Tracy Fitzsimmons, the first woman to be president of United Methodist-affiliated Shenandoah University in Winchester, Va., is preparing students to change the world based on values espoused by Methodism's founder John Wesley.
The first words every student hears at convocation and the last words every student hears at graduation, according to Fitzsimmons, are Wesleyan theology: "Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can."
Fitzsimmons shows how one United Methodist-related college president is using Wesleyan values to give students a foundation for their education and future.
When she stepped into the presidency of Shenandoah in 2008, her children were in diapers. Being a mother and closely involved in student life keep her grounded and focused on the goal of building future leaders, she said.
"We are here to form and transform young people," said Fitzsimmons, who at 46 is one of the youngest college presidents in the commonwealth.
"My favorite semester every year is the fall when I teach. It's important for me to stay in touch with the students and remember why we do what we do," she said.
Growing beyond boundaries
Fitzsimmons earned an undergraduate degree in politics from Princeton University, magna cum laude, and a master's degree in Latin American studies and doctoral degree in political science from Stanford University. She was a tenured faculty member at the University of Redlands in California before joining Shenandoah in 2001 as dean of the College of Arts & Sciences. She later became vice president for academic affairs and, in 2006, senior vice president.
In addition to being president, she serves on Shenandoah's faculty as professor of political science. Her courses of study have ranged from development and disaster relief to world politics and poverty among global youth. She places great importance on giving students the opportunity to grow beyond campus boundaries.
Shenandoah has an enrollment of just more than 4,000, with about 2,290 undergraduate students.
'Purpose with passion'
The school offers a broad course of study to enhance spiritual and religious life and reflect its Wesleyan heritage, which dates back to its founding in 1875.
"Our programs are aligned with the values of The United Methodist Church," said Fitzsimmons. She and her family belong to Reliance United Methodist Church in Winchester. "We encourage our students to do no harm, do good and practice their purpose with passion. They are able to live this out through community service such as feeding programs, volunteering and mission trips."
She has personally led mission trips to Haiti in support of the College Catherine Flon, a K-12 school of 4,500 students in a suburb of Port-au-Prince. Shenandoah has pledged to help rebuild the school damaged by the devastating earthquake of 2010.
Fitzsimmons encourages students or families looking at colleges or universities to consider a United Methodist-related institution, where the college experience can strengthen the Wesleyan foundation formed in childhood.
"When parents or churches can't be there for college students, our United Methodist-related schools are," she said.
*Underwood is a freelance writer based in Yukon, Okla., and a former executive director at United Methodist Communications.
News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or [email protected].