For many young adults, college represents freedom. That is what makes it so exciting as an endeavor and an experience – and so complicated. David McMahan, Florida Tech’s new dean of students, understands.
An accomplished and successful leader now with 25 years in higher education who graduated with honors from the University of Tulsa College of Law, McMahan’s initial exposure to university was, by how own admission, challenging.
McMahan was a responsible young man during his upbringing in Tulsa, Oklahoma, but when he arrived at the University of Houston, temptation was waiting. “I didn’t go to class and found that there were too many opportunities for fun and frivolity,” he said.
Yet this rocky path as an undergrad in Houston, which ultimately took McMahan five years to traverse, yielded something more life-changing than a diploma. Actually, two life-changing things: He met his wife Selda on campus, and they remain happily wed after 28 years, and he was exposed to the caring and capable people from student affairs.
“My experience as an undergraduate and having somebody help me be able to make that transition and become successful as an undergraduate is something that I think probably spurred me into this career,” McMahan said during an interview in late May in his second-floor Denius Student Center office.
McMahan went on to serve as a resident assistant and a resident director, starting him on a career that has now brought him to Melbourne. “It was exciting to see people grow, including those students who had difficulty as I did, and to see them being able to come through and be successful in their career and go on to do greater things,” he said.
Over the hour-long interview, McMahan talked about his approach to students, how he hopes to help them succeed, and the value of diversity.
What are some things or what would you want the students to know about you, your philosophy, your approach?
David McMahan: I would want the students to know that I have an open-door policy. I view this position as being ombudsperson for them. So I’m here to answer any questions or provide any help that I can in navigating the university environment so that they’re able to succeed. I very much have been involved in housing throughout my career and saw what it’s like to make the transition and live on campus and have a living and learning environment, so we want to provide as much as we can for them to be able to compliment what they’re doing in the classroom. We’re also here when there are crises and issues that develop over time. I want to be there to facilitate any of their needs.
What are your thoughts about Florida Tech so far?
David McMahan: Florida Tech came to my attention through an advertisement online, but I was looking at the institution because of its size and my ability to still get to know the students in a one-on-one relationship. I started at the University of Houston with 42,000 students, when I went through school. And it was a very different experience. (Thankfully) the honors college that I went through had a more college flow to it. But I’ve worked, since then, at small colleges, public and private both. And it’s been kind of my niche to be involved with those opportunities to get to know the students. The caliber of students at Florida Tech intrigue me. I haven’t worked with students that are engineers as a primary focus. And so it’s exciting to come here and see a new flavor of students and a new program.
Part of your portfolio is to oversee Residence Life. What do you think of student housing here?
David McMahan: I’m at the level of assessing right now. I’ve been able to go with Jacqueline Hetherington, the director of Residence Life, and tour all our facilities. So that was something in and of itself, just to see what all we offer here. And we have a broad portfolio of living opportunities, from traditional housing with double loaded corridors and community showers to apartment-style living with independence and autonomy that’s built into that. So I think we offer a lot of opportunities here. It’s looking at where they’re at and where we are. Some of our buildings were built in the 60s, so we’re taking a look at those and making sure they’re still capable of offering our students all the support that they need in a living environment so that they’re not focused on where they’re living, they’re focused on what’s going on around them.
University is a place for students to truly discover their potential, and you’ve said that every student has the potential to go far in whatever path they choose. Is it your roll to help make that happen?
David McMahan: I think that’s a great way to phrase it. I think our students do have an opportunity to succeed in whatever they undertake, through the many resources that are here at Florida Tech. From academic support services to the dean of students’ office, there is somebody here to help and make sure that they can achieve their potential and seek to grasp their aspirations and maybe even reach a little further than they thought when they came here. And so, it’s my hope that I can help students in achieving their objectives and doing whatever it takes to help them find success.
Part of ensuring student achievement is making sure they are in a good place mentally. I imagine that has been made even more challenging over the last few years with COVID.
David McMahan: Well, I’ll start by talking about just where we are with student health and wellness. Higher education has seen a 200 percent increase in the last 10 years in the students that are coming in with psychotropic medications. So the students are struggling more with anxiety and depression than they ever have before, and COVID certainly didn’t help that at all. We saw an increase in our utilization in mental health services, across the nation, in colleges and universities. So looking at where we can be there to meet their needs and working with our counseling department to see that the waiting lists are being attended to, and we’re getting people in to see the help that they need is essential.
How do you handle students who may be dealing with mental health issues?
David McMahan: For those students who deal with an issue, we have primary, secondary and tertiary victims. Those who were roommates or floor mates that were very close to them were primarily impacted, as they knew what was going on, and they see things that happened. The secondary environment is the college as a whole, as they see what’s going on in the community and how they’re being impacted. And then, everybody that hears about is a tertiary impact. And so you want to be able to attend to each of those audiences and make sure that they’re getting the resources they need.
