With Gratitude, Carrie McLean Says Goodbye After More Than 35 Years of Service
Known across campus and nationally for her expertise in student advising, the longtime assistant dean is retiring at the end of this year.
It’s not easy for anyone at NC State who has worked with, been counseled by, or been friends with Carrie McLean, Assistant Dean of University College, to imagine what things will be like after she retires at the end of this month after more than 35 years of service.
She will be sorely missed by her current students and colleagues, yet her long-lasting and positive impact is indelible and will influence the Wolfpack indefinitely through those who have experienced her deep listening and caring nature.
No Obstacles, Only Hurdles
Ask any of the students that McLean has advised or any of her colleagues, and they will affirm that she lives by her motto: “I don’t see obstacles, only hurdles.”
Obstacles block you, McLean says. “I prefer to frame anything that may be a challenge as a hurdle because we can all jump over the hurdles in life and keep on going. In life, we face lots of hurdles – but they shouldn’t block us or stop us. We can find a way around them.”
The biggest hurdle McLean has faced in her life at NC State is the loss of her son and a number of very impactful mentors who have passed away.
“These people were well established in the field of advising, committed to people development, and taught me lessons that can’t be found in a book,” she said. “They delivered hard lessons in soft packaging and helped me to see my own strengths and weaknesses and to envision a new future. Losing those great people like Gus Witherspoon, John Ambrose and Thomas Conway has been rough.”
McLean’s father was her greatest mentor, and she considers him the wisest man she’s ever met. “He had an eighth-grade education and was brilliant,” she said. “He loved people and giving, and I never imagined I’d turn out to be like him. But my passion in life aligned with his and I’m so grateful.”
An Unexpected Journey
Growing up in Warsaw, N.C. in rural Duplin County — a town with a smaller population than the NC State campus — with 10 brothers and sisters from the same mom and dad, there was always someone talking.
“That’s how I learned how to be a great listener,” McLean said. “One of our family values was to give people the benefit of the doubt and realize that you can learn from anybody. I learned to respect all people, including the people in society that many might feel are less worthy of respect (incarcerated people, drug addicts, etc.). I would see my father ask them how they ended up where they were in life, give them jobs and help them pull themselves up. I didn’t realize this was my early training in counseling and prepared me for my life work.
I bring respect to each person and realize that people don’t always choose the situations they are in. And, no matter what situation the person is in, they still deserve respect. I respect and I listen. And I’m patient to a fault sometimes.
“I bring respect to each person and realize that people don’t always choose the situations they are in,” McLean continued. “And, no matter what situation the person is in, they still deserve respect. I respect and I listen. And I’m patient to a fault sometimes.”
In high school, McLean was told she was good at math and science, and NC State gave her a scholarship for its College of Engineering.
“I was completely clueless about what to do with myself as a freshman, and I didn’t really know what all of this meant,” she recalled. “Thinking I was going to be an engineer, but soon realizing that this major didn’t really align with my strengths, I had the tough decision to make about changing majors. This drives my passion for students who want to change majors because I know what that feels like. Meeting with these students, I can share my confidence in their ability to move to the next place and go in the direction they want to go, and they can be successful.
“Once I accepted my passion for helping people, I knew what I wanted to do, professionally and personally,” McLean continued. “I can be there for students, colleagues, cashiers, a distressed person in the community, someone who is parentless or homeless – I always have something to offer.”
McLean received a B.A. in communications from NC State in 1985 and began working in the NC State Libraries until 1999, all the while pursuing her master of education and master of library and information science degrees. She worked in the First Year College as an academic advisor/lecturer/coordinator of diversity until 2003, when she moved into positions as interim director and associate director of First Year College, executive director of advising for the Division of Undergraduate Academic Programs, and assistant dean of University College in 2014, and in 2015 she received a doctorate degree in counseling and counselor education.
Helping Others Chart their Courses
McLean encourages people to concentrate more deeply on what they want in life rather than the accumulation of material things. “We hear things or see people that sound grandiose, and suddenly we think we want these things,” she said. “Students are stressed out because they feel like they have to have the highest paying job, and they have to get out of college and make a lot of money. But we don’t always take the opportunity to ask questions like, who am I? What are my strengths? What can I best contribute to this world?
“We’ve all been given a lot in life, whether we know it or not, and sometimes we are less grateful than we ought to be,” McLean continued. “Looking beyond material possessions, everyone has something to give and everyone can make a difference for someone else. In this respect, I am not retiring but transitioning to a life space with more liberty to contribute to society in different ways. For that opportunity, I am excited and I look forward to new opportunities.”
