, a career services colleague at SUNY Oswego, in our chapter titled “A Mindset for Career Curiosity: Emerging Leaders Working in the Digital Space.” As we reflect on the academic year and plan for the future, I wanted to highlight the key premise of our piece that captures some core principles from Stanford University researcher Carol Dweck, who coined the phrase ‘Growth Mindset.’ According to Dr. Dweck, in a fixed mindset, students believe their basic abilities, intelligence, and talents are fixed traits. In a growth mindset, students understand their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching, and persistence. That perspective is rooted in a belief that “everyone can get smarter if they work at it.”

I’d like us to aspire to that growth mindset—getting better every day and working smarter if we’re willing to put in the effort to learn, grow, and change. As educators, that’s what we expect of our students, so why not have the same aspiration for ourselves? This is particularly timely as we head into the summer reflecting on the past academic year and setting goals for the coming year. I encourage each of us to ask ourselves a few important questions about our own preparation for change, including:

  • Do you think you have a fixed or growth mindset?
  • Are you an early adopter or resistor to growth or change in your life or work?
  • Are you curious and willing to learn, apply, and teach others and yourself new concepts?

Once we’ve determined that we’re ready to change, we can start to ask ourselves, what efforts can we undertake to support the learning and development of our students? For most of us, we’re not only in the role of leaders who students might emulate, but we actually have an important educational role in our work that calls for us to not only model, but also inspire other, often younger staff members or students, to embrace change, and strive to improve. That’s the ultimate goal of any educational environment, to be a place where learning happens and new knowledge is created. It’s a good time to remind ourselves of the university’s mission, “to promote the process of lifelong learning from both global and integrative perspectives.” So let’s ask ourselves the tough questions about our appetite for growth and change, including:

  • Are we doing all we can to have a growth mindset and orientation in Student Affairs as a whole and in all of our units?
  • How do we encourage or prepare GW students for the quickly evolving environments around us?
  • What role does experiential learning play in helping our students explore new environments?

I wish you all my best, as you consider these important questions in the coming weeks and months ahead. I’m hopeful that through your own reflection, goal-setting, departmental planning, and our division-wide internal and external analysis of our abilities and opportunities, we will continue on the path toward achieving a growth mindset that’s good for ourselves, our university community, and the key constituents we support through our work.

The term confluence often describes a coming together of bodies of water, but it is also defined as a coming together of people or things. Having attended the NASPA Conference over the weekend when we returned to daylight saving time, I thought it was an appropriate term as I write this reflection on some experiences that have recently aligned for me.

For me, the confluence began with my last meeting before heading off to NASPA. Late that Friday, I was able to talk with President-elect LeBlanc. I was incredibly impressed: we engaged in a lengthy conversation on ways to work together to support the GW student experience, build community, and continue to be responsive to student feedback through our shared vision.

I told Dr. LeBlanc how proud I am to serve as the lead administrator who thinks about our students (and their parents/families) every day.  I also expressed my appreciation for our team—the 135+ full- and part-time regular staff, the 40+ graduate student staff, and the 200+ undergraduate student staff who, like me, support students around the clock.

What inspired me about Dr. LeBlanc was his vision and approach to supporting students. He’s a champion for a thriving student experience, which is an essential component for a highly residential campus like ours. We demonstrate that dedication to the student experience, as we work to enhance student and alumni engagement. My meeting with Dr. LeBlanc continues to make me incredibly optimistic about GW and I’m excited for continued dialogue on these topics as we build on our strengths and as we seize upcoming opportunities on the horizon.  

Confluence was still on my mind as I headed to the NASPA Conference in San Antonio the next day, both literally given the the incredible series of river walks that flow through the town, and figuratively, as I reflected on the personal and professional renewal that comes with attending a national conference. Being among more than 6,000 student affairs colleagues, I found it incredibly rewarding to be surrounded by other dedicated members of our profession. I’ve always been a fan of the type of professional renewal and the networking that comes with catching up with colleagues and from being surrounded by other bright thinkers who all want what’s best for students.

Discussions at NASPA were particularly timely, given the challenging post-election environment, where our field has grappled with how to both support students and also model the behaviors of civility, respect, learning, and growth that have become necessary since the change in administration.