That may just be being informed as a parent that’s away from the institution and wants to know what’s going on. Or maybe it’s actually soliciting counseling services for those who are close to the situation. But together, with our 24-hour security operation, our resident assistants living on the floors, and then the communities that we have, I think this is a strong network of folks here that’s looking out for our students and providing assistance where they can, looking to intervene whenever they identify any issues or concerns. And whether or not it’s a student discipline matter or a student wellness matter, we’re there to reach out and help the student and get them back into their prime to address their academic focus. We have a strong team here that’s looking out for our students.
Does part of being healthy mentally and physically mean getting involved in various activities in addition to attending classes?
David McMahan: We talk about a student being well rounded and well grounded. Part of that comes out of coming out of the classroom and getting engaged in other activities on campus to develop leadership skills and be part of a community and be able to show their future employer that they can do group dynamics and do the interaction. But there’s also just a need to let off some stress, especially, I imagine, for our students here with engineering and aerospace and all the other highly demanding fields of study they’re involved in. They need to let that out and get their stress levels brought back down to a manageable level, so that they can focus when they need to, but they can have big fun when they need to have some fun and an outlet.
I want to ask you about diversity, equity and inclusion. Is that something that guides you as dean of students? How does it factor into your thinking, into your approach?
David McMahan: Well, I hope it’s ingrained enough that I try not to have it be something that I’ve had to think about as much. It’s more of a natural relationship now, but the diversity’s always around us. Inclusion is having somebody at the table that can have a voice. And then, equality is actually having that voice taken into consideration and doing something with it. So I hope this is a community where everybody feels the opportunity to speak out and be able to be heard and be part of that population. And then we need to take advantage of what DEI adds to our education. For me, day to day, it’s still an education to learn more about different cultures and different individuals and what their backgrounds are. I think that DEI work is essential for what we’re doing, especially in student affairs, to compliment what’s happening in the classroom.
A few years back, you gave a talk called, “Living and Learning for All: Transgender Students in Residence.” How important is acceptance and understanding among university leaders like yourself as our student body, and society in general, becomes more diverse?
McMahan: Well, we’ve got folks that are supporting our institutions of higher education that are relatively conservative. And then we have some folks that are coming out and being who they are, embracing their identity. And so you want to be able to make this environment acceptable to them and as comfortable as possible. So back in 2018, we were talking about, just in the residence halls, where does someone live who’s transgender and what opportunities are available to them? And so, we talked about those things and trying to make that an opportunity that gave people the opportunity to be comfortable and find their location amongst our population, without creating just one isolated area for certain students to live.
Florida Tech has a large international student population. They are very far from home, often with customs and mores that are different. What are your thoughts on making them feel comfortable and welcome?
David McMahan: You want to be able to have students integrate into the community and feel like they’re part of the general society. But at the same time, they want to be able to be with others from their country or region and celebrate what they have in likeness. You do hear them still speaking their native language, and you do see them engaging in behaviors that are normal to them, but at the same time, you want them to have the outlet of being able to integrate fully and have all the experiences, from student activities, taking trips to different area things so they can see more of the U.S. You celebrate all those experiences with them. I’ve always enjoyed working with international students, and I certainly hope that they feel welcome and have a place at Florida Tech that makes it feel like a home away from a home.
You’ve moved from Nebraska to Florida. That’s quite a change, geographically speaking. Did you bring your sunscreen?
David McMahan: I took scuba diving lessons my wife bought me for my 50th birthday in Nebraska. I swam in the quarries to learn how to scuba dive. And so everybody’s convinced I came to Florida just so I’d have an opportunity to go scuba diving. We’re four hours from the Keys, so that’s exciting. I’ve been to Orlando and done Disney World with a group from the University of Houston, and I came here and did a leadership outing. But those are the only times I’ve been to Florida until now. But there’s something about the community and the atmosphere here that intrigues me.
You and Selda have two “fur babies,” a Maltese Pomeranian and a Maltese poodle. How will your dogs take to this summer heat?
David McMahan: I have a Maltipom and a Maltipoo, 25 and 15 pounds of white terror. We’re waiting to see how they’ll handle things. Our Maltipom would sit out in Nebraska, in the snow, and just wait for the wind to ruffle through her hair, and our poodle just shivered every time she put a toe down on the snow. So I think the poodle’s going to love Florida. And I think the Maltese is going to have to be shaven every week or two. We’ll see how that goes.
David McMahan’s 25-year career in higher education has unfolded at four universities: his alma mater, University of Houston; Muskingum University in New Concord, Ohio; Tusculum University in Greeneville, Tennessee; and Wayne State College in Wayne, Nebraska.
After graduating with honors from the University of Tulsa College of Law in 1998, he returned to his alma mater, first serving as area coordinator, then interim associate director of residential life and housing. He was named assistant director for residential life in 1999 and served until 2001, when he departed for Muskingum College.
At Muskingum, McMahan was associate dean of students from 2001 to 2005. Next was Tusculum University, where McMahan was hired as dean of students in 2005 and, in 2010, named institutional Title IX coordinator, as well.
In 2017, he came to Wayne State to serve as assistant dean of students and Title IX coordinator. Two years later, he was named interim vice president for student affairs, and later in 2019 was appointed dean of students and Title IX coordinator, positions he held until coming to Florida Tech in May 2022.