By Bethany Leggett
There is a new face to greet the Wake Forest Scholars this fall. Jackie Sheridan, the new director of the Wake Forest Scholars Program, has quickly settled into the role that oversees hundreds of student scholars and supports their intellectual and personal growth as they navigate the complexities of post-graduate scholarships and fellowships that fit their academic interests and goals.
Scholars have already been introducing themselves to Sheridan, some even before she arrived in Winston Salem. “I’m already impressed at their ideas and initiative. It’s going to be exciting to see them and all of our students grow and learn at Wake Forest University, and then take those skills out into the world to make an even greater impact,” Sheridan said.
Prior to her arrival at Wake, Sheridan served two years as the Associate Director of Post-Baccalaureate Opportunities at Vanderbilt University. She has also been the Senior Program Manager for the Pickering Fellowship at the Washington Center for Internships and Academic Seminars. She remembers how the support and guidance she received as an undergraduate at the University of Notre Dame impacted her then, and her career in higher education has been shaped around the idea that such support can be transformative for young adults. “I’ve long enjoyed helping students participate in transformative experiences that can change the trajectory of their lives, whether through the tailored experiential education programs I ran in Washington, D.C., preparing future diplomats with the Pickering Fellowship Program, or supporting students applying for opportunities like the Fulbright Scholarship at Vanderbilt University,” Sheridan said.
Sheridan’s interest in coming to Wake Forest is centered around the university’s reputation in providing exceptional undergraduate education that develops students into young leaders who are engaged in their community. “Excellent education and training is important — and Wake has that in spades — but it must be dedicated to a higher purpose. Pro Humanitate encompasses that, and in all of my conversations with students, staff, and faculty, it’s clear that Demon Deacons believe that their motto is meant to be lived,” Sheridan said.
Jim O’Connell (’13) has seen firsthand the impact the Scholars Office can have on a student’s academic path. After being mentored by former director Tom Phillips, O’Connell received a Rhodes Scholarship to attend Oxford University. O’Connell, who also served on the search committee for the directorship this year, said Sheridan’s “authenticity, intellect, and wit” and her commitment to guiding students towards a broad array of scholarships “without becoming too obsessed with winning any given competition” is the embodiment of the pro humanitate spirit that the Scholars Office is known for. “More important than any discrete outcome is engaging in a sound process; I know Jackie and her team will design one of the finest scholarship and fellowship application processes in higher education. Our students stand to benefit immensely,” O’Connell said.
As Sheridan gets settled into her directorship, she hopes to find ways for merit scholars to feel connected and supported under COVID-19 circumstances. That may mean Zoom gatherings or phone calls — “for when you don’t want to put on ‘real clothes’ for a chat,” she says — or socially distanced walks. “The more creative we can get, the better,” Sheridan said. “This summer, I tested out a successful Zoom Trivia Night with my family, so that might even make an appearance.”
Ultimately, she hopes to learn more about the students and Wake at the same time. “While my main goal is to learn how I can help, I also want to get to know the person I’m talking to. That means our conversations will often have digressions into favorite books, classes, and movies. Being new to Wake and Winston, students can expect a lot of questions about both of those, too. I was bemused at first that there were toilet paper rolls on my WFU facemask, but now I know why they’re there,” she said of the time-honored tradition of rolling the quad in toilet paper to celebrate athletic victories.
Alyssa Howards, Associate Professor and Chair of German and Russian, served on the search committee for the new director. Howards was struck by Sheridan’s extensive interdisciplinary academic background — which includes political science, Russian, East European Studies, peace studies, and a certificate in Project Management — and feels this “perfectly sets her up as someone who will be able to tap into the qualifications of WFU students, many of whom are also pursuing multiple concurrent academic paths.” Howards also said Sheridan is “a big-picture thinker, who is able to get from point A to point B while being appreciative of the many different personalities and processes involved. Indeed, Jackie emphasized that her position is all about relationships. She is extremely excited to meet not just the students, faculty, and staff who will be directly involved with her position, but — and this really struck me in her interviews — she is also eager to meet every constituent of the WFU campus. I’m extremely excited to welcome such a gifted community builder.”
Like Howards, Dalia Namak (‘19), last year’s Wake Forest Fellow in the Office of the Dean of the College, met Sheridan during the interview process and was impressed with Sheridan’s desire to incorporate the larger campus community as a support system for scholars. “She realizes the relational nature of our campus connections and is developing a vision to strategically collaborate with student-facing offices to allow for greater interface with students. She believes faculty and staff are key stakeholders in motivating and supporting our students in their academic initiatives outside of the classroom,” Namak said.
Also on Sheridan’s agenda for the Scholars program: focusing on the depth and breadth of external fellowships. “Scholarship opportunities aren’t just for graduating seniors; there are lots of awards out there that younger students are eligible for, which can be stepping stones to further adventures,” she said.
Dylan King (‘20), who was awarded a Marshall Scholarship in December 2019 to attend the University of Cambridge for his master’s degree in pure mathematics, also served on the search committee this year. For King, it was important that the new director exhibit more than the required scholastic background but also show a heart for students. “I think that she will be both persuasive and well-received by students and faculty — no easy task. Of course, she has first-rate credentials as an adviser, but, just like the exiting director of the Scholars program, her gravitas and charisma will prove invaluable,” King said. He recalled a moment during the interview process where Sheridan mentioned her interest in music, which resonated with King. “I think this bodes very well for her involvement in the Wake Forest and broader Winston-Salem community. Students, faculty, and administrators alike are all humans outside academia, and it’s always wonderful when we can support each other outside the classroom,” he said.
For current and future scholars, King reminds them that Wake Forest is rooting for them. “Jackie Sheridan is the primary interface for this support system, and future scholars should look to her (and other members of the university network) for guidance, without hesitation,” he said.
“I can’t wait for our students, staff, and faculty to meet Jackie. We combed the country to find the ideal person to take on this critically important role, and despite all the challenges COVID posed, we found her,” said Michele Gillespie, Dean of the College and chair of the search committee.