Both experiences happened during daylight saving time weekend.  As I turned the clocks ahead, I was reminded of the symbolism of longer, brighter days ahead.  While we still have lots of work to do this semester, our days are getting longer and our future continues to look bright. I’m excited I had time to reflect as I walked along the drifting San Antonio rivers. That confluence of personal and professional self-care, having had the opportunity to connect with other colleagues, and having also gained such a positive impression of our new university leader who shares our vision for student engagement and supporting students to be successful, all makes me eager to embark on this next transition for GW.  I encourage everyone on the DSA team to find opportunities to experience their own confluence, whether from spending time with family and friends, engaging in professional development opportunities, participating in DSA Professional Development and Team Building activities, or by taking advantage of the support available through the GW Employee Assistance Program.

From @GWPeterK: Diversity is our Strength

We often hear that “Diversity is our Strength.”  That’s never felt more important than today in our higher education institutions, as our society struggles to form the more perfect union called for in the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution. It’s been a tough few months on our campuses, as we continually connect with so many students who are feeling disenfranchised from all directions. Personally, while I am tired of all the vitriol—including the suggestion that our students are “snowflakes” —I’m also equally frustrated by those who shut down open dialogue and discourse.

In the past months, we’ve tweeted about tolerance, put out statements encouraging civility, convened conversations with student leaders about the importance of diversity, hosted cross cultural competency trainings, written op-eds and blog posts about respect, and held town halls to help educate and inform our campus that everyone is welcome in our community. But is that enough?

Hopefully the sentiments we’ve shared help members of our community who are international, first generation, multicultural, Muslim, Jewish, LGBTQIA+, sexual violence survivors, and others know that they are valued parts of our Colonial family. It’s also equally important to work across party lines to make every person feel included. Those feeling a conservative rebuke in the classroom or liberals who feel the academy hasn’t been responsive enough to their demands for more aggressive actions should both feel included and supported.

Those in leadership roles and, in particular, those who work in Student Affairs must continue to model efforts to make everyone feel welcome and connected on our campuses. That means our work as educators continues to be as important as ever, leading by example for our students. We have to show our willingness to support ALL students and also take positions that help articulate our values in action.

That means both condemning what we perceive as hate speech while also speaking out to embrace the First Amendment right for challenging positions to be heard -- even if they’re unsettling to our ears. That means being less insular and being more inclusive of different perspectives, even if it makes us uncomfortable.

Maybe the great lesson of the past few months has been the need to listen more before reacting. Seek to understand instead of being the first to post your position. Really strive to understand what it means to create a culture of inclusion, tolerance, and trust in these turbulent times we’re experiencing as a society.

The work isn’t going to be easy. In fact, I’m guessing it’s going to continue to be tough, trying, and tiring. We’re all going to need to think more about self-care and ways to find comfort and support from colleagues, peers, and even occasionally from a professional clinician (through GW’s Employee Assistance Program) who can help us navigate the stress or pressure we’re personally facing.  Help exists and together, we can succeed if we seek out the resources and support of family, friends, or professional counsel to effectively navigate and support our students in the midst of what’s happening around us.

Warmth and Trust in the New Year

Setting a new year’s resolution? Why not add trust and warmth to your goal list.

Apparently, these are critical dimensions -- along with respect and competence -- that are atop the list when people are sizing you up for first impressions, according to Harvard Business School Professor Amy Cuddy in her book, Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges. Ideally, Cuddy says, you want to be perceived as having both, but often competence or professional skills are valued higher when, in fact, her research indicates that warmth and trustworthiness may be more important factors.

So, what does that mean for our work in higher education? For me, Professor Cuddy’s findings re-opened my eyes to the importance of human contact and having a warm, personal approach in helping build our university community.  As we’ve been getting back to school and starting a new semester, I’ve personally tried to spend a bit more time working to really connect on a more personal level with our students, our staff, and our faculty colleagues, and even in occasional conversations to build important relationships with alumni, parents, employer partners, and university friends.

Truth be told, that’s not always second nature to me. Myers-Briggs indicates that I’m more introverted than extroverted—which is often a surprise to many. While I’ve always been confident in doing my best work, particularly in terms of efficiency and productivity, I’ve also got to remember to invest time in building rapport and relationships.

That’s meant more casual conversations, even sometimes stepping out of my comfort zone by taking the extra time to not only ask, but also to really listen. I’ve also been working to talk more and text or tweet less—making the effort to be present, to engage others so I can listen, learn, and hear what’s going on in their world.

