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Amy Gershon: Director of Student Services Keeps SEIS Students at Full March to Graduation

By Joanie Harmon
Amy Gershon ('99, Ed.D., ELP) serves as the director of the Office of Student Services. Courtesy of Amy Gershon

ELP alumna supports students throughout their SEIS journey; leads this year's celebrations of the Classes of 2022, 2021, and 2020 on June 11.

Every fall, Amy Gershon (’99, Ed.D., Educational Leadership Program) is one of the first UCLA staff members to welcome new students to their programs at the UCLA School of Education and Information Studies. And every spring, she is one of the first to prepare them to take their places at commencement as they set forth on their journeys as teachers, librarians, administrators, and other career paths in education and information fields.

Gershon, who first began her UCLA career in 1995 as a judicial affairs coordinator in Residential Life, is currently the director of student services at SEIS. In this position, she has overseen the numerous administrative intricacies of graduate school for SEIS students – and now, for students in the new undergrad major in Education and Social Transformation.

A native of Kansas City, Gershon achieved her bachelor’s degree in psychology at Emory University in Atlanta, and her master’s degree in counselor education from the University of Virginia. Here, she shares the story of her educational and career path toward the job at UCLA that she has loved for the last 18 years; her pride in being a member of ELP’s Cohort Four; and the joy she feels each year as she organizes the School’s commencement ceremonies – made three times more special this year, as this week’s SEIS celebrations will also honor the Classes of 2020 and 2021. 

How did you arrive at UCLA?

I first came to UCLA in 1995, as the judicial affairs coordinator over in the Office of Residential Life. I was there for seven years and during that time, I got my doctorate in the Educational Leadership Program.

After seven years, I kind of felt like I had plateaued a little bit in my position, so I ended up moving to the University of Miami and got a job as the associate director of residential life there. But, after getting there I pretty quickly realized that L.A. was home. I had a very wonderful and supportive boss there who [said], “Hey, it’s okay, these things happen,” and was really gracious, so I moved back after a year. I didn't have a job but what happened was, I interviewed for this position that I have now. 

I didn't get it. Instead, they hired instead a woman who had worked in [UCLA] Summer Sessions, and it became this trickle effect where she came over to Ed & IS, her position opened up, and someone from the Dean of Students Office left and took [her] position in Summer Sessions. So, there was a position open in the Dean of Students Office, and because I had done work through my previous position as a judicial affairs coordinator, I went there on a contract basis. 

I was working there as the assistant dean of students, and I really wasn't sure that I wanted to stay working at the University. I thought that maybe I wanted to go into human resources or something else. But in March of 2004, then-Dean Aimée Dorr called me and said, “Hey, Amy, the person we hired is actually going to be leaving, and we really liked you - would you reconsider the position?”

I almost didn’t take it - I didn’t really know if I wanted to stay here. I was talking with a friend, and they [said], “Why would you not do it? It’s a great position, and you don’t have to stay forever.” I realized, “Yeah, that’s true.” So here I am 18 years later, and I have loved every minute of it.

What were some of the highlights of your graduate student experience in ELP?

The cohort model is phenomenal. Some of my dearest friends to this day are from that time. Our cohort had Jody Priselac and Annamarie Francois, so I [now] work with esteemed colleagues from my cohort. I learned a lot about myself, personally and professionally, and I think it positioned me well to get the [job] at the University of Miami, and then, the position here, because of the experience that I had through that program. 

I knew that I always wanted to get a doctorate, that was just something that was personally important to me. I had heard about the program and was excited.  It felt like something that was really in alignment with where I wanted to be professionally, focusing on leadership principles. That was important to me, so it was a good fit.

At every Fall Convocation, you introduce yourself as the woman who has already sent countless emails to the assembled students, even before the quarter has begun. What is it like to be able to guide them on their journey as graduate and now, undergraduate students at SEIS? 

At some points in time, it's more challenging than others just because of the sheer volume. But I love my job. I love the students I work with, the faculty and staff. I consider it a huge privilege to be able to be in the position that I'm in and to help students, that's my greatest joy. 

I know how challenging it can be to be a graduate student and so, anything that I can do to kind of alleviate some of that pressure and just help them get from beginning to end, I really consider a huge privilege. And now to be in a position to help undergraduate major students in their formative years is really exciting.

