Keep Showing Up
Adviser of the Year Jess Sumney Gets the Little Things Right
When Jess Sumney was nominated for Bentley Adviser of the Year, she tried to think of the big things she’d done over the past year, searching for the transformative impact she felt the award required. But everything she came up just seemed small.
“I emailed folks. I helped them talk through some event ideas. I showed up at stuff. But I didn’t guide people through a major life transition or do anything where they make an inspirational movie,” she says. “I thought, ‘It’s so great that I got nominated. What a great recognition. That gives me something to build on.’”
It turns out those little things added up, and Sumney was recognized this spring for her work as PRIDE (People Respecting Individuality and Diversity through Education) adviser.
Sumney started at Bentley in spring 2020, just before the COVID-19 pandemic forced campus to go remote. As student success coordinator, she works with the four offices in Student Equity and Inclusion — the Center for International Students and Scholars, the Multicultural Center, Gender and Sexuality Student Programs, and Spiritual Life — to make sure Bentley students get the tools, resources and community they need to be their best.
“Oftentimes, the factors we look at as far as student success, and whether a student is successful, are individual factors: Did this student do this or that?” says Sumney. “But what we miss out on is the system the student is participating in: Can a student be successful in our community? Are they supported by our community? So one of my goals is to reframe how we think about things like resilience and success as community values rather than somebody’s individual qualities.”
FROM STUDENT TO STAFF
Sumney did her undergraduate studies at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, where she was active in the campus LGBTQ+ community. She loved planning events, finding guest speakers, and working with other campus groups, but wasn’t sure what she’d do after graduation.
“Someone pointed out to me, ‘There is actually a career, very similar to what you’re doing, but you would be the staff who supported the student work,” she says.
After earning her master’s degree in higher education at the University of Michigan, Sumney moved to Boston so her spouse could attend graduate school. Starting a career in student affairs in a region packed with colleges and universities “seemed like a good bet,” and Sumney found a job at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology working with graduate students.
“In terms of advising, I’m glad I worked with grad students first in my career, because I really come into this with the mindset that students are adults,” she says. “They’re adults who have maybe less life experience than I have, or are a different age, but ultimately it’s about me supporting their decisions and helping them come to those decisions on their own, not me telling them what decisions to make.”
Still, Sumney found herself drawn back to queer advocacy and social justice. When the Bentley position opened up, she jumped at the opportunity.
“I really appreciated how Bentley is structured,” she says. “You have all of these offices under one Student Equity and Inclusion unit. So that really appealed to me as an opportunity to work in multiple areas and not just focus on one identity or issue.”
COMMITTED TO CHANGE
When the world went remote in 2020, Sumney had to find new ways to connect with her students.
“Students can’t just drop by my desk. I can’t run into students and build that connection organically,” she says. “I thought, they’re adults, they’ll let me know when they need me. I soon realized, nope, I need to be more proactive.
“In some ways I think the remote world makes it easier to build that community because you can just log in to the Zoom room. If you’re someone who’s not out, you don’t have to worry about someone seeing you going into the Gender and Sexuality Lounge. There’s some give and take, but I think PRIDE has been very intentional this year about building experiences where people can connect, so I’m hoping we can maintain some of the best of both worlds as we go back in person.”
After a year where social justice issues such as racial equity and gender identity were thrust into the forefront, Sumney is happy with the direction in which Bentley is headed.
“Bentley came out of this with a really robust commitment to continue doing this work. When this happened last year, based on my experience with previous schools, I thought, OK, we’ll talk about this for a month and then all but a few people will move on from this and it will be relegated to offices like mine. That hasn’t been the case, and it’s meant a lot to see that, that this is still a discussion at the leadership level, it's an expectation among all staff to have a commitment to this.”
PRIDE Mentorship connects LGBTQ+ students, faculty and staff
RAISING THE BAR
Like the misconceptions she had about adviser of the year, Sumney says the impact of her daily work isn’t always clear at first glance.
“I think my secret to being a mentor is what you think will be the most important thing never is. You can’t read someone’s mind,” she says. “You have these preconceived notions that you have to talk about really deep or serious things. Then I’ll have mentees tell me how much it meant to have someone just talk about movies with them, or complain about the weather with them.”
Sumney credits her fellow student affairs coordinators with inspiring and mentoring her, and says the recognition of her work over the past year only sets the bar higher for where she’ll go from here.
“This is now my floor. This is how I want to show up for students every year,” she says. “I was surprised but really grateful that what I did made a difference. You don’t always see it in the moment.
“The big thing is getting out of your own head about what makes a good mentor. Showing up for someone, and being a consistent presence in their life, goes a lot further than you might think.”