And I’m predicting that this desire to connect more is going to be incredibly important as we continue to face a post-election divide—often labeled as elite beltway insiders vs mainstream middle America. Even here at GW, we’ve grown a bit more segmented and have seen some strident views rather than accepting voices, which means being civil is now more important than ever. As educators, we must encourage members of our community to start sharing more, talking together, and listening to more viewpoints than just their own Facebook, Twitter, or other social media feed, sphere of friends, or affinity community.

So, in that spirit, and since I always like having a call to action, I’m putting the word out to our staff (and students and alumni alike) that I’ll be more available to connect in person, in addition to online. I’m hopeful that folks will take me up on that offer—so that’s an open call—but I’ll also be doing some of the inviting, too. With the opening of Peets Coffee in District House across the street from my office, just let me know if and when you want to catch up over a conversation and coffee (or my personal preference, some warm hot chocolate).  Hopefully, we’ll connect in real time, very soon!

From @GWPeterK: Reflections and hopes

I wanted to share some reflections on the fall semester and some hopes for the spring semester and for 2017 as a whole. It’s impossible to write about the Fall 2016 without mentioning the presidential election, which was the culmination of nearly two years of activity by many members of our community at the most politically active university in America. While the transition is clearly on everyone’s mind, and there are so many viewpoints about the incoming administration, what makes GW so unique is that as students, staff, faculty, and alumni, we’re literally at the epicenter of that experience.

Throughout the past year, we had our students, staff, faculty and alumni actively working to help get candidates elected and, in the days leading up to the election, we witnessed our favorite alumni and faculty pundits dissect the debates (see the GW Magazine article, “Armies on the March.”)  On election night, we watched—some excited and others in shock—as the returns came in and as the outcome became evident. The immediate aftermath was a surprise to many, myself included. I, too, had believed the pollsters who had predicted a different outcome, but as a professional who’s here to support our students, I knew that our work in student affairs would be more important than ever after this contentious election.

While our conservative and republican student supporters were reveling in an unprecedented win, our most vocal liberal, democratic, and progressive student coalitions who supported other candidates were immediately alarmed; unprepared for the shock of losing a race that seemed both likely to be won by all expert accounts and significant in its historic scope.

Yet being able to immediately adapt to any contingency is what’s so important about our work in student affairs. Since the election, we’ve learned a bit more about how to relate to one another by continuing to embrace the rich diversity of thought and opinion on our campus. We’ve also come to accept the democratic process we enjoy, which allows for the peaceful transition of power, from one party to the next.

Many are still upset. A week after the election, we saw hundreds of students walk out of class to rally, protest, and petition the university for resources in support of their fellow students (see the GW Today story, “Students Protest Divisive Rhetoric and Policies of the President-Elect”). We also heard from conservative students that they, too, felt a backlash against their views that we also need to respect, support, and safeguard.

That protection of free speech and the willingness to address intolerance are at the core of what we believe as an institution. And while we’ve said the new presidential administration won’t change our values (see the GW Today Story, “University Urges Dialogue, Not Partisanship, in Wake of Election”), it’s also equally important to reiterate with no equivocation what we do believe in, including diversity, respect, and being a continually learning community (see the GW Today story, “President Knapp Signs Statement Supporting Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program”) .

That’s not about taking sides, personal or politically. It’s about being a place where all viewpoints are valued and where discourse and debate can happen (see President Knapp’s post-election statement). But that doesn’t mean hate will be tolerated or that harassment is to be accepted. In fact, one of the things we do most is to act as educators, to continue to help our student community not only cope with these experiences, but to also tap into the resources we have at our disposal, no matter your political affiliation or perspective (see the University Resources list).

As I said at 3:14 am after the election outcome was evident  – @GWPeterK No matter the side you selected in this historic #Election, we’ll be here to support #GWU’s community continue to #RaiseHigh together (Heart, Heart, Flag). And by 8am I added - @GWPeterk We have a great deal of work to do on our campus & across the country to heal & head forward. We begin that work today, together #GWU.

Those post-election Tweets remain true today, as we at GW continue to promote the spirit of collaboration in which I truly believe. We’re stronger together, and as Colonials, each of us has a key role to play in leading change with civility from our community and across this great country, as we prepare for and witness the Inauguration that will happen just blocks from our Foggy Bottom Campus.


Peter Konwerski

April 28, 2016

Meet the Incoming Student Association President

For this month’s column, Peter interviewed incoming Student Association President Erika Feinman.

PK: Tell us about yourself.

EF: I am a junior from Albany, NY double majoring in Women's Studies and Political Science. I am hoping to one day become a professor of women, gender, and sexuality studies. I'm especially interested in studying a concept known as “queer temporality” through an intersectional analytical lens.

