Sonoma State University orientation and family programs coordinator wins North Bay Forty Under 40 award

Colleen Mahoney


Orientation and Family Programs Coordinator

Sonoma State University

1801 E Cotati Ave., Rohnert Park 94928


Read other profiles of North Bay Business Journal’s 2021 Forty Under 40 Awards winners.

Responsibilities with your company: -Plan, coordinate, execute new student orientation for all incoming first year and transfer students (1,800 students every fall, 500 students in the spring). Secure campus partners from academics, student, and entrepreneurial affairs to participate.

How do you exemplify the spirit of being a top Forty under 40 professional?

Respect for community, family, and fellow leaders. Honor of work, time, people, and experiences Integrity in thought, action, and intention service to others

Years with company: 7

Length of time in current position: 7

Number of companywide employees: 1,000

Number who report to you: 30

Greatest professional accomplishment: When Sonoma County was assigned its first Shelter in Place order on March 17th, 2020 I knew that it would last longer than 2 weeks.

I had been watching the news of other countries and the shut downs they were imposing, and while I had no idea what, medically, was happening I knew that we would be home for a long time.

At Sonoma State University, I run a large scale student and family program that typically, in the course of 14 business days, serves and hosts 2,500 people.

I knew that could not, and would not happen, and so I began to research best practices for orientation programs that would still accomplish the learning outcomes that we needed to meet, but also reinforce the strong community for which SSU is so widely known.

There wasn't a lot of research to find, but I took what I could. During the process of designing an all virtual program with student centered theories and approaches, I encountered road blocks (the announcement that the CSU system would be remote for fall, and then later, that it would be remote for spring). We were seeing epic admissions cancellations and deferrals.

I also knew the long term impact would be job losses, program cuts, evaporating budgets, and class reduction. We, ultimately, saw a reduction of the incoming first year students by nearly half of what was expected.

But in early May, my virtual program was approved to roll out to students. We ran a 12-week, comprehensive program from June until August that still built community and taught students what they need for success in their first year at SSU.

I can say, confidently, that once students began to be a part of our Sonoma State community that the melt of students slowed. While it didn't stop, of course, we began to see excite students again.

I believe that the work I, and my team did, helped keep jobs funded, helped keep classes open, helped inspire students to find their way to SSU.

I'm incredibly proud of the heart, soul, and tears we put into making Sonoma State modern and relevant and accessible for students to be the leaders of our community in the future, whether that role takes place virtually or in person, I trust we have the skills to accomplish anything.

Greatest professional challenge: As proud I am of the greatest professional accomplishment, there are two sides to every coin.

The approval by the campus committee that now was making decisions was a long and difficult one. Out of the desire to entice students to still choose to attend SSU, virtually, some folks from around campus wanted to make orientation very easy, if not non-existent, for the summer.

We knew that we still needed to show students that our campus population that we were there to support them, so we knew this wouldn't be the best way to do that.

We needed to show data, theory, and factual reasons to support, not only continuing the program as required, but now extending it from the traditional 2 day overnight program to a summer program drawn out through the summer.

We were eventually successful, as was the program, but it took a great deal of time and education of other administrators to understand the reasoning behind my decisions.

Best advice received: Take a step back, a deep breath, and have faith that there are many correct decisions that can be made. Choose one and move on.

Single most important event in your professional life in the last 12 months: The success of my entirely virtual student orientation, branded as NOMA Nation Orientation, and being asked to present amongst my CSU Orientation colleagues about the process."

What’s the biggest change COVID-19, the restrictions and the economic impact has had on your work and personal life?

Professionally, it goes without saying that when you are required to socially distance 6 feet from people, let alone are sheltered in place, you cannot host large scale programs that typically have 300 people in shared spaces.

So, we started with a new program. But, the entire budget I normally have to work with (approximately $400, 000) to pay for program spaces, giveaways, and student leaders, and additional professional help, etc. was also refunded to incoming students out of an effort to help relieve some economic stress they might have been experiencing.

So, other campus money from emergency funding was given to us to still support the programming and personnel assistance, but my department is still feeling the effects of having our budget zeroed out.

Personally, my husband has been furloughed multiple times, as he works in the hospitality/winery industry. We never thought my state education job would make me the primary bread winner, but we have made changes to our life to accommodate the fluctuating winery business.

And what’s the biggest lesson you’ve taken from that experience?

I've learned many things, but I think I've learned resourcefulness in a way I hadn't experienced before. I do not need to shop on Amazon as a hobby, we have more than enough of everything at home.

I've learned to cook more creatively with the food we have in the house using ingredients that have sat unused because I didn't know how to use them before.

And, I have learned that a game of badminton and sidewalk chalk with my daughter outside is just as, if not more, enjoyable that a day out!

What steps is your company taking to sustain your organization and morale in the current economy?

We are looking to lower fees to help assist students, while still bringing in revenue from tuition and housing. We do wellness checks and conversations about self care and have professionals counselors come in to help us learn strategies to cope and keep moral.

We have social visits, fireside chats, so that we can learn more about the people that we work with, and not just the business practices of the people.

Next professional goal: I would like to present my program creation process ad research at a national conference.

Education: M.Ed- Educational Leadership with concentration in Higher Education from Northern Arizona University; BA- psychology from University of Arizona

Hometown: Phoenix, AZ

Community/nonprofit activities: Rincon Valley Little League Team Parent; St. Rose Parishioner University of Arizona Alumni Association

Mentor/admired businessperson: Alexandria White. She is a student affairs professional in Mississippi that has built a social media community called SAMS (Student Affairs Moms).

This community asks questions, and receives, support for our work, our children, our partners, our families; we tell jokes, we debate, we cry; we are a community of over 7,000 women in the country who are in the same lines of work. I see her balance her professional role, her role as a mother, and now her national influence and the balance that she has, and I aspire to be as balanced, and impactful (on a smaller scale!) as she is.

What is your most disliked industry buzzword?


Typical day at the office: Emails, Zoom meeting, Zoom meeting, snack, email, email

In a business sense, what is the greatest thing about being under 40; and then what is the worst?

Being under 40 (but 39!) allows me to be young enough to dream about new possibilities and my desire to chase them, but old enough to feel intimidated by my age and apprehension that I will run out of time.

Best place to work outside of your office: Well, I am still telecommuting, so I would enjoy actually being at my office! But, when I can get a WiFi signal, I enjoy being outside in the sunshine!

Hobbies: Cooking, crafting, reading, and playing with my daughter. Cooking for my family. Being a team parent for her little league team, and a supportive (new!) dance mom. Dreaming of travels and exciting meals inside new restaurants

What you wanted to be when you grew up: A dentist!

No. 1 thing you want to accomplish by the time you turn 40: Apply and be accepted into a doctoral program

First job: At a local bath and body store in Phoenix, Az

Social media you most use: Facebook

Favorite book: “A Time to Kill”

Favorite movie: “Sixteen Candles”

Favorite App: Amazon

Favorite after-work drink: Pinot noir

Last vacation: Kona, Hawaii, January 2020

What does your mom or dad brag most about you?

My dad just shakes his head and will smile and say, “You're such a little grown up! From my career to making him a grandpa, he's pretty proud!"

Colleen Mahoney


Orientation and Family Programs Coordinator

Sonoma State University

1801 E Cotati Ave., Rohnert Park 94928


Read other profiles of North Bay Business Journal’s 2021 Forty Under 40 Awards winners.

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