Women’s History Month 2012: Mary Beth Fecteau

During (almost) all of my years at Wheaton College I had the opportunity to be a Resident Advisor. I got to lightly ‘supervise’ the residential setting of college students throughout the years. This time was not by any means ‘easy.’ There would be constant roommate spats, marijuana smells and raucous parties (some of which I would have the ‘pleasure’ of breaking up.) All of this, in addition to the already hectic life of an overcommitted, always ‘on’, over achieving student. Just thinking about this time of my life is exhausting.

MB and I at Spring Weekend 2009

As with any job, you have a supervisor. Someone who is basically responsible for making sure you’re doing your job. For RAs, these folks are Area Coordinators (or Directors…guess it depends on where you go to school.) ACs have one of the most challenging jobs on a college campus because not only are they responsible for (basically) the entire living experience of a college student, but they also have to manage RAs who are by no means ‘perfect angels.’

I went through my first year as an RA just skating by the seat of my pants, barely holding on the job really. I was late to a few meetings, missed a few important deadlines, and just altogether wasn’t doing the best I could do. The only thing I really had going for me was that my residents loved me – mostly because they were friends I made the year before. The year after that, my work started improving, and I was offered a spot as a returning RA. I knew I’d wanted to be more than an RA but I hadn’t shown anyone that I could do more.

That was until Mary Beth Fecteau rolled (back) into town. Mary Beth (or MB) as we called her, had left Wheaton for a brief period to work at a nearby school, and was now returning to reclaim her spot as AC for the ‘upperclass’ half of campus. To give you a clear picture, I wanted nothing more than to live on ‘upper campus’ AND to be an RA. There was really no way I could do that other than proving to MB that I deserved to be on her staff. She didn’t know it at that point but everything I would do was with the goal of showing Mary Beth that I could not just be a good RA but a great RA. Luckily she saw that and hired me to her staff the next year.

Being on Mary Beth’s staff was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had because in reality, I never felt as though I was working for MB, I was – in all senses of the term – working with her. MB was one of the first managers who saw me as a full person. She allowed me to let my guards down, tell her what was bothering me, what I was afraid of. She allowed me to be me. Under her leadership I flourished. Over the course of my time under leadership I felt own professional growth arrive at levels I never thought possible. I had begun to see myself as a leader.

MB sharing her wisdom with fellow runners & supporters

MB had her own passions as well. Toward the end of my academic career at Wheaton I got a Facebook message from MB with a subject line along the lines of “MB’s running a half-marathon!” I couldn’t believe it. MB wasn’t the kind of person who just picked herself up and decided “self…I’m going to run a 13 miles toady.” In that message I learned a lot about Mary Beth. I learned about her personal struggle with a Crohn’s Disease, her belief in one of the organizations searching for a cure (CCFA), and her commitment to something other than her staff. I was a poor college student and although I couldn’t financially support her effort myself I posted flyers provided by a colleague all over my floor. I would never know how much my efforts helped contribute to MB’s run but from her follow-up Facebook posts I knew she ran as though she had raised enough money to find cures for 5 diseases.

Unfortunately, that run didn’t do it. It didn’t raise enough money to find a cure for Crohn’s Disease or Colitis. What did MB do? She ran again. It did not matter to her how many times she would have to run 13 miles – her years of managing a challenging disease far (far) outweighed the length of the run.

During the second run’s season I wasn’t at Wheaton anymore but I vociferously followed her blog posts. I learned that she was chosen to be a mentor (duh!) and was leading her team of runners through the strenuous half-marathon training (sidebar | a half-marathon isn’t really ‘half’ of anything…it is hard freaking work!.)

The night before the race, CCFA holds an event to celebrate the hard work of the runners, supporters and survivors. At the 2010 gala, Mary Beth was able to share a few inspirational words with the audience. Here’s an excerpt;

I am not someone who ever likes to stand up and give my litany of medical dates, treatments, and procedures, and I will not be doing that tonight, for a couple reasons. First, we would still be here when the starting gun goes off tomorrow. Second, everyone in this room with these diseases has the same story, more or less. This is what binds us and makes us powerful as a group. I hope as you look around the room, you can feel that connection and that bond. Which brings me to the final reason. What I would like to say to you tonight, what is in my mind and heart, is not about tubes or pills or scalpels. It is about connection. It is about conversations. It is about meeting that person on the running trail and discovering that they too have a 10 year old with Ulcerative Colitis. It is about the high five that you will get from someone wearing orange tomorrow morning on the course that you have never met, and will likely never see again. It is about a random introduction at the send off training last year that turned into a lifelong support system. And it is about a conversation had while dangling wearly legs in a pool post-race that turned into a wonderful friendship. This is the gift of Team Challenge.

MB gave her all again at that race, and still, a cure hadn’t been found. Guess what she did the next year? She ran. Again.

Although I’m no longer within 10 minutes walking distance from MB, we’re connected. Mary Beth reinforced two really important life lessons for me. Developing people doesn’t happen solely through clipboard management. The people you work with aren’t just a task to be crossed off your list. In order to build trust, rapport and to affect change you must build relationship. This is a lesson I take with me into my current work. The second lesson? Tenacity is a process, it’s a way of life, it is not a one time event. When a cure wasn’t found after the 2nd race MB applied to work at the organization…and then she ran. Again.

I sincerely hope that a cure for Crohn’s Disease and Colitis is found in our lifetimes and with the strength, will and power of people like Mary Beth putting everything they have into it, I have no doubt that this will soon be a reality. What I also know is that MB’s tenacity is the foundation upon which her life, personality, and relationships are built.

Don’t stop running, MB.

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