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Rebecca Halligan said student engagement is a cornerstone to student success in college. "An engaged student is going to be a successful student," she said. (Contributed photo)

Meet-a-Ram: Rebecca Halligan, who helps develop VCU’s student leaders

As associate director for the Office of Student Leadership and Engaged Learning, Halligan wants students to feel both challenged and accepted.

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In her job as associate director for the Office of Student Leadership and Engaged Learning, Rebecca (Becca) Halligan supports VCU’s Transform Living-Learning and

Emerging Leaders Programs along with the Peer Leadership Initiative. She focuses on developing student leaders and wants them to feel challenged, accepted and cared for in all three programs, she said.

Originally from Burlington, Vermont, Halligan graduated from Chatham College in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with bachelor’s degrees in music (vocal performance) and psychology. She received her master’s in higher education-student affairs administration from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

Halligan was living outside of New York City when she and her husband decided to move to the Richmond area to be closer to family.

Why did you decide to take a job with VCU?

I have always been enamored by public universities and the educational access they provide to students. Fortunately for me, VCU had a few positions open, and I quickly applied. I was hired to work as a coordinator for student leadership in 2014, and while it was a step back in my professional career to make this move for my family, I have loved the transition to VCU, the community and the students. VCU is a special place. It is what has kept me here for eight years.

What is it that you like most about your job?

Working in higher education in student engagement is rewarding because it is a cornerstone to student success in college. An engaged student is going to be a successful student. I love that I get to spend time engaging and supporting students in our programs, challenging them in the classroom, and helping them apply their knowledge of leadership to their outside-the-classroom activities. What I love most about my job is seeing our students graduate and knowing that we were a small part of their future success.

What's a typical day like for you?

No day working in student affairs is typical. My team oversees three high-touch programs, and we spend a lot of time supporting our students both in person and administratively. On a normal day, you will see me in the classroom teaching our “Foundations of Leadership Studies” course (UNIV270) to our first-year students in the Emerging Leaders Program. On the back end, I am planning programs, supporting our assistant director team, working on recruitment efforts, making connections with alumni and finding ways to strategically position our programs for expansion and greater successes. 

What part of your work can be challenging?

As we continue to adjust to the ever-changing pandemic environment, it has been hard to anticipate the needs of our students. Some students have spent the last two years in high school with varying levels of engagement or access to in-person activities. Our upper-class students have had a variety of experiences and are adjusting to a more “normal” experience as a student. We have found students are still in survival mode and that engagement outside of the classroom is less prioritized than before ... and I get it. It’s hard to commit to something when you don't know what the next months will bring. It has been a challenge to inspire students to participate in programs that might take up additional time, despite knowing the positive impact. Shifting our programs to accommodate the changing priorities of a VCU student during the pandemic is exhilarating and exhausting. I am grateful to have the time and platform with our students to engage, learn, and adjust as needed. 

What motivates you?

Personally, I am motivated by my daughters. Every day I hope they see me authentically and as they get older, are inspired that they have a career-focused mother who is balancing more than what I sometimes feel is humanly possible. Professionally, I am motivated by my students. Our VCU students are some of the most brilliant and inspirational students I have ever met. I don't know if people tell them that enough – if not, I hope that they read this. I am motivated in that the work I am doing in supporting student leaders will hopefully benefit us all in the future, because I am confident that our VCU students will change the world.  

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?

I have always been taught by my mother to be a good human and above all else to be kind. This is something I pride myself in. In this often-contentious climate, kindness allows us to continue to maintain a human connection with one another. It refocuses self-awareness and encourages self-care and kindness to oneself. For me, I value people and relationships and that is displayed through my interactions and priorities in providing nonjudgmental, compassionate and supportive environments.

Who is your dream dinner companion and why?

To be honest, it would be a dream to have dinner with my maternal grandmother, Angie. I was fortunate to have her in my life until she was 90 but wasn't astute enough in my time with her to appreciate her power and wisdom. She was an immigrant from Slovenia and her story is of resilience, perseverance and strength that comes from a long line of stubborn matriarchs. I see a lot of myself in her now and wish I could hear her stories again from where I am now in my life. 

What's your favorite movie and why?

My father is a retired film professor, so I grew up watching foreign films, black and white classics, musicals, and blockbusters. If I were to pick my current favorite film based on the impact it has had on my current stage in life, it would be Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival.” I have always been drawn to science fiction and this movie was an exploration of language, perception and human relationships. The film spoke to a deeper question my family has struggled with, which is, “If you could see your whole life from start to finish, would you change things?” We had to ask ourselves this question the hard way in 2016 when we welcomed our beautiful second daughter, Maggie, into the world and lost her 11 days later. The movie's question helped us reframe our trauma and allowed us to search for meaning and significance. We observed the immense level of impact of her short life, the relationships we built in our time in the VCU NICU, and the gratitude we have for our ability to share her story. A year to the day after Maggie passed, we welcomed her younger sister into the world. “Arrival” asked us if we would change things if we could see our life and know the outcome, for us the answer is no. We are grateful for our journey through loss, the incredible connections we have established and the perspective it gave us on the meaning of life.