By Grace Snell, COM 250 Reporter
Edited by Sydney Kate Watson, COM 303 Editor
MOUNT BERRY, Ga. — Katherine Powell stopped her class’s book discussion to start a game of fishbowl.
This memory left a lasting impression on sophomore Kennedy Eldridge, who was serving as Powell’s BCC 100 student mentor at the time. Eldridge said that Powell, director of the Office of First-Year Experience, hosted their BCC 100 class in her home for Berry’s Summer Reading Program. After a while, Powell brought the discussion to a close so that the group could spend time just getting to know each other through a game.As the founder of the Summer Reading Program, Powell certainly understood the value of discussion.
However, Powell also recognized the importance of relationships in learning. The fact that Powell took the time to demonstrate real relationship-building to her students in this way was particularly striking to Eldridge.
“She just really wanted to get to know people on a real level,” Eldridge said. “Like, ‘this is what relationships look like: we have intentional conversations, but we also play and have fun together.’”
This emphasis on having fun and building relationships has been a hallmark of Powell’s 32-year career at Berry College. Powell, who served as director of the Office of First-Year Experience for the past 22 years, will retire this summer.
According to Berry College President Steve Briggs, Powell will leave behind a legacy in the thousands of students whom she impacted.
Briggs said Powell’s work in developing BCC 100, Berry College’s First-Year Experience Program, was vital in helping students succeed.
According to Briggs, one of the most significant ways Powell influenced Berry students was through her work with the BCC 100 student mentors. Previously, the mentor program functioned in a more loosely organized manner, with mentors largely isolated from one another, Powell recalls. Now, Powell said, the First-Year Program has a strong training model and team culture.
This supportive network is what Aubrey McFayden, student coordinator for the Office of First-Year Experience, said will be Powell’s most lasting impact.
“Her legacy would be the mentor culture,” McFayden said. “That is something that is really important to her: having community on the mentor team and cultivating leadership.”
Powell herself agreed with this sentiment and said the evolution of the mentor program is the contribution with which she is happiest. McFayden said this positive growth, and the reason BCC 100 functions so well, is due to Powell’s work.
One of the distinct characteristics of Powell’s career was a focus on student leadership. As part of this training model, Powell encouraged student mentors to take ownership of their roles and find ways to improve the BCC 100 program.
Powell said it was 22 years ago, during her first year on the job, that Berry’s First-Year Service Day tradition started. Other aspects of the BCC 100 program, such as Mike Domitrz’s “Can I Kiss You?” presentation and the Summer Reading Program, also began during Powell’s career. Powell said that all these changes were part of a team effort and that she has learned from her students throughout her career.
“I can’t say I’ve done anything like ‘this was my idea and I did it myself,’” Powell said. “I’m proud of having collaborated with a lot of people on a lot of things.”
Just this year, Powell said her office gave more responsibilities to student mentors and found that they were equal to the challenge. For Powell, this student success brings great satisfaction.
“What is most gratifying about that is that everything that we have changed about the mentor program, that’s an improvement, has been something that came from mentor’s themselves,” Powell said.
An example of this student innovation is Berry’s MAD Theatre production, which raises awareness about challenging issues on campus. After she took a group of students to a conference on sexual assault in schools, Powell said the students came up with the idea of MAD Theatre themselves. Building on this idea, a group met in her home weekly to workshop the script, according to Powell.
Throughout her career, Powell brought a unique personality and mission to her work. Nick Fernandez, student coordinator of the Office of First-Year Experience, said Powell’s good sense of humor impacted her entire workplace. Eldridge said that Powell loves to crack jokes and laugh with people but is also very serious and intentional about the work that she does. Briggs agreed with Eldridge and said Powell brings a fun sparkle to the position but is also willing to challenge when needed.
“She’s willing to have a hard conversation, but she does it with such warmth and respect that you know she’s doing it because she wants the best from you,” Briggs said.
These aspects of Powell’s character have impacted the students with whom she worked. Eldridge said that watching Powell’s kind and joyful service has demonstrated what good leadership looks like. Eldridge also said that her BCC 100 students always had kind words to say about Powell. The students felt loved by the way Powell opened her office and home to them, which demonstrated her character, according to Eldridge.
For McFayden, the integrity shown by Powell in her daily work left a lasting impression.
“She’s taught me a lot about definitely the importance of the smaller roles and taking pride in the things that you don’t necessarily get credit for,” McFayden said.
Nevertheless, the unique work Powell accomplished at Berry did not go unnoticed. At a conference in Washington, D.C., this February, Powell gained national recognition for her work on behalf of first-year students at Berry College. One of only 10 recipients to be recognized in this way, Powell received the Outstanding First-Year Student Advocate Award for her service at Berry College.
In keeping with her dedication to students, Powell brought McFayden and Fernandez to share the moment of triumph. At this conference, which represented 1900 members and 20 countries, according to Fernandez, the three presented about the work they accomplished together. This opportunity for Powell to be recognized alongside her mentees, Briggs said, was a celebration of her work at every level.
“It’s what a good person, someone who has stewarded their role well for a long time—it’s what they deserve,” Briggs said.
While Powell said she hopes to pursue some of her hobbies such as gardening and traveling after her retirement, this is not the driving motivation behind her decision. Powell said she is leaving because she believes this is the right time for her to go.
“I realized whenever I left it was going to be really sad and really hard, but if I stayed until it wasn’t, then it would mean I had stayed too long,” Powell said.
Although Powell is leaving Berry physically, she hopes to stay connected to the Berry community. Powell said she has loved every day of work and will miss the fun, supportive community of the Office of First-Year Experience.
Fernandez said that when Powell retires, her loss will be greatly felt not only in the Office of First-Year Experience, but also across the whole campus.
“I think of a quote, it’s like, ‘People don’t always remember what you do or say, but they remember how you make them feel,’” Fernandez said. “I think everybody on this campus has in some way been touched by K.P.’s experience.”
Reflecting on her time spent with Powell, Eldridge said she will carry with her Powell’s model of relational leadership.
“Spending time with her has taught me a lot about what being a leader is,” Eldridge said.
“She is probably one of the most compassionate, kind people I’ve ever met, and she has this joy for life that is really contagious. So, I think I’ve learned what it looks like to be a leader that also cares about the relationship just as much as the task at hand.”