On a Sunday afternoon, Steven and Cece O’Day cross Grand Avenue, walking shoulder to shoulder to Wynne Chapel, this time to hear the A Cappella Choir. They could just as likely be headed to a soccer game, a swim meet, a research presentation, or a play—or simply to enjoy the campus they call home. October 30, 2022, marked the fifth anniversary of President O’Day’s leadership at Austin College—five fruitful years with a couple of fretful ones folded in as the College responded to COVID-19.
Back in 2017, Steven said in his introductory remarks, “The Austin College mission to ‘educate students in the liberal arts and sciences in order to prepare them for rewarding careers and full, engaged, and meaningful lives’ matches my own deeply held belief that we are called upon to educate the whole student—mind, body, and spirit—both in and beyond the classroom.”
Now, years later, he reflects, “The opening remarks about my deeply held belief—I still believe that. I think we actually got it right then; and with all we’ve been through in five years, now into our sixth, it still rings true. I said then, ‘You’ll get the best I have,’ and I’ve tried to do that every day.”
Among those best efforts were the public launch and completion of the $125 million POWER Campaign, which funded scholarships and capital improvements, and strengthened the endowment. Campus projects include the renovations of Wynne Chapel, Clifford J. Grum Sanctuary and Sallie Majors Chapel, Ida Green Communication Center, the Sally and Jim Nation Theatre and Learning Commons, and large-scale refreshes of athletic facilities, including Jordan Family Courts at the Russell Tennis Center, Hughey Gymnasium, Jim Rolfe Court, Hannah Natatorium, and Apple Stadium. Major from-the-ground-up projects include the North Flats apartment-style housing and the Oscar and Anna Laura Page Meditation Garden. Along with these projects that affect recruitment and retention of students, the President has led efforts to keep academic programming relevant, contemporary, and responsive to the needs of today’s student.
“I think we’ve been very intentional about how we look at academic program enhancement with new majors and minors,” President O’Day said. “I’m as proud of those things as I am of the North Flats or any of our capital projects,” he said. “The Kinesiology major, for example, did not exist five years ago and is already the third largest major in the College. Along with programs like PPE (Philosophy, Politics, and Economics), Public Health, and Data Science Analytics, we continue to build with the new Master of Medical Science Physician Assistant Program to be launched in 2024.”
“I’m also proud of our continued inclusion and diversity work to build on a culture that already existed at Austin College,” he said. “I think we have a deepened recognition that we should be mindful of everything through an equity lens … asking ourselves at every turn: does this meet a high standard of inclusion, equity, and diversity?”
Steven often says “we” when talking about Austin College; he’s referring to First Lady Cece, who has many roles at the College. She reflects positively on the early days in Sherman when she enjoyed meeting new friends and experiencing all things Texan. While occasionally missing a Philly soft pretzel, she has now been indoctrinated to a burger and tots at MGs, Mexican food at Rustico, and knows the roadside produce truck to look for to get the best cantaloupe.
“Particularly in the beginning, I got to know everybody because we went to everything. I met a lot of students through their extracurricular activities, choir concerts, research posters … we were at everything,” she said. “But, COVID disrupted all of that.” However, in that disruption, the COVID lockdown also gave an opportunity for Steven to achieve the lifelong goal to learn to play a musical instrument. With encouragement from Chaplain John Williams ’84, Steven purchased and practiced the guitar, and mastered the basics. “John gave me good advice,” Steven said. “He said just learn how to play a song … if you know C, D, G, and E minor, you can play hundreds of songs.” He continued, “When the lockdown hit, it seemed like every minute was spent completely focused on dealing with the crisis of the day. Spending at least a little time with my guitar every night offered some distraction. Over time, it became something that I counted on every day, and now—I can play the guitar! I’m playing in the band! We have gigs. I smile about it, and I still can’t really believe it.”
With events and activities eventually returning to an expected pace, Cece and Steven still go to everything that the calendar allows. Cece has helped with coaching the swim teams and says the best perk of being First Lady is having her own key to the pool (which she uses often).
Out of the pool, her role has grown to include a position within the Center for Student Success and Access Services, where she works particularly with student-athletes. As an athlete herself, she understands the demands they face. Add her years as a teacher and coach and the fact that she has a grown son of her own, and she is more than qualified for her nickname—Campus Mom.
In addition to campus activities, the O’Days are involved in community groups, as Steven serves on the board of directors for Texoma Medical Center, and Cece is on the board of directors for the Boys and Girls Club, has served as treasurer for the area chapter of National Giving Alliance, and has worked with Texoma Family and Youth Services.
The Sherman area has changed in the last five years and is projected to double in population in the next 10. “My sense of it is that Sherman is the new northern doorstep to the DFW metroplex,” Steven said. “I think it’s a moment of unprecedented opportunity for the College. While we see that the demographic for graduating high school seniors is about to drop drastically in so many regions of the country, there are a few pockets in the country that will actually
experience an increase in graduating seniors. We here in Texas are one of them,” he said. “We don’t have to figure out where our potential students are going to come from, but we will need to always be working on how to help them discover this amazing gem of a college.”
To prepare for that future, the O’Days are energetically and wholeheartedly committed to leading the College forward in the same way it educates students—mind, body, and spirit.