When we caught up with Jamie Motley, the inaugural Anne Shen Chao ’74 Director of Student Success within the College’s new Anne Shen Chao ’74 Office of Student Success (OSS), she was getting ready to head to the grocery store to buy treats for the office’s eight student workers, who were planning a Thanksgiving meal. For Motley, it’s all about the first-generation, low-income students she serves—making them feel welcome, supported, and at home at Wellesley.
“The OSS is focused on the development of the whole person, and this requires collaboration across the entire College,” says Motley. “Rather than one short and concise definition of success, we’re looking at multiple success indicators, such as increased self-efficacy and interdependence, critical thinking and problem-solving skills, as well as leadership development.” It’s vital to meet students where they are and provide holistic advising, she says.
Motley grew up on the South Side of Chicago. Her mother was a nurse, and her father was a musician. “The expectation always was that I would go to college,” she says. Although not strictly first-generation herself, Motley was the first in her family to enroll in college straight out of high school, and the first to live on campus.
At Western Illinois University, Motley majored in journalism. “I wanted to tell people’s stories,” she says. During her undergraduate years, she wrote for the student paper and assembled a portfolio of clips. Back home in Chicago, she knocked on the door of the Tribune and the Sun Times, but there was no interest in her. “The story would have been different if I had had internships,” she says. “I could have used a mentor.”
She aims to make sure that Wellesley’s first-generation, low-income students never feel that lack.
Motley briefly worked at a magazine after college, but unethical practices there prompted her to quit. “But I had a studio apartment and a car and bills to pay,” she says. A friend connected her with a position at a child welfare agency, where she managed a heavy caseload of children from 4 months old to age 14. “I saw horrific things,” she says. “And I had an epiphany: I wanted to do something where I could actually change people’s lives.”
That meant going back to school. “We didn’t have much money when I was growing up, but we had books,” Motley says. “When I asked questions, my mom always said, ‘Look it up.’ So I did, and found out about graduate programs and financial support.” She enrolled at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, where she earned both her M.Ed. in higher education administration and Ph.D. in educational policy studies.
“I had never contemplated getting a Ph.D., but other people suggested I could, and I started to consider it myself,” she says. “That just shows the power of mentors and professors—of having someone believe in you.”
Motley went on to leadership positions at colleges and universities in Illinois, Georgia, Alabama, and Missouri. Then, in 2021, she and her husband, Robert Motley Jr., moved east for his job at the Boston College School of Social Work, where he studies the intersection of racism, violence, and trauma for Black emerging adults. She also worked at BC, but “the stars aligned” when the opportunity at Wellesley opened up.
Motley says she is proud of her office’s accomplishments since she arrived on campus in January 2022, including participation in the national First Gen Summit, holding a week of on-campus programming during first gen week, and the formation of a first gen advisory committee, consisting of 29 faculty, staff, and students from across the College who are committed to helping these students thrive.
There is still much work to be done. “For our first-gen, low-income students, the obstacles are often present before they ever step foot on campus,” Motley says. “Some must navigate their entire college application process with little or no support. They then have to learn how to thrive in a rigorous academic environment where there are often unspoken or unclear rules and expectations. They must also deal with things like impostor syndrome, and working one or more jobs to support themselves and their families. It takes a community of support to help the students understand that they truly do belong here, then make it possible for them to excel.”
She adds, “These students bring the diversity we need in the College and in the world.”
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