Over the past academic year, five Mercer University staff members have been honored and praised for their dedication and passion for serving students.
Dr. Michelle Garber, Josh Gaisser, Sarah Janusz, Shoshannah Henry and Cynthia Edwards-Wright are the first winners of the peer-nominated Excellence in Student Service Award, created and facilitated by the Bear Excellence Committee for Student Service.
“All five staff members who were awarded the certificates are perfect examples of what it takes to serve our students,” said Brenda Austrie-Cannaday, member of the Bear Excellence Committee nominating subcommittee and international students and scholars coordinator. “They all have an innate inner joy for helping, caring, listening, advocating, celebrating, advising and being exceptional resourceful staff members to our students and their families on a daily basis.”
The Bear Excellence Committee was established in January 2021 with the purpose of celebrating, advising and resourcing student service initiatives at Mercer, and the superlative award recognizes staff members who go above and beyond to have a positive impact on their students and meet their unique needs.
“We are incredibly proud of the way these Bear Excellence winners demonstrate a commitment to serving Mercerians across all of our locations,” said Dr. Penny Elkins, senior vice president for enrollment management. “Their focus on cultivating the individualized student experience exemplifies the Mercer standard of excellence and clearly reveals the ‘why’ behind the work that we do. ‘To serve’ is a key tenet of the Mercer mission statement and these team members take pride in living out this imperative on a daily basis.”
Dr. Michelle Garber
Dr. Garber, director of academic success and assessment for the McAfee School of Theology, was awarded the first Excellence in Student Service Award in September. She is a Double Bear who graduated with a Master of Divinity from the School of Theology in 2003 and Ph.D. in educational leadership from the College of Education in 2011.
She has worked for the School of Theology since 2000, first as a student worker, then part time for a year, and full time since 2004. In her current role, her responsibilities revolve around academic success and assessment. Dr. Garber compiles and analyzes data that is reported to outside agencies and used in determining areas of improvement for the school. In addition to advising students, she guides faculty on working with their students, measuring outcomes and building relationships.
“Academic success is a lot of things,” she said. “Advising isn’t just about finding the right course schedule. It’s also checking in with students to see how they are doing spiritually, emotionally, vocationally, financially, and seeing what resources we can provide them to help them be successful.”
Dr. Garber also helps students maintain scholarship requirements; looks at their curriculum and graduation requirements; and makes sure they know the resources available to them. Seminary is difficult, and she finds it rewarding to be able to help students broaden their horizons, make connections, and find healthy ways to approach and manage their educational journeys.
“My favorite parts are working with the students and helping them succeed, helping them discover their passion and their voice,” she said.
Gaisser, who received the award in October, has worked at Mercer for almost six years, first as area coordinator for Housing and Residence Life in Macon and now as assistant director of that office.
“My main responsibility is just helping to make sure that the residence halls on campus are positive, safe, successful locations where students can grow and thrive,” he said. “In a nutshell, it’s helping to create that home-away-from-home experience for students, helping to make sure our students feel welcome and comfortable in their environments.”
That includes helping train the resident assistants and supervising staff members who oversee them, crisis response, and addressing after-hours incidents and emergencies. Gaisser, who lives on the Macon campus, has an open-door policy when it comes to meeting with students, and he is active in student life, including playing intramural sports with students.
“It absolutely always comes down to the students, being able to help make a positive difference in the lives of students, helping them find themselves and find their community here at Mercer,” he said. “I especially love helping to train our students into student leaders, giving them the tools and confidence they need to be successful in a student leadership position, and being that source of comfort during those difficult moments.”
Gaisser said the best part of his job is being a champion for students and helping them turn their ideas into successful endeavors, whether that’s getting a job on campus, scoring a good grade, creating a campus organization or something entirely different. He’s grateful to be part of an amazing staff team in Housing and Residence Life and also to be working alongside students.
