In My Own Words: A Career Well Spent

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

window view



For the last seven years, I've witnessed university life from this unique perspective through the changing leaves of the gingko tree outside my office window. There's been the neverending carousel of scenery: students walking to class, playing frisbee and relaxing on the north campus lawn; faculty, staff and administrators rushing to meetings across the quad; and the glorious sounds of the chapel bell and fall concerts on the lawn drifting through my window. My appreciation for this view comes from many years of less beguiling perspectives—including views of a parking lot dumpster or no window at all. In the last days of my approaching retirement, I realize how much I'm going to miss this campus, regardless of the view.

I started working at the University of Georgia the summer before my freshman year in 1986 as a part-time textbook clerk at the University Bookstore. I was 17, a first-generation student from rural Georgia who had so much to learn about the world. I graduated from the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication with an advertising degree and was lucky enough to land a job as a graphic designer/copy writer in Auxiliary Media Services on campus.

In 2000, I’d been working in Public Affairs (Marketing & Communications) as a publications editor for two years when my career took a propitious turn. I approached Kent Hannon, then editor of Georgia Magazine, with a story idea: a 350-word alumni profile on Dr. Andy Mathis, a local veterinarian/watercolorist. I’d never written for a magazine before, but I must have made a decent pitch because he said yes to this wanna-be writer.

And so, that was the beginning of my love for biographical writing. Thanks to Kent’s mentorship, I worked my way to telling the longer stories for GM, interviewing and writing stories about our esteemed alumni, including Lt. Col. Richard McSpadden, Thunderbird One in the elite Air Force flying unit; Maxine Clark, founder of Build-A-Bear Workshop; Mandy Wright, the Detroit Free Press photojournalist who did two tours of duty covering the Iraq War; and the newly opened Georgia Aquarium where our UGA veterinarians played a large part in the well-being of the aquatic life and infamous Beluga whales. In 2006, I wrote five stories in the absence of an assistant editor, including the cover story spotlighting UGA’s need for a new veterinary teaching hospital. It was that story that landed me my first public relations job in the College of Veterinary Medicine.

I’ve held six communication positions at UGA over the last 29 years, including my current role as public relations coordinator in the Office of the VP for Instruction. I’ve worked for or with every vice presidential area at the university, which got some notice, particularly from our former UGA police chief who jokingly asked me every so often, “Where are you working now?” The truth is, I feel very fortunate to have cast a wide net during my time at UGA. It’s allowed me a rich perspective in all things UGA and a better understanding of why we do what we do here. I’m proud of our collective work, particularly in the Office of Instruction to help raise the bar on the student learning experience and push us into the national academic spotlight.

I’ve also been fortunate to have worked with countless talented and generous people I’m proud to call friends, including the 18 student employees I’ve mentored. I’ve strived to give my students the same positive and constructive direction provided me so many years ago by Kent. Their professional success makes me as proud as their parents, relationships I continue to cherish, particularly after the loss of my teenage daughter in 2013. During the dark months that followed her death, you all—faculty, staff and administrators—enveloped me with warmth and support, and it was then I fully realized what a special community we have at UGA. 

No matter the situation or the need, I’ve known without hesitation you’d answer my call or email. Whether helping arrange our Creative Teaching Award surprises (more fun than the Publisher’s Clearinghouse Sweepstakes), helping promote our academic programs, or simply commiserating all things PR, I have been able to depend on you all without fail. For that I am truly thankful. And I’m grateful for Vice President Rahul Shrivastav, for pushing my digital marketing and website skills, in the midst of setting a positive example in the face of challenging goals. (Those skills are going to come in handy for me one day, Rahul!)

While all my positions at UGA provided opportunities to use my design and organizational skills, my happiest moments were spent writing stories about people overcoming adversity. Which brings me back to the subject of my retirement.

So, while I’m ending my UGA career on July 1, I’m not retiring per se. I’ve got a few plans in the hopper, including taking some time to give back to the community by working with youth, as well as spending more time with family and writing the stories that matter. I’m working to finish a book project—about overcoming adversity, of course—that has been the focus of my Grady MFA in narrative media writing program, from which I’ll graduate in August. Thanks to the incredible mentorship of Valerie Boyd, Pat Thomas, John T Edge, and Lolis Elie in the Grady College, my writing is taking me in an informed and purposeful direction. I'm happy for this new perspective in life, and I'm eager to see where my writing takes me.

And it all started with one person who took me under his wing and showed me how to be a good writer. I hope you all have the opportunity to be the recipient of such kindness, but even more so to pay that generosity forward to a deserving benefactor.

See you on the other side of the window.


Tracy Coley
ABJ '90, MFA '19