Vassar Administrative Fellowship Program Develops Leadership Capacity for Higher Education and Other Key Fields

Claire Zickl ’23 had to abruptly change their post-Vassar plans last year when the college they had hoped to attend for graduate school disbanded. Zickl had excelled on the women’s track, soccer, and rugby teams, so when they heard there was an opening for a job in the Department of Athletics and Physical Education that involved supporting student-athletes, they immediately applied for the position.

Person sitting on a soccer field in front of the goal surrounded my a bunch of soccer balls.
Claire Zickl ’23 excelled on the track, soccer and rugby teams before becoming a President’s Administrative Fellow for Student Athlete Welfare and Compliance.
Photo: Grace Adams Ward ’24

After serving for the past seven months as a President’s Administrative Fellow for Student Athlete Welfare and Compliance, Zickl has decided to pursue a career in higher education athletics. “Serving as an Administrative Fellow has changed my life,” they said. “I had planned to obtain a social work degree or PhD in psychology, but this experience has completely shifted my career trajectory. I want to stay involved in higher education and athletics in some capacity.”

One of Zickl’s major projects as a President’s Administrative Fellow has been developing a four-year training program in diversity, equity, and inclusion for student-athletes and the Athletics staff. “That work has been a labor of love for me, getting that program started,” they said. “I was a high achiever in high school, but coming to college was a shock, and I struggled, so when I was captain of the soccer team, I focused on the well-being of my teammates, not just on the field but also helping them with mental health and gender equity issues. As an Administrative Fellow, it’s gratifying to be in a position to be part of the solution.”

Helping young alums like Zickl find their career paths is what Vassar administrators had in mind when they created the Administrative Fellows Program in 2018. Since then, 34 recent Vassar alums have held jobs in more than a dozen departments on campus. “President Bradley envisioned the program as a means of training future managers in the field of higher education or the nonprofit or corporate world,” said Deputy to the President Wesley Dixon, who oversees the program.

Those enrolled in the program also take part in regularly scheduled lunchtime conversations with the President, the Dean of the College, the Chair of Vassar’s Board of Trustees, the Vice President for Advancement, Vice President of Communications and others in key leadership roles at the College. They also engage in one-on-one mentoring with alums whose careers align with their own goals, and they take part in workshops on financial planning and navigating career changes.

President Elizabeth Bradley said the program was designed to prepare young adults for careers in leadership largely in higher education but also in other fields. “We recognize that administration of higher education is critical to the quality of student experience; it is an important career choice,” Bradley said. “We want Vassar to contribute to the development of management and leadership capacity in higher education, which benefits student experience and also helps Vassar be a wonderful place to work.”

In addition to working with those in their respective departments on campus, Administrative Fellows often work with each other. Before he had completed his one-year stint as an Administrative Fellow in the Office of Advancement, Chase Engel ’23 landed a full-time job as Assistant Director of Annual Giving. In his new role, he worked with Zickl on the planning and execution of one of the major fundraising campaigns in the Department of Athletics and Physical Education, the Annual Day of Giving.

Person standing at a podium on a stage. A banner is draped over the podium that reads, "Fearlessly Consequential." In front of the podium is a silver bell mounted on a block of wood.
Chase Engel ’23 got his start in the Office of Advancement as an undergraduate, helping to kick off Vassar’s Fearlessly Consequential campaign.
Photo: Alex Li

Engel said he considers his relatively short tenure in Advancement an asset. “I have the advantage of still being close to the college experience and can speak to donors about the tangible benefits of being a student here,” he said. “I thought it would be awkward transitioning from being a student to a Vassar employee, but it has been seamless.”

As for his long-term career goals, Engel said he has not decided whether he will remain in higher education, but he said he was certain the training and experience he has gained at Vassar will serve him well in whatever field he chooses. “This opportunity to be an Administrative Fellow has given me the chance to explore the professional world in a meaningful way while receiving guidance from many experts in the field,” he said.

One alum who took part in fundraising work as a member of the second cohort of Presidential Administrative Fellows, Rori-An Chuck ’19, has chosen to remain in the field. Chuck recently joined the fundraising staff at Vanderbilt University, where she is Associate Director of Development and Regional Philanthropy. She said her time at Vassar had prepared her for her new job. “I was hired as an Administrative Fellow in 2019, and was assigned to do research on student and young alum philanthropy,” Chuck said. “It was something I was really passionate about.”

Person wearing a hat and standing in front of bookcases holding a banner/flag with a "V" pictured on it.
Rori Chuck ’19 served as an Administrative Fellow and later a full-time employee in Vassar’s Office of Advancement before joining the fundraising staff of Vanderbilt University.
 Photo courtesy of the subject

Chuck was hired as a regular Vassar employee the following year. “COVID ramped up the challenge, but we had a great year anyway because we had a great team,” she said.

Chuck remained at Vassar until the summer of 2023, when she accepted the job at Vanderbilt. “I wanted a new challenge in a new place,” she said. “I’d spent four years here as a student and another four in Advancement, so I was ready to go somewhere else.”

Chuck spends some of her time working from her home in Beacon, NY, but she visits the Vanderbilt campus in Nashville, TN, regularly. “I work with key alumni on large gifts,” she said. “It’s a challenge, but I gained a lot of confidence knowing I had developed these skills at Vassar.”

Deborah Vanecek, Director of Annual Giving in Vassar’s Advancement Office, said she had been impressed with both Engel and Chuck as she followed their careers. “Rori’s and Chase’s work as Presidential Administrative Fellows has been instrumental in setting the foundation for a newly branded Student Caller Program, Student Philanthropy Council, and Senior Gift Program—each of which serves as a program designed to create a culture of philanthropy at Vassar beginning with its youngest generation of supporters,” Vanecek said. “Both Rori and Chase have been innovative and thoughtful in their work as they laid the groundwork for Administrative Fellows coming up to build upon.”

Claire Zickl’s chief mentor, Deputy Director of Athletics Kaitlin Leach, was equally as enthusiastic. “Claire was a valuable addition to the athletics administrative team from day one,” Leach said. “Claire implemented the department’s first-ever diversity, equity, and inclusion training initiative, collaborates with Brewers’ student-athlete working groups, and is an active partner with the Support, Advocacy, and Violence Prevention and Health Promotion and Education offices across campus. With Claire’s tireless work ethic and new ideas, we refreshed the marketing of the College’s student-athlete development program (the RISE Program) and streamlined operations and logistics.”

March 12, 2024