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Stanford Report, November 5, 2003

Student affairs director reflects on a two-decade career at the Farm

Assistant Dean Nanci Howe didn’t think she’d stay at the university when she arrived 22 years ago but working with students made her stay


Whether facing down an angry mob of student protestors or battling chronic illnesses as a child, Student Activities Director Nanci Howe has always seen herself as the "little engine that could."

As student affairs director, Howe oversees programs that affect her daughter Allison, a sophomore, and said she wants to help her daughter be more autonomous. Photo: L.A. Cicero

Howe has veered off the most logical paths on a few occasions in her lifetime but the tracks she has taken have led her to a successful 22-year career at the university without regrets.

Although she has run up against a handful of student protests during her tenure as student activities director, Howe said she has enjoyed working with students and doesn’t mind the occasional disagreement. Photo: L.A. Cicero

Howe took a moment last week to reflect on her "never a dull moment" job as one of the speakers of the noontime series "What Matters to Me and Why."

Although she made few mentions of some of the student protests she has come up against during her tenure, Howe said her experience as a chronically ill child gave her the strength to deal with the various challenges that she's come across throughout her life.

Howe spent the first five years of her life in and out of hospitals while she battled asthma, bronchitis and pneumonia and almost had to repeat kindergarten because she missed almost half the school year.

"Though I was not aware of [the illnesses] being a big problem, it probably affected the way I am," Howe said. "I think it instilled in me somewhat of a strong spirit."

As she grew up and her health problems abated, an 8-year-old Howe first discovered an innate interest in being a party planner when she helped organize a mini-carnival for the children in her New Jersey neighborhood as a benefit for a multiple sclerosis charity. She hauled in $20 for the charity and realized "there must be something in my blood that makes me want to plan events," Howe said.

Howe also grew up with a strong sense of female empowerment even before the feminist movement had hit its stride. After graduating from the University of Delaware as an art education major and earning her master's degree in college student personnel at Bowling Green State University, Howe packed her belongings into a battered Volkswagen bug and drove across the country to Los Angeles with her future husband.

After completing her course work for a doctorate in higher education at Claremont Graduate School, Howe headed north and accepted a job in marketing at Stanford, a position she used as a springboard for her current position.

Howe encountered a difficult decision along the way. She was still working on her dissertation when she and her husband, Robert Rose, decided to start a family. Howe said she assumed she'd be able to finish her dissertation while on maternity leave, only to later realize that the dissertation would have to be placed on hold because she wanted to devote more time to her family.

She never did complete her doctorate but Howe said she doesn't regret the time she spent raising her daughter Allison Rose, currently a sophomore at Stanford.

"For me, it was the right decision," Howe said. "I may never be a vice provost for student affairs but I've never regretted that decision."

Howe said one of the more difficult aspects of her current job is figuring out ways to allow her daughter to be a student at the university without feeling like she is under her mom's watchful eye. She said her daughter knew that mom would oversee the Full Moon on the Quad activities and told her not to look at her or make any attempt to speak with her or her friends.

"I keep thinking of ways to allow my daughter to have her own life and be autonomous," Howe said.

A year after arriving at Stanford, Howe became assistant director of Tresidder Memorial Union and supervised operations and student programs. A few years later, Howe assumed responsibility for the office of student activities and became assistant dean of students and director of student activities shortly afterward.

Along the way, Howe has encountered some difficult situations in dealing with frustrated students but she said she has come to value the differences of opinion.

"Sometimes, with these kinds of jobs, you need thick skin," Howe said. "Sometimes students are so solidified that they can't separate the issues from the person."

She said she would like to continue to look for ways to stay out of the Stanford Daily and other publications when controversies arise even though she has learned over time not to take criticisms personally.

"I love when they stretch me, disagree with me and agree with me," Howe said. "I have a responsibility to try and pose questions to students to help them through issues in a broader way."

Howe said she will likely step away from her job in a few years and ponder other challenges. When asked what advice she would offer her successors, Howe said good managers should surround themselves with a strong and diverse staff and spend a lot of time listening to them.

She also strongly encouraged people to get involved with students as advisers so they can see the university through fresh eyes.

"It never occurred to me that 22 years later I'd still be here," Howe said. "The main driving force for me is the incredible joy, pleasure and challenges I've had working with students."