An Unbelievable Resource
Holly Hurlburt, assistant dean of University College, said she feels both wonderful and terrible that McLean is leaving. “I’m so happy for her to begin this next phase of her life, and… I’ll miss her terribly! There will be a hole in University College when she retires.”
Two years ago, Hurlburt came to NC State for an interview and McLean was the first person she met. “She collected me from my hotel and took me to campus. The short time that we had together impacted me so strongly; her calm, happy and genuine attitude made a strong impression.
“She is a generous soul as a person and is an unbelievable resource because of her knowledge of this institution,” Hurlburt added. “She has been instrumental in building a culture of diversity and equity into University College because of her genuine concern and her commitment to helping people find their way.”
Hurlburt feels lucky to have had the chance to work with McLean for the past six months. “During COVID-19, Carrie has worked harder than anyone else to check in with folks and make sure they are okay.”
A Gifted Advisor with a Lasting Legacy
Mike Mullen, professor of soil sciences and former vice chancellor and dean of the Division of Academic and Student Affairs, began working with McLean in 2012 when she served as the director for First Year College, a unit that provides advising for the 700-900 students not assigned to a major. “She was instrumental in this role and in building a proactive advising program,” Mullen said.
Her reputation on campus was remarkable, and Mullen worked with her to elevate her position to the assistant dean of University College and executive director for advising services for the campus.
“She’s had a tremendous impact on tens of thousands of students since the transformation of Exploratory Studies,” Mullen said. “She cares deeply and genuinely about students, faculty and staff. I’ve seen her drop everything to meet with a student in need. She is always part of the solution, and she makes herself available to students beyond University College who have advising issues.”
Students aren’t the only ones who benefit from McLean’s concern. “We met regularly, and no matter what we were meeting about — projects, issues, etc. — the first thing she would say to me is, ‘So how are you doing Mike Mullen?’ She knew that the work was stressful for me and for those around her, and she always checked in with her colleagues, no matter how her day was going.
“She is a gifted advisor who has mentored and shepherded scores of amazing advisors here,” Mullen continued. “Her leaving is going to leave a huge hole in the University College machinery. We’re happy to see her enjoying life outside academia, spending time at the farm and at the beach. And although she will be missed, her legacy will live on.”
An Innate Respect and Care
Donna Burton, assistant director for training and development, worked with McLean for 15 years and said their relationship has helped define her career.
“I had never before or since seen anyone with such a sustained capacity to care deeply for every person who crosses her path,” she said. “What do I feel when I’m with her? I feel I’m seen for who I am, I’m accepted and I’m cared for. Students encounter this same way.
“No matter the situation, Carrie just somehow knows how to look beneath the surface to see who a person really is,” Burton continued, “To see what their dreams are, to see what kind of hurdles they are facing. She always explores what keeps people from doing what they want to do.”
We all have points in our work life where we say things that people don’t want to hear. Carrie is able to say things in a respectful manner, and always with the energy of ‘I’m challenging you because this is what’s best for our students.’
“This is what has enabled her to be such a great leader – to dive into challenges (and there have been a lot), and because she has that innate respect and care for the other person, she is able to manage real challenges with grace and patience, and even courage,” Burton said. “We all have points in our work life where we say things that people don’t want to hear. Carrie is able to say things in a respectful manner, and always with the energy of ‘I’m challenging you because this is what’s best for our students.’”
Most of all, McLean has been one of Burton’s most trusted confidants, and she could always count on her to step in and step up when needed.
“One example is when I was a scheduled presenter at the national annual conference for NACADA (the professional organization for academic advisors) that was coming up in just a few days,” Burton said. “My mom became terribly sick and I wasn’t able to attend. I had been preparing for this a long time and didn’t know what to do. I told Carrie, and she stepped in and gave that presentation. At one of the lowest points in my life, Carrie was there for me – just like she has been there for students, colleagues and friends.”
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Burton understands why McLean chose to retire.
“I would feel selfish asking Carrie not to retire. We can never really ‘replace’ her, but she has prepared many of us well to carry on this important work.”
Positioning People and Organizations to Flourish
Bret Smith, interim dean of University College, arrived at NC State three years ago after working for 25 years at Auburn University. As program chair and later as associate dean for academic affairs for the College of Architecture, Design and Construction at Auburn, he gained a deep appreciation for how critical good academic advising is to student success.
“When I arrived at NC State it was immediately clear to me that Carrie had structured an environment that was extremely student-focused,” Smith said. “It takes a special kind of grace to know how to be firm, supportive and caring all at once. Carrie is this way with students and is also tremendously thoughtful with faculty, staff and colleagues.”
