MJ McConner leans against a railing, smiling, in front of Zumberge Hall

Alumna returns to campus as ACE fellow to learn from university leaders

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In 2008, Mary “MJ” McConner was a GVSU student studying to be a psychologist. During her senior year, an on-campus internship in the Division of Student Affairs set her on a new path, and she has worked in higher education ever since. Now, 14 years later, McConner is back on campus as an American Council on Education (ACE) fellow, working with President Philomena V. Mantella and other senior leaders to learn about operating a large university.

Mary "MJ" McConner '08
Student Organizations

Welcome back to GVSU! What’s it been like being back on campus?

It’s great! I used to hang out in Kirkhof all the time; I had a friend named Laurence and we would play pool there. I love all the changes that have taken place, looking at the new programs and buildings. My office is in Zumberge Hall, which used to be the library. I remember pulling all-nighters there. Culturally, it has not lost the Grand Valley feel. I like the growth, I like what I’m seeing here.


How was your experience as a student?

It was important to find a university where I would not be just a number. I love the personalized attention you get as a student at Grand Valley. And culturally, there’s a strong sense of community. There were times when I experienced culture shock because the east side of the state is a lot different from the west side. But when I found some organizations to join, it really had a positive impact on me.

My academic programs set me up to learn how to think like a scholar and a researcher. There’s no way I could have earned advanced degrees without the education and knowledge I received from my psychology courses. They set that foundation for me to think differently and creatively.

Did you have mentors who made an impact on you?

Yes, Tom Coy and Valerie Holmes in the Student Life office. Tom oversaw Greek life and Valerie oversaw the Laker Leadership Program. I was interning in their office when I realized, “I like the impact they have had on me and so many others. I want to pay it forward one day.”

Your current role at Christian Brothers University is vice president for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. How did you get involved in DEI work?

I’ve always done research in that area. My dissertation was on understanding the experiences of foreign- and U.S.-educated faculty members at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). I’ve always worked in international education or multicultural student services.

I have gained all this global DEI experience by working with our international faculty scholars and students, and looking at the services we provide for students of color and underrepresented students. 

What is the ACE fellowship and why did you want to come back to GVSU?

The ACE fellowship gives people the opportunity to experience areas and functions within higher education that are outside of their current expertise. There are 52 people in my cohort and we’ve each been placed at different universities. I picked GVSU. 

It was important to me to come back to Grand Valley for several reasons. I work at  a small, private institution, which is very different from working at a state university with 23,000-plus students. And it was important for me to give back to my alma mater. I wanted to help with some of the major decisions and promote the work of the institution. 

I came at an interesting time because the Reach Higher 2025 strategic plan has been a big point of conversation. President Mantella is another reason. It was important for me to work with a female president, because, as a woman, if I do become a president, it would be wonderful to have Philly as a mentor and role model.

How have you been involved in the Laker community?

I was recently appointed to the GVSU Alumni Association Board of Directors. At my first board meeting it felt good to hear other alumni talk about what we can do to best serve the community, especially our students. We talked about different issues, like student mental health, and how we can work as advocates. 

How would you encourage alumni to engage with GVSU?

I would like to see more alumni take on a “lift as you climb” approach to serving our students. When you graduate, you may give financially but maybe you’re not very invested. You have your life, family and so many obligations. You don’t always think, “Is there a student who could use my support?”

As a woman of color, I don’t think I would have been as successful as I was at Grand Valley without mentors like Valerie and Tom, and others who supported me. I would love to see our alumni of color lift up our students. 

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