Mary McKay – Training the Next Generation of Leaders

At 14 years old, when most teenage girls were preoccupied with other engagements, a young Professor Mary McKay began to work. Her intellectual restlessness and love for change has driven her to become a passionate college professor.

The courses she teaches correspond with her undergraduate studies of psychology and business administration along with her doctoral degree in leadership studies. She hopes that by engaging students and giving them tools to become great leaders, they can build their own path to success and happiness.

By no means is this an easy task, but as last year’s’ Distinguished Teaching Award recipient from UC San Diego’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, Professor Mary McKay is leading the charge.

Professor McKay is part of the teaching faculty at Rady School of Management at UCSD. She teaches nine sections over the academic year, typically “Business & Organizational Leadership” and “Managing Diverse Teams.”

She moved to Rady School of Business at UCSD in 2011 after working for the University of San Diego School of Business for many years. The shift from teaching at a small private university to a large public one was tough at first as class sizes became much larger, but Professor McKay kept it a priority to get to know her students to the best of her ability.

“I’ll never forget when a student told me he had been at UCSD for four years, and I was the first professor who knew his name,” McKay told the UCSD Guardian. “The memory acts as a reminder to me of the importance of human connection, even when the circumstances don’t make it easy.”

Human connection is one key to classroom engagement, according to Professor McKay, but it is definitely not the only one. She believes that full classroom engagement involves a deeper interaction with course materials through both readings and in-class discussions and has used lecture time as an avenue for students to openly express their opinions on both.

Professor McKay’s lectures are guided by PowerPoint, but they also make room for exemplary stories, pair work, group work, debates and of course, questions. This style facilitates riveting in-class discussion, ultimately serving as a testament to her efforts in choosing, planning and creating exceptional course materials.

Since she’s been at UCSD, Professor McKay has tackled four new courses.   

“This is the creative aspect of my work and a favorite part of my job,” McKay said. “I tell my students how exciting and anxiety-producing it is to present 10 weeks of new material for the first time.”

With each new course Professor McKay begins with about 80 percent in place and as the course progresses gains a better idea of how well her students are grasping the material. The more in tune with course objectives and materials students are, the more in depth and productive their discussion.

“Students show me what’s possible as I watch them absorb content, connect the dots within the course itself and test ideas in both professional and personal environments,” McKay said.

This is why she never writes the 10th-week lecture of a new course before she’s given the first nine weeks. Each course ending the first time through is unique, since it’s the students who ultimately shape what the last few lectures will look like.

“Consistently student response to course content takes me places beyond my original expectation,” McKay said. “This is a great joy in the classroom, and it doesn’t stop with the first classroom cohort.”

Adding new material to a course can be tricky, and tying in major current events to course material can be even trickier. Nonetheless, Professor McKay has learned that it’s important to take some risks, as she recently offered some of her class time to discuss the Nov. 8 election.

“That morning of Nov. 10, I reminded students that the classroom was as much theirs as mine, and I wanted them to feel free to express a feeling, state an opinion or ask a question,” McKay said.

One particular section of her “Business and Organizational Leadership” class turned out to be quite memorable.

“I was impressed with how thoughtful, passionate, articulate and respectful of others my students were,” McKay said. “Feelings were so raw and the room was heavy with emotion, but my students not only allowed for multiple perspectives, but without being asked, they connected their words to the readings for that day’s lecture.”

Jason Grimm, who was taking Professor McKay’s “Business and Organizational Leadership” course at the time of the election, recalls the occasion.

“That day demonstrated her commitment to a healthy campus climate because she enabled students who felt any range of emotions to share,” Grimm told the Guardian. “I think ignoring such a momentous occasion would have been pointless given the atmosphere in the room. I felt better after the discussion even though I was still disappointed in the election returns.”

Professor McKay had hoped for this release of emotional tension, which in turn produced heartfelt discussion of the day’s readings on authentic leadership.

“It should be no surprise that even after I launched the planned lecture, the class was incredible rich with thoughtful dialogue and students connecting to one another, not just through me,” McKay said.

That is perhaps the essence of Professor McKay’s teaching style: the focus is never on her; it’s on her students. She holds each and every one of her students to a higher standard, treating them as smart, capable individuals and soon-to-be professionals. She harnesses mutual respect and growth, as every lecture is planned and delivered to the T, ensuring students absorb as much knowledge as they possibly can.

“My favorite thing about her courses is how knowledgeable she is about the subject and how easy it is for her to engage with her students about the material,” Grimm said. “That really helped me learn and made me feel like an active learner.”

Professor McKay continues to provide students with knowledge on how to become great leaders in both their current lives and future workplaces. Through her many lectures over the years she has given thousands of students a toolbox for success, allowing them to unleash their leadership potential. Seeing her students grow is one of her biggest inspirations in life.

“I get to watch as students prepare to launch their professional lives. It’s a time of great pride and promise, ambition and anxiety,” McKay said. “Students have four years to fill themselves up with knowledge, to form key relationships with mentors, advisors and friends and to find and explore the myriad of pathways available to them upon graduation.”

Becoming a leader in your own right takes hard work, courage and a plethora of personal growth. Nobody said becoming a great leader would be easy, but Professor McKay reminds UCSD students that they must keep reaching for it and gives them the tools to do so.

“When students can make sense of the big picture of their undergraduate education, when they have crafted their narrative and can speak about themselves, their purpose and goal with confidence, they are ready for the future. And I am inspired every time.”

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