Has organizing the School’s commencement always part of your position?

Yes, as far as I know. When I came in in the spring of 2004, John Bollard, who was the director of student services prior to the person right before me, was of great assistance in providing guidance to me as far as getting the commencement ceremony details and stuff like that. 

At this point, commencement is kind of a well-oiled machine. We know the location, and we know how to do the lineup, and we always count on amazing volunteers to help us. It’s always been the best day of the year to me.  This year is an aberration, because we're planning three [ceremonies] in one day, but, hopefully, God willing, there will never be another pandemic. It’s still going on, but hopefully, from this point forward, all commencements will be in-person.

I have an amazing staff, my team in the Office of Student Services is incredible. I have a lot of additional support – Mitsue Yokota, Judy Miyoshi, and Olivia Diaz Ramirez are helping at various points in the day, so we get a lot of support.

We have approximately 85 students at the 2020 ceremony and about 76 students for the [2021] ceremony, so those numbers are a lot more manageable. The 2022 ceremony will have about 400 students. 

It’s massive, but I was just meeting with the staff, going over all the details and it's really going to be a special day. I’m just glad that we could do it. Even if it is only about 160 students for those other two ceremonies, those are 160 students that it’s going to mean something to. It’s going to be exciting.

Backtracking a bit to when you had to take this well-oiled commencement machine to a virtual platform, what were the challenges there?

That wasn't too bad. Fortunately, we worked with a company called Marching Order, and they had done this before.  We worked with Leigh Leveen and Paolo Cantos, who were really phenomenal as far as helping to get the speakers’ and the singers’ videos. 

We made the adjustment. Fortunately, it happened early enough. The end of March to June doesn't seem like a lot of time, but it was enough time to make it work, so I think it was it felt actually pretty seamless. 

Are there any new traditions or features to this year’s commencement ceremonies?

We’re starting each ceremony now with a moment of silence. In the past we have started our ceremonies traditionally with the National Anthem. Because that's raised some concerns because of the anthem’s racial history, I was trying to think of a better way to start the ceremony that would perhaps feel more inclusive of everyone in our community. 

So, we will be starting our ceremonies with a moment of silence, out of recognition for the over 1,000,000 lives lost to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the ongoing racial injustice that we are still dealing with, most recently with the white supremacist killing of the folks in Buffalo and the unfortunate and senseless gun violence that we still face as a nation, most recently with the elementary school shooting [in Uvalde, Texas]. 

We had four students who graduated and earned their degree [in the Education and Social Transformation program], in spring or summer of 2021. Two of them will actually be giving a speech at the 1:30 ceremony.  At the 5 p.m. ceremony, 44 of our undergraduate majors will be participating, so that’s exciting.          

The other thing to note is that very year, we audition folks to be the singer of the UCLA alma mater, “Hail to the Hills of Westwood.” This year, we had two students who [each] submitted an audition in acapella that was really unique, each of those in their own way. They really stood out to the [audition] committee, so we asked them if they would be willing to join voices - not having known each other and from two different programs – and they agreed. I’m really excited about that. I’m sure it’s going to be great. 

Every year that you create and watch the SEIS commencement, it must bring back memories of your own graduations – what is it like to be such a big part of this?

Literally, every time “Pomp and Circumstance” starts playing, and I see the students start to process in, I get chills. It's beautiful; it's meaningful. The students worked so hard to get to this point and the faculty too, in assisting the students. I honestly feel so honored that I can help put on such a great celebration. 

The other thing is because so many of our students are first-generation [college graduates], I love having it in Wilson Plaza, where we don't have to have tickets. We can open it up and if students want to bring 30 family members and friends, they can bring 30 family members and friends. I’m a believer in the more the merrier, and so I think that just adds to the celebratory nature of it.

What is your message to the Class of 2022, as well as the Classes of 2020 and 2021? 

Just a hearty congratulations. I know that they are going to be great ambassadors for the School of Education and Information Studies and for UCLA, and we're so proud of them.

For a schedule and information on commencement ceremonies for the UCLA Ed&IS Class of 2022, Class of 2021, and Class of 2020, visit the SEIS website.