Once she got started, she couldn’t stop. At least, that’s one way of looking at Gayle Fenton’s collegiate academic career.
Now in her 12th year as the director of student-athlete services, Fenton recently became the first student ever to receive her bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees from CSULB. After earning her A.A. degree from Los Angeles Community College in 1965, she took time out to raise a family. Then in 1985, she became quite possibly the ultimate adult re-entry student. By 1990 she earned her bachelor’s degree and followed that with a master’s in 1993. This past May she completed the CSULB trifecta when she crossed the commencement platform to officially receive her doctorate degree.
Initially, however, Fenton’s impetus for returning to school was not to collect a wall full of degrees. The reason was plain and simple…she wanted to find an interesting job.
“I was caught in the middle between the mothers who stayed home and women who were going to work,” said Fenton. “I went back to school originally to be able to get a good job that paid $10 an hour so we’d have some extra money. I never wanted a career, didn’t know about a career, and didn’t even think about a career. I just wanted a bachelor’s degree that would lead to a job. I guess I am an example that learning is life long. I give real meaning to that phrase.”
Well, her efforts not only led to a job, but also that career she didn’t even think about. While finishing her bachelor’s and master’s degrees, she was a student assistant in the Academic Advising Center under Marilee Samuelson from 1989-93. With master’s degree in hand, she became the assistant director of the academic advising center for 18 months and was named assistant director of orientation in summer 1995. Three months later she was appointed the director of student-athlete services, a post she has held ever since.
Fenton’s doctorate journey began as part of the initial class of 20 students from Cal State Fullerton, Cal State Los Angeles, Cal Poly Pomona and CSULB who were seeking a doctorate degree in education through a brand new joint program with UC Irvine. According to Fenton, two students dropped out of the program, while the others are still on track, including all six from CSULB. She just happened to be the first one to get to the finish line.
The schedule was grueling, admits Fenton, who at times wonders how she actually made it through so quickly. In addition to working her full-time director’s job, the doctorate program required one night a week and all day Saturday. She took Friday afternoons off because with the Saturday class, it was the only time she really had to do the homework. The summer sessions were spent at UC Irvine; in the fall and winter, CSULB and Cal State L.A. would pair up alternating between campuses; and in the spring it was just the six CSULB students on campus.
As anyone who has ever done it knows, juggling work, school and a personal life can be extremely trying.
“This was a three-year program and I didn’t want to go another year,” said Fenton, who fast-tracked the process in order to finish the program on time. “To go another year when you are 30 is not the same as when you are my age. I was giving up a lot. I was working full time and my husband took over all the chores. He was very supportive all the way through.”
Fenton, who along with her staff, recently moved into the newly dedicated Bickerstaff Center for Student-Athlete Academic Services, has seen her surroundings and staffing numbers go from totally inadequate to now state-of-the-art. When she began as the director of student-athlete services, it was she and three student assistants in cramped quarters. Today, Fenton has five other full-time counselors, a part-time counselor, a part-time office coordinator and spacious digs.
Though she remains the director for student-athlete services, her latest challenge comes from her new position as Special Assistant to the Vice Provost for Student Success under David Dowell.
“What we do for the athletes, I would like to do for the student body,” said Fenton of what she hopes to accomplish in her new post. “Advising is my thing and advising has been shown for retention purposes to be one of the key components. Advising is very important...faculty advising, professional advising, etc.
“The whole thing is about spreading student success and the idea is that if someone comes up to you and asks you who is responsible for student success at the university, you should be saying ‘I am,’ no matter what your position on campus is. Everyone on the campus should be responsible for student success.”