What brought you to GW/DC?

I love telling this story! I attended a pre-college summer program at Yale University in 2011 and spoke with a GW admissions representative at a college fair. I honestly don't remember what he said to me, but after talking to him for five minutes, I left the college fair, tossing out brochures from all the schools I had talked to before GW. I called my parents that night to tell them I found my dream school! My dad was against it because it's a little far from home, but the next summer I did the GW pre-college summer program. When my parents picked me up at the end of the program, they saw how happy I was and they let me apply Early Decision 1. I'm so glad that they changed their minds!

How have you made the most of living/learning in DC?

My freshman year I went to a museum at least two or three times a month. I don't have as much time for that now, but I always make time to get off campus and explore! I really enjoy trying new restaurants and experiencing all that DC has to offer. One thing that is really great about DC is the conference opportunities. This year I attended several conferences related to my academic interests. I've also completed three different internships during my time at GW. My CI leader told me that the hardest thing at GW isn't finding something to do, it's deciding what to do. I think that's the truest thing I've ever heard about GW and DC!

What are you involved with on campus, and have you done any previous work with DSA staff?

I am the co-President of the Feminist Student Union, a sister of Phi Sigma Sigma, a member of the Student Leadership Council, and a current CCAS-U Senator with the SA. Some projects I've worked on include: improving House Manager trainings by working with Casey Crisp and the Greek Life Office; helping to update the definition of “consent” with Student Rights and Responsibilities and Carrie Ross from the Title IX office; getting the Student Support Services portal on Blackboard by working with Yordanos Baharu from Academic Technologies; getting Bill Cosby's honorary degree rescinded by working with President Knapp and other members of DSA and the SA; and putting kosher and halal meal options in Pelham Dining Hall by working with Bernadette Thomas from Sodexo. I was also part of the Spring Fling debrief conversation that happened in April.

As incoming SA President, can you share your top goals for the upcoming year and how Student Affairs staff can help support your administration achieving these goals?

This year, the SA is looking to focus on improving academic opportunities through improvements to the Knowledge in Action Career Internship Fund (KACIF), implementing a standardized Freshman Forgiveness program, and ensuring that Fall Break continues as scheduled in the coming years. We are also going to work on improving affordability by lessening the burden of additional fees on campus, improving our GWorld dining plans, and creating more resources for students to find off-campus health care providers. Lastly, we want to amplify student voices by developing diversity and inclusion trainings for all university staff and faculty, by ensuring that students are involved in university decisions, and by getting student representation on the Board of Trustees. We are very excited to get started and we look forward to working with DSA staff to accomplish our goals!

Do you have a favorite neighborhood, restaurant, event in the city you recommend? 

I really enjoy trying different types of food. This past weekend I tried a Moroccan food restaurant called Marrakech in DuPont. It was really good! I would definitely recommend it.

Can you share any #OnlyatGW moments you've had since you arrived?

I've had so many #OnlyatGW moments since I arrived on campus. I saw all of the democratic presidential candidates speak at a conference, I saw Joe Biden in the alleyway behind my residence hall, and I even shook President Obama's hand (he has very soft hands, by the way), but my favorite #OnlyatGW moment was the first time I stepped foot on this campus because I immediately felt at home.

March 28, 2016

DSA’s Role in Facilitating Access and Success

As a follow-up to our February Forum with Interim Provost Maltzman, I wanted to highlight some of the access and success initiatives already in place in DSA. I’d also like to challenge our team to continue to think critically about this university priority and how our team can continue to support these initiatives.  Our commitment to access and success has long been a key part of our mission in serving students. We play principal roles in both supporting the successful recruitment of new students and in helping students be engaged and connected at GW once they enroll. These efforts lead to stronger retention and success.

For years, we’ve been growing our access and success initiatives in place. For example, the Colonial Health Center offers sliding-scale payments for health and counseling services and are working to keep fee increases to an absolute minimum. Additionally, we manage the Ron Howard Student Emergency Fund and have recently created both the Rodney Johnson Parents Helping Parents Fund and the Chernak Opportunity Fund as two additional ways to help students and families. Similarly, in Career Services, thanks to the efforts of donors like trustees Mark Shenkman, Scott Amey, and Steve Ross, we’re making more funding available for student professional development opportunities, including the Knowledge in Action Career Internship Fund (KACIF) and the Student Professional and Career Development Grants. All of these funding options are also now centralized on our DSA student funding website.

