Fond Farewell

Gratitude is not the same as giving thanks

By Shelley Semmler, outgoing vice president for institutional advancement

For the past 13 years, I’ve been the vice president for institutional advancement at Ithaca College. A big part of my job is to cultivate relationships with people who support IC and, above all, to let them know how much we value their support. I’ve taken every opportunity to do this and to express my heartfelt thanks to the alumni, parents, and friends who have given the College their time and their resources. 

Now, as I prepare to retire from my position, I find myself thinking about the people I’ve been so lucky to get to know—and about the depth of my feelings for them and for this institution. I’ve realized that what I feel goes beyond appreciation or satisfaction. I feel a profound sense of gratitude—a similar emotion, yes, but not exactly the same. Gratitude acknowledges that the story could have ended differently. And mine most certainly could have. 

When I first arrived on campus in 1999, I came with more than 20 years of fund-raising experience, the bulk at Cornell University, followed by three years of consulting. I didn’t know what to think about Ithaca College, quite honestly. I didn’t really know this institution, and, in many ways, East Hill seemed to overshadow South Hill. I was apprehensive. And yet my career experience here turned out to be the most rewarding of my life.  

My initial apprehension stemmed from learning how many IC alumni give to the College. I assumed that the comparatively low participation rate signaled a lack of connection to IC. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Though it is still difficult for me to completely understand why so many of our alumni don’t give back (at our lowest almost 8 out of 10 did not), I have been heartened by the experiences I’ve had with the alumni I’ve gotten to know personally. By and large, they haven’t hesitated to jump on board to help the College. I leave it to my successor and others to connect with thousands more. 

At Cornell, I had many great colleagues, and I worried that I wouldn’t make the adjustment to IC easily. Again, my misgivings faded away once I got here. Right from the start, President Emerita Peggy Ryan Williams proved to be a wonderful and effective partner for 11 years as we rallied support for the College. That continued with President Tom Rochon, whose enthusiasm and talent for this work has made for an exciting period of growth at the College. 

I will never forget the pride I’ve felt working toward a common goal for our first comprehensive campaign with my fellow vice presidents, the deans of our exceptional schools, and, of course, my wonderful colleagues in institutional advancement. I could not have asked to be a part of a more talented, more dedicated group. Over the past 13 years, we’ve come together to help make Ithaca College what it is today.

And where would IC be without our faculty, students, and families? I cannot tell you how often I hear from alumni who speak glowingly about professors whose instruction and mentorship changed their lives. Let’s not forget our charming and bright students, either—who actually talk to me on the elevator and open doors! There is not one student I’ve met whom I wouldn’t want to invite to dinner. In addition, we as a college community owe so much to the parents of our students. They not only support their children’s choice in attending Ithaca College, but also get involved as volunteers and donors, opening their hearts and homes to other families.

Last, but certainly not least, are the members of the Board of Trustees. A nicer, more well-rounded group of people you’ll never meet. Over the years they have shown stunning leadership and generosity.

After I’d been here a few years, a reporter from the Ithacan asked me what I thought about IC. I told her, “I simply fell in love with the place.” It was true then, and it’s true today. I believe in this institution. I believe in the education Ithaca provides, in its holistic approach to student-centered learning, and I regret that I didn’t have an Ithaca-type experience when I went to college. But, mostly, I believe in Ithaca’s future. I leave this place with the deepest sense of gratitude for the opportunity I’ve had to help shape its past success—and the greatness that’s yet to come.