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Jennie Taylor leaves record of growth for Oxford College

Jennie Taylor recently retired as Oxford College's dean of enrollment services, having led an era of explosive growth in student applications. Emory Photo/Video.

At first, Jennie Taylor thought she was too young for the job — a 25-year-old who suspected that she needed a few more years of experience under her belt before becoming director of admissions at Oxford College.

So when she was offered the job, Taylor was thrilled, shocked and more than a little torn about what to do.

It was her father who provided clarity and confidence: "You need to think about this as an opportunity," he advised. "If they think that you can do this job and do it well, then you need to trust that and know that you can. Go do it."

"That made sense to me, the idea that the opportunity was there because it was the right time for me to have it," says Taylor. "So that's exactly what I did, and I've loved it ever since."

As she retires as dean of enrollment services for Oxford College some 35 years later, Taylor reflects that not only would that job evolve into an fulfilling career, the campus community would grow to become a family "that basically raised me," she jokes.

"What has really never changed is that this job is all about people," Taylor says. "And there is such joy that comes from working in an environment where people are so passionate about what they are doing and so good at it and can share that.

Taylor will be honored at a retirement reception on Friday, Sept. 19, from 4-7 p.m. in the Oxford College Library. Over the years, she has helped shepherd an explosive growth in student applications at Oxford — a fact widely attributed to her leadership and strategic efforts. Along the way, the job would evolve along with her, eventually encompassing marketing, recruitment, admissions, financial aid, and records and registration.

And although she's witnessed considerable changes at Oxford — from growth of the student body and faculty and a boom in campus renovation and construction to increased staffing within her own office, which has increased fivefold — the rewards of working collaboratively to further the mission of the college remain her greatest pleasure.

"While this job was certainly challenging, it was a challenge that I knew I could handle because of the support I received from the faculty, staff and my bosses," she says. "Those relationships are what it's all about."

Oxford applications surge

Since stepping into her job, Taylor has seen applications for admission to Oxford College soar — from about 500 a year in 1979 to nearly 7,500 this past academic year — while the average SAT score of entering freshman has also climbed 130 points.

Financial aid has expanded too, from less than $1 million a year to more than $11 million in need-based annual grant aid to support Oxford students. Total enrollment has nearly doubled, from about 500 students to a current enrollment of more than 900.

It all points to Oxford's growing popularity as a unique point of entry into Emory University, notes Taylor, who credits the success of "One Voice" joint recruitment efforts between