Stepping into a major role

-Walking across the courtyard of Olga’s Cup + Saucer in Providence, R.I., Jill Lawlor smiles and waves as she approaches a corner table for an interview about her new job. She warmly extends her hand, maintains eye contact, and offers a “thank-you-so-much-for-coming,” even though she is the one invited here to one of her favorite coffee hangouts.

This is exactly the easy-going, engaging personality—combined with her great depth of experience—that won over the hiring committee that selected her as the new executive director of alumnae/i relations. Lawlor replaces Sharon Howard, who retired last summer.

“Jill has spent many years collaborating with staff members, alums and volunteers at other institutions, and developing and leading effective programming,” says Mary Casey, vice president for college advancement, who was part of a committee comprising alumnae/i relations and college advancement staff members, as well as alum volunteers. “We’re very excited that she has joined us.”

Lawlor stepped into the role on September 6, after many years working in alumni relations at Brown University, as director of regional programs, and most recently at Babson College, as associate vice president of alumni relations.

“We were looking for someone with a proven track record of success in alumnae/i engagement,” says alumnae/i association president and committee member Zoe Hack Keller ’05. “We wanted someone who shares our deep commitment to a vibrant and active community of alums and was ready to jump right in and join us in our work.

“We were also committed to finding someone who felt like the right fit with the Wheaton community. Although Jill isn’t a Wheaton alum, she seems like she could be. She has the right mix of warmth, intellect, humor and leadership. I think we will find that she becomes a member of the team very quickly and feels at home in the Wheaton community.”

Community at work is important to Lawlor, who says she got a sense of that right away during her interviews on campus. “It’s fine to be able to say I like my job, or I like where I work, but every single person that I spoke to at Wheaton loves his or her job,” she says. “They love the college, they love the sense of community. That says a lot to me about what the college is and who the staff members are.”

An opera singer, who years ago founded an opera company with her opera-singing husband, she is used to engaging audiences. (In fact, she met her husband while playing Cinderella.)

Lawlor, a Warwick, R.I., native, attended the University of Rhode Island on a full audition-based scholarship. After graduating with a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in music, the mezzo-soprano headed to New York to pursue a career in opera. But a funny thing happened on the way to a life on stage.

“I just realized that singing was a cut-throat business. That’s not my personality,” she says, laughing. “At auditions, everybody else had the knives and the banana peels out, and I was the cheerleader. Everybody else was like, ‘Grrr, I’m going to get this role, I’m going to get this role,’ and I’d be like, ‘Yeah, you were great.’”

That kind of supportive role may not play well in competition, but it has been perfect for a career in alumni relations, which she says has been fueled by her “passion for education and how it can change the lives of young people.”

Wheaton hiring committee member John Talanian ’93 says he’s “most excited to see her reconnect those who have not been in much contact with Wheaton.”

She is ready: “At a really deep level, alumni relations is about connecting people to an institution. It’s about getting people to engage in the importance of education, in the importance of supporting students, and in the importance of philanthropy in all the definitions of philanthropy—giving of their time, giving of their resources, not just giving of their dollars. If you can spark energy and passion in somebody about an institution, it’s incredibly important to the future of education.”

Photo by Nicki Pardo