The path to success doesn’t always follow a straight line and our most recent featured Charger Alumna may be the first to agree with this statement. We recently spoke with Debra Geller, Ed.D. ‘83 about her career path to Associate Dean of Students at UCLA and the impact Shorecrest had on her life. With her unique perspective as a higher education career professional, we also asked Debra to share her advice for our soon to be college-bound seniors.
What is your current position and key responsibilities? What is your favorite aspect about your job? What types of challenges do you face in this position?
Over the course of my nearly thirty years at UCLA, I have held a number of positions both in the UCLA medical center and on campus, including Director of the Center for International Students and Scholars, and Deputy Title IX Coordinator.
I am currently Associate Dean of Students. In this role, my responsibilities are broad and varied, and no two days look alike, which is what makes it so much fun.
As the administrative representative to the undergraduate student government, I mentor and advise our student leaders, helping them develop their leadership skills, and supporting them as they engage in advocacy work and programming.
As CAO/CFO for the campus’ Student Support & Engagement division, I manage the space, technology, fiscal, and human resources and contribute to strategic planning for a group of seven Student Affairs departments.
As the campus’ student policy coordinator, I write or revise policies that impact students, oversee the campus’ response to student grievances, and supervise the attorneys who provide direct services to students.
I am also part of the faculty for the Graduate School of Education & Information Studies’ M.Ed. program in Student Affairs (and since March 2020, that has meant teaching via Zoom).
What educational path did you take after Shorecrest? How did you come to work in the field that you do now?
The route to my current position was circuitous at best. As a first generation college student (neither of my parents had the opportunity to graduate from college), my choices weren’t always well-informed. After graduating in 1983, I headed off to college in California, never having visited the campus. For those too young to remember, those were the days before cell phones, when long distance calling was expensive unless you waited until after 11pm. Although I loved my classes as a theatre major, it was very hard to stay connected to family and friends. After a year, I transferred to NYU. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize that theatre wasn’t in the school of Arts & Letters, so I had to pick a new major. Linguistics it was! Living in NY was awesome — I had the opportunity to appear in an off-off Broadway production of Spring Awakening (before it became a musical); and with family in New Jersey, it was closer to home. But it still wasn’t home, so I transferred again, graduating from USF in 1986 with a degree in Communications. Yup! I graduated in 3 years having attended 3 schools, in 3 states, with 3 majors. Which was a great experience but made it difficult to convince an interviewer I would stick around longer than a year. (More than a decade would pass before my graduate studies. I did eventually complete an MBA and a Doctorate in Education.)
My first professional job was in restaurant management. I stayed a year, and learned that someone who doesn’t eat pork should not manage a restaurant best known for its sausage. My next career was in the airline industry. That lasted 5 years, and gave me access to travel through Australia, Asia, Europe, and Central America. In 1992 after seeing the world, I moved back to California and took my first job at UCLA.
I was working in the campus’ HR Office as a compensation analyst when I was assigned Student Affairs as a client department. Until then, my roles had been administrative. I could have been working in corporate America. My office was off-campus in a high-rise office building. I never saw students or faculty. But when I discovered Student Affairs, I found my calling as an educator. I realized that the values of Student Affairs aligned with my own. As a profession, we believe in respect, accountability, integrity, service, and excellence. But most of all we believe in collaboration. Nobody wins unless we all win. It was in working with Student Affairs leadership that I realized I wanted to be among them, and the rest is history. I took my first position in Student Affairs in 1999, and will be retiring in June of 2021.
Do you have a favorite Shorecrest memory or tradition?
Some of my favorite Shorecrest memories are the theatrical productions. I could never sing, so I was always relegated to chorus roles in the musicals (and asked to pretend to sing). But in my senior year, we did a production of "A Midsummer Night’s Dream." Finally, a drama! I was cast as Titania, queen of the faeries. While I may have enjoyed my time in Shorecrest’s then limited arts program, Shorecrest’s true impact on me was in the way it prepared me to succeed academically. Teachers like Brad Moore and Marian Russell prepared me for the academic rigors ahead. For them, I will always be grateful.
What advice do you have for graduating Shorecrest classes?
To the class of 2021: I know you don’t want to hear that you’ve been living through unprecedented times. You’ve heard it time and again. But it is the reality. Yes, your junior and senior years were unlike all others. Remote instruction was not something you anticipated. Quarantine changed the way you studied and socialized. It interfered with sports. It impacted traditions like prom. And yet, you thrived. You are resilient! If this has taught you anything, it should be that you are capable of things you haven’t even dreamed of yet. Whether your college years involve in-person or online classes, synchronous or asynchronous learning, you are ready. The skills you have learned to excel in the remote classroom are applicable to the workforce. You have proven that you can take initiative and work independently, meeting deadlines in chaotic circumstances with changing priorities. You are creative. (I’ll bet you even know how to make Instagram reels and TikTok videos.) There is a silver lining to all this. With so much work being done remotely, your internship opportunities are now global. Think big and chase those dreams.
As you go off to college, know that it is OK to change your major (but maybe don’t change as much as I did). Explore your passions. Learn where you excel and what makes you happy. Find your community. Get to know your classmates—especially the ones most different from yourself. Use the leadership skills Shorecrest has given you to make a difference.
Get to know your faculty too. They are human and empathetic. They want you to succeed, but they cannot read minds. If you have questions or need something, let them know. But also get to know what makes them tick outside the classroom.
In loco parentis may be a thing of the past, but as a Dean, I would be remiss if I didn’t close by advising you to always quote and cite your sources and always use your social media influence only to do good in the world. (And speaking of social media, you can follow me at on Instagram at @justaskdrdeb)
And when you get to the workforce, know that the career ladder is a thing of the past.