Janusz, a three-year Mercer staff member who was also recognized in October, wears many hats in her role as Atlanta Student Affairs administrative assistant. Student Affairs includes Sports Recreation and Wellness, Counseling and Psychological Services, Center for Career and Professional Development, and Housing, and she provides assistance on projects for those departments whenever needed, including for programs and events.
“Working with students, that’s why we’re all here,” said Janusz, who earned a master’s degree in higher education leadership at Mercer in 2021. “That feeling like I’ve helped the student or impacted them in a positive way is very rewarding. There are so many things that I’ve learned from the students who I’ve worked with. That’s what helped me grow in my time as a student and in my role.”
A big part of her job is helping students in need of special access or accommodations. Janusz interviews them, provides them with information and walks them through the online application process.
“I am very honored to be able to assist with that, and that’s where my passion and my purpose lie,” she said. “We’re creating more comfort, more awareness.”
Having a hand in many different areas and having recently been a student in Mercer classrooms have given Janusz a strong understanding of how all the parts of the student experience intersect, and that knowledge has allowed her to better assist students and point them to the proper resources, she said.
“The Bear Excellence award was a surprise to me, because how does someone stand out when their whole team is amazing?” she said. “I was just doing what I thought I wanted to be doing and what I thought would be the right thing to do. To have an award for that is so very flattering, but it’s humbling too to feel that Mercer is thankful for what I’m doing.”
Henry, director of student financial planning for the Atlanta campus and Regional Academic Centers since fall 2020, loves the variety and creativity that her job offers. She was presented with the Excellence in Student Service Award in November.
She is responsible for financial counseling of graduate students at the Atlanta campus and working adult students at the Regional Academic Centers. She works with students every day, talking with them about their situation, financial needs and goals. From there, she is able to advise them on what assistance they may need and what resources and scholarships are available.
The goal is to show students how to plan for life financially after graduation and also make them understand the implications of high student loan debt.
“I love the variety,” Henry said. “Here it’s always different, whether it’s scholarship related or working with another department on improving our process and services to students.”
Henry is thankful for her team and for the unwavering support that she receives from her supervisors, who allow her to speak up and put initiatives into action that she thinks would be successful. She loves that she can be creative in the ways that she reaches students and teaches them to be financially responsible.
“It meant everything for me to receive that award because at that time, we were at the close of the semester and things were ramping up,” she said. “It really lifted my spirits. It let me know that I was valued and appreciated. I really felt the love.”
As credentialing coordinator, Cynthia Edwards-Wright gets to know every student in the College of Health Professions’ physician assistant program. Her dedication to those students earned her recognition from the Bear Excellence Committee earlier this month.
Her main responsibilities revolve around credentialing students with health care organizations and hospitals, so they can go on rounds with their preceptors in their assigned clinical rotations. The program generally has a clinical cohort of 70 students each year, which means she credentials students for a total 770 clinical rotations.
“Being a solid support is enjoyable in that I get to witness where the students start out and how they progress through the clinical phase of their education. As a member of the clinical team, I kind of consider myself the anchorman, where each person on our team has a particular responsibility, and as their responsibilities are filled pertaining to students, the baton is passed to the next person on the team,” she said. “I’m the last person on the team that gets the baton every 4 1/2 weeks to get them to the finish line. I get enjoyment out of the success of the clinical team as a whole as well as the success of the students each time they complete a clinical rotation.”
Edwards-Wright is in constant contact with students, mainly by email but also by Zoom, phone calls and in person when they have questions or issues. In addition, Edwards-Wright handles admissions credentialing for the program, making sure required health documentation is received and vetted for all incoming students.
She said the Excellence in Student Service Award came as an unexpected and heartwarming surprise to her.
“To be recognized for the work that I do that I absolutely love and enjoy, it was just icing on the cake,” she said. “I feel proud to be part of the Mercer bear community. I’m a little bit of a mama bear. I always make myself available to stand in the gap with or for students when they’re in the field. They have so much that they’re already juggling. I’m ready to do whatever I can to help and enhance their clinical education”