Smith says that McLean is not only an extraordinary talent for NC State, but also a nationally respected and recognized leader. “I was at NC State for just five months when I attended a national NACADA leadership conference. When people found out I was from NC State, I quickly became aware that everybody at the national level knew Carrie McLean. Her advice is sought out by people all across the country.
Smith said McLean has the uncanny ability to speak with students and help them figure out what’s on their hearts and what they can do. Then, she helps them develop a plan to move forward.
“I’ve never met anyone who is more respectful of others,” Smith said. “Sometimes we run across someone who sees students as ‘the students’ category. Carrie sees each student! For the number of students she deals with, the number of situations she is in and exposed to, the number of university committees she serves on, she always can see the individual in the midst of it all. It’s just extraordinary. It doesn’t matter what you talk to her about – you’ll be more enriched for the conversation.”
Smith said that often when he encounters someone who is extraordinarily good at what they do, it’s easy to think they have a natural ability or talent.
“I have never, ever seen a situation where someone is so good at what she does by accident — it is always intentional,” he said. “Carrie has worked countless hours throughout her career to ensure that she is up to date on the latest research. She is constantly making connections between classes and careers, and she is the model of attending to the whole student. It’s not accidental — everything Carrie does is intentional.”
This is just one example of how extraordinary she is, according to Smith. “She’s also extremely talented at positioning people to flourish, be they students or colleagues. She helps people discover their thoughts about things and then helps them find opportunities.
“All of us when we come to work want to make a positive difference,” Smith continued. “Carrie is not interested in the spotlight; she is 100 percent focused on what will solve the problem at hand. She’s an incredible listener, which is one reason that she is so good with students and colleagues. Plus, she has a wonderful sense of humor.
Smith feels that McLean’s impact has been profound across University College and the rest of campus.
“Carrie has played a significant role in University College leadership and much of the work around how we structure the college, and how we bring people together and build community and culture is a direct result of her deep knowledge and quiet leadership. She’s gracious in her help and support in everything that she touches. She will be deeply missed, and I’m happy for her to be fulfilling some of the other things she wants to do.”
Deeply Invested in Each Person
Nikki Glenos, director of advising technology in the Division of Academic and Student Affairs, shares the deep gratitude and sense of appreciation for McLean.
“It has been such a pleasure to be able to work alongside her on both a professional and personal level,” Glenos said. “She has a deep and vested interest in each individual and takes the time to truly get to know you as a person. She remembers details about your life and your family. She cares enough to ask and check-in.”
Glenos says she is one of many who will feel the loss of McLean’s leadership when she retires.
“Although there are countless people at NC State who will miss her dearly, the impact will also be felt across the nation,” Glenos said. “She is a leader in best practices in advising at a national level, where she has been providing administrative leadership to the National Academic Advising Association for many years. NC State has been incredibly fortunate to have had the opportunity to benefit from her decades of experience and insights. She has close ties to so many institutions across the country whose advising programs look to her as a source of best practices and wisdom.”
NC State has been incredibly fortunate to have had the opportunity to benefit from her decades of experience and insights. She has close ties to so many institutions across the country whose advising programs look to her as a source of best practices and wisdom.
According to Glenos, McLean has been a strong and resounding voice for the changing landscape of advising and student needs. Over the years, she has worked tirelessly to help address the changing advising needs for new generations of students and in turn, develop and implement adaptive and proactive methods of offering student support.
“There are endless stories of Dr. McLean working directly with students to help them through some of the most challenging academic and personal situations. It’s a thing of beauty to watch her develop and build so many relationships that go well beyond students’ time at NC State.”
Gifts of Compassion and Understanding
Martha M. Wicker, assistant director and coordinator of the Inter-College Transfer (ICT) Program, Exploratory Studies and Academic Advising Programs & Services, appreciates McLean’s deep sense of compassion for students.
“Our ICT advisors work with advising inter-college transfers – students changing majors,” Wicker said. “Often these students are experiencing personal struggles. Carrie is extremely compassionate when working with students who have had hardships that have impacted their academic performance. One of the greatest gifts she has is understanding that every student doesn’t have a linear track – they often face hurdles along the way,” she says, “Carrie is willing to look at cases and give students a second chance to continue in school.”
Missed, Yet Still Shining
While her day-to-day presence will be missed on campus, McLean’s light will shine brightly on her family and her community, where she looks forward to having more time to continue her work.
“I have a wonderful grandbaby, and I never thought I’d be a sappy old woman, but he’s turning me into one,” she beamed.
Throughout her career at NC State, McLean has always been involved in community volunteer work in the role of advising, working with underprivileged youth, and generally helping people develop into their best selves.
“I find great joy in working with and in coaching people so that they can see opportunities, and I give my best effort to help them jump over whatever hurdles are before them and pursue their dreams.”