In terms of systemic unit change, when I began as Dean of Students, we created positions working across the university—including with our partners in MSSC, DSS, Student Financial Assistance, Colonial Central, and the Advising Offices—that focus on supporting student academic success. Those efforts led to the launch of our CARE Network in 2011-12, and ultimately created an entire Academic Success team that now supports more than 1000+ students, allowing them to achieve their academic goals and helping the university’s priorities of retention and success.

More recently, in the past year, the CSE has implemented first-generation specific programming and support, and GW Housing continues to offer emergency support for students who struggle with housing insecurity.  In fact, the nature of our academic year and summer housing model (Aug 15-May 15) supports students who make GW their primary home, unlike many campuses that can’t support students during the breaks because of closed residence halls. Likewise, DSA has long championed not only the GW Fixed Tuition plan, but has worked to keep our student housing costs affordable. Additionally, we’ve successfully advocated for raising the amount of funding for campus dining, to ensure students put their food money only toward food.  Fortunately, both of these ideas have gotten traction from GW leadership.

On the horizon, I’m really excited to hear about some emerging ideas around food insecurity. Students should not have to choose between food and books. To accomplish this, DSA staff members are researching ways to serve students who struggle with the cost of college, including the possible creation of a food bank, clothing closet, and book exchange. It’s this type of entrepreneurial thinking that helps us continue to respond to and serve the emerging needs of our students in a creative, thoughtful, and respectful way that is inclusive and reduces stigma associated with affordability and socio-economic stratification.

There are a variety of great resources on issues of college affordability, including research done by the Wisconsin HOPE Lab and the College and University Food Bank Alliance. And a recent Chronicle article “Students Shouldn't have to Choose Between Books and Food" captures this sentiment well, further giving voice to students across the country. Even NASPA is digging into this, through a research study with the Gates Foundation to survey campuses about emergency funds and develop more sustained efforts around issues of affordability. I’m glad DSA staff members are well aware of the debate over college costs and higher education affordability. We all must continue to do our part to be part of the solution and must keep access and affordability integrated into our goals and priorities as a division, an institution, and a country.

Reflections on Celebrating George Washington’s Legacy 

I’ve long been a fan of George Washington, way before I ended up at the George Washington University. As a kid I was fascinated with history, including Greek and Roman gods, esteemed world leaders, and US presidents. I guess that influence came from having a father who was a high school social studies teacher and a mother who taught high school English and Latin.

As a result, whenever I wrote a book report throughout middle school and high school, it was often about a biography I selected or historical novel I’d read. That frequently allowed me to study the lessons of various political and social leaders, whether to look at their skills and attributes - and also their liabilities and failings - or to try to better understand the age old question ‘Why does history always repeat itself?’  So, my views of George Washington, while shaped by early respect for his skills as a leader, are also influenced by my knowledge that many of the actions he took were in conflict with the ethics and values by which we live today.

This discrepancy was recently highlighted in a similar sentiment by one of our own GW students: Presidential Administrative Fellow Chelsea Lenhart.  On February 22nd, Washington’s Birthday, Chelsea was interviewed by WAMU radio host Kojo Nnamdi about a paper, “George Washington: the Oppressor?” she wrote for a GW history course, “George Washington and His World” that she took at the Mount Vernon Estate while an undergraduate student.

Chelsea’s eloquent and insightful comments about George Washington remind us, “we have to look at our leaders in the context of the time they lived and judge them for the actions they didn’t take within that context. They’re supposed to be change makers, supposed to be one step above or ahead. We look to them to lead that way.”

In many ways, that’s a good lens by which we can judge our university’s namesake. He was  living in a different time, but as we look back, we have to ask what more could he have done to right some of the wrongs, particularly around slavery, to truly be the change agent our nation needed at that time?  On levels of spirituality, faith, and religion, George Washington is often credited as being more progressive, as evidenced by his writing to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island about religious liberty and tolerance. But in the realm of race, he just wasn’t living as exemplary of a life by wielding his power to bring about good for all those around him.

So, as a university that bears his name and strives to celebrate his complicated history, how do we reconcile the reality of conflicts around George Washington the man? Hopefully, we continue to confront it, dissect it, debate it, and engage in exploring it as fully as possible. When we explore his complicated history, through coursework and writing like Chelsea undertook, or through other discourse and dialogue, we can better apply the lessons learned to our times today.  Doing so ensures that we never repeat the mistakes made by our ancestors and icons, including our university’s namesake.