Better know an admin: Meet Dean Sharon Stahl
This is the first in a series of interviews with Washington University administrators. The purpose of the series is to gain a more personal perspective on the lives of some of Wash. U.’s highest-ranking academic faculty. It can sometimes be difficult to remember that behind every administrative decision is someone with his or her own interests and pastimes. I sat down with Sharon Stahl, the vice chancellor for students, to get to know her a little better.
Students coming into Sharon Stahl’s office on the first floor of the Women’s Building have asked her a number of questions over the years: “What class should I take?” “Am I able to study abroad?” “Will this be the correct career path for me?” However, there’s another question that has probably not been asked as many times:
“Can you tell me about what you have on your walls?” I awkwardly begin. The dean’s office is cluttered yet neat, her walls full of framed photos of the students she has worked with through the Danforth Scholars program and her desktop with gifts her four-year advisees have brought back from their time abroad. On a bookshelf sits a plush fairy godmother akin to one you might find in a Cinderella gift shop at Disney World. When I inquire about its meaning, Stahl simply responds that the student who gave it to her must have seen a resemblance between her and the godmother.
A Missourian with only the slightest trace of an accent, Stahl pronounces “Missourah” with home state pride. After studying English at the University of Missouri, she took a job as a tour guide in a facility that handled nuclear reactors. They needed someone who didn’t understand the science behind the work, “so it was perfect,” she chuckles. It was there that she met her future husband, a scientist at the facility. Today, he still does research at the Washington University School of Medicine. Photos of the couple’s three children and nine grandchildren fill the office, such as one featuring her young granddaughter looking pensively at the sea.
Stahl says one of the most rewarding things about her job is connecting students with what they love. It’s obvious that she is talented at creating personal connections just through her efforts to learn about me during our interview. The gifts in her office serve as “thank you”s from students whose busy college lives she has helped straighten out.
It has become sort of a tradition for students studying abroad to think of Stahl when bringing back souvenirs. Stahl finds studying abroad to be a huge part of life for Wash. U. students, and she encourages everyone to do so if they have the financial means and academic opportunity.
For her part, Stahl has lived all over the country and even in Paris for four months, all during various sabbaticals and research trips that her husband has taken. In her spare time, she enjoys cooking above all else, especially soups and Italian meals. She even cultivates her own herb garden, growing thyme, rosemary and lots of basil (her all-time favorite spice). Stahl is always developing and adding new ingredients to even her most-cooked meals, and her family will occasionally get mad at her for not making them aware of updates to her recipes.
During warmer months, Stahl enjoys a pastime common among many Wash. U. students: running in Forest Park. Here, she will occasionally encounter students and even the women’s track team, although she admits that she has no chance of keeping up with student runners.
She also considers herself a movie buff and named “The Grand Budapest Hotel” one of her favorites of the year. She expected it to do well at the Oscars, which took place two days after the interview. (Spoiler: the movie won four awards. See Cadenza for more Academy Awards coverage.)
Mostly, Dean Stahl enjoys traveling and spending time with her family. Two of her three children live in the St. Louis area and she is looking forward to visiting her other daughter’s family in Boston over spring break.
Stahl says she tries to maintain a warm, engaging personality with her advisees to help make genuine connections with them. Her approach toward interacting with her students also informs the relationships she maintains with them post–graduation.
One such example dates back a decade ago, when Stahl even spoke at one former advisee’s wedding. He was engaged to another Wash. U. graduate whom Stahl had never met, and Stahl says she treasured the experience of getting to know his new spouse, parents and extended family.
Stahl’s almost-30-year tenure at the University will come to a close with her retirement at the end of this year, but the impact that she has had as confused students’ fairy godmother will remain with them for years to come.