I have been fortunate to have had the opportunity to interact with some truly amazing individuals throughout my life. At the very top of that list, I would put Dr. M.L. “Cissy” Petty. “DP”, as her students affectionately call her, was my dean of students while I was a student at St. Lawrence University in upstate NY. My first interaction with Cissy was during an accepted student visit day program where she sat down with all of the prospective students and gave each of us a thimble. I remember the speech as if it were yesterday. She told us that if we could fill this little thimble with “love, happiness, and respect we would never lack for anything.” The thimble that she gave me still sits on my desk and has followed me for 6 years.
Cissy is not one to accept the status quo. She really wanted to get to know ALL of her students on a more personal basis. It was with that in mind that she actually moved into a residence hall for three days. I don’t know of any other dean of students who would be willing to give up her own home to move back into a residence hall and live like a student (including using the communal bathrooms and laundry facilities). This seemingly small gesture had a huge impact on so many people. I remember sitting in her residence hall room with her and seeing students stop and stare when they saw her in the room. She, in turn, would invite them in and engage with them, helping students to see that this upper-level administrator truly was interested in meeting students on their ground rather than simply staying in her office. Aside from this, every other Sunday evening, Cissy would open up her own home to students for an informal program called “That’s Life: Chats with the Dean” where all students were welcome to stop in for desserts and to talk about current issues on campus or in the world. I never missed a “That’s Life” and there was a steady group of about 30 of us who always were in attendance in addition to another 10-20 who varied each week. These conversations let us see Cissy as a real person and not just as an administrator. It was these types of moments where she took the initiative to get out and meet students that helped so many of us realize that we did have a role model and ally that we could turn to when something was going on in our lives.
For me, it wasn’t simply that Cissy supported me as a student that made the difference; rather, it was that she supported me as a PERSON that solidified our relationship. During my first year at St. Lawrence, my father was diagnosed with prostate cancer, and it was Cissy who, almost daily, either wrote to me, or stopped me while on campus to see how I was doing. During my junior year, I was struggling with my “coming out” process, and Cissy was the person that I turned to. I remember staying in her home one night after a “That’s Life” program and just started tearing up. She knew what I was struggling with, even though I didn’t flat out tell her for another year and a half. She always supported me and challenged me to be comfortable being the person that I am, something that without her guidance and love, I know I wouldn’t have been able to do.
What I have loved most about our relationship is that it simply wasn’t limited to my time as a student. Since graduating from St. Lawrence, I have attended graduate school to work on my Master’s Degree in College Student Personnel Administration, allowing me the opportunity to enter the field of Student Affairs. I attribute this decision completely to Cissy and helping me to realize that I could indeed make a living while working with students, something I have been passionate about since I was in high school dreaming of being a teacher. Over the past three years, even though we haven’t seen each other on a daily basis, we keep in regular e-mail contact, and have caught up at conferences where she always makes the time for us to have one-on-one time and to talk about the same types of things we did at “That’s Life,” only this time, it’s not as student-staff, it’s as friends, which has been, hands-down, the best experience of my life.
Cissy Petty has a passion for working with others that has influenced so many lives over the course of her career. I speak as one of those lives when I say that I know without a doubt, that my life has been made all the better for having gotten to know this energetic, committed, and truly inspiring woman who has always been in my corner, helping me along, learning from mistakes, and learning to become a better person, something that she always knew I was capable of being, even when I didn’t. I only hope that as I enter the same field as Cissy, that I will be able to help HALF as many students that she has. She truly is one-in-a-million.
– Adam Casler