Emma Garry: Growing Others Through Leadership
Elementary education major Emma Garry began her college experience majoring in business management at Penn State. However, six weeks in, her interest in the subject sharply waned. She started the following semester with a new major – history – a result of her affinities for historical events and the History Channel and her keen abillity to remember facts. She soon felt that something was lacking. “While I liked my classes,” she remembers, “and the professors were interesting, it was all just kind of…dry.” She deemed that a location change would boost her dimming interest and applied to AU, situated in the history-rich locale of Washington, DC.
In May 2021, she was accepted into AU, but she was still determining her academic path. One day, her mother asked her, “Have you considered going into teaching?” For Emma, everything immediately clicked: she loved history, had coached young athletes, loved people, and regularly volunteered to work with children.
At the onset of the fall 2021 semester, she set up a meeting with SOE Academic Advisor Jody Hagen-Smith, who recalls her tenacity, “After reviewing her credits, because of her starts with two other majors, I realized that she was going to have to take 17 credits a semester at SOE for her to graduate on time, somewhat of a tall order. Emma is a trooper, a quintessential hard worker. We are so proud of her.” Garry enthusiastically declared elementary education as her new undergraduate degree program and quickly flourished.
“The culture of SOE was great,” Garry remembers. “I was nervous about having yet another major, this time in at a new university, but the people there – the staff and faculty – were more social, helpful, courteous, and more interested in me than I had experienced in the environments of my two previous majors. It calmed me down and brought out the best in me.” Her confidence grew, and her evolution to becoming a student leader began to take shape.
SOE Professor of Special Education and Director of the school’s Institute for Innovation in Education (IIE), Dr. Sarah Irvine Belson, asked her Principles of Behavior Management students if anyone would be interested in becoming an online platform management intern for the DC Capital Area Branch of the International Dyslexia Association (IDA), where she served as president. Garry was the sole student to raise her hand.
“I had already been impressed with Emma’s focus and passion. She wasn't afraid to challenge me or her fellow students on how we framed our understandings of students' lived experiences, and she was always ready to learn how she could be a change agent in the world,” said Belson. “I was so lucky she raised her hand and that I was able to work with her over the years at the IDA, where she is an understanding partner and talented collaborator.”
Fostered by her growing desire to engender positive change, Garry became an AU undergraduate senator in the spring of 2022. Senators “represent, legislate, and delineate policies regarding the concerns of the American University undergraduate student body on academics, programming, and university policy. They represent every college and undergraduate class and the Campus ‘At-Large’ within the university.” It was an ideal vehicle for her to learn about student government, student life, and university policies, and she absorbed every bit of information possible. Her tenure as senator would be short-lived, nevertheless. During her first month in the role, she learned that each school at AU had an Undergraduate Council (UGC) – a student-run organization within a university school that helps its students reach their full potential through advocacy, informational resources, events, leadership opportunities, etc. – and discovered that SOE’s UGC lacked a president.
At SOE, Garry had become well-known and well-liked by SOE’s student body, staff, and faculty. She was now a mentee of Belson, whom she was still interning for and learning a great deal about the school from. She was ready to contribute to the school, now an integral part of her life, and her vision of managing student affairs at SOE was palpable.
She immediately partnered with a classmate, secondary education major Brian Kramer, and mounted a plan for him to run as her vice president to help each other win the ticket. Both campaigns were successes, and the two now lead SOE’s Undergraduate Student Council.
A candidate for spring ’23 commencement, Garry is also in the throes of student teaching. During this required training, SOE teacher candidates learn and practice teaching at a local school under the guidance of a mentoring teacher.
Utterly busy but committed, her primary UGC tasks include meetings: with SOE’s dean to address student concerns and discuss ideas for potential SOE/UGC collaborations; with students to answer questions and share advice ranging from course sequence to handling issues; with her UGC peers to discuss AU Student Government happenings, advocacy, and events; and with entities within the larger AU community on the behalf SOE students. A recent outcome resulted in AU Shuttle Buses providing increased service to the Spring Valley Building – where SOE is located – benefitting students taking evening classes.
She longs to keep her UGC successes intact as she prepares to graduate by helping SOE’s future student leaders. She imparts five tips for being an effective UGC president.
- Be confident. “Confidence in your words and actions will make others respect and listen to you. Bringing up concerns with authority figures requires this. It is your responsibility to sometimes deliver strong messages to them so you can help the students who elected you.”
- Be flexible. “I love structure and schedules, but, the fact is, I can’t control everything. Deciding what is worth fighting for and what is worth moving past is a skill that demands flexibility. Being flexible has made my role as UGC president and my life so much easier.”
- Manage your time. “Being a student leader comes with a lot of responsibilities. I wouldn’t be able to do it if I didn’t organize my time. There are many items available to help with time management. I started with entering things-to-do into my phone’s calendar.”
- Be willing to learn. “As UGC president, I had to quickly learn how to carry out so many tasks I didn’t know how to do, and I needed to ask numerous questions (including questions to find out who I needed to pose questions to). I learned early on that if I was willing to learn, I wouldn’t get frustrated about this. Interestingly, I often received better assistance if I mentioned to someone that I was ‘still learning.’”
- Have passion. “Being a student leader is a lot of work. I’m only able to do it because I’m passionate about making SOE the best version of itself. The long hours I spend attending meetings, writing emails, debating, and doing everything else is worth it because I know that, at the end of the day, I’m helping SOE’s current and future students have a community they feel connected to and can trust.”
Garry’s immediate post-graduation plans call for her to continue growing and relying on her leadership acumen. She will be looking for both a job and a new residence, as well as continuing the planning of her summer wedding to her high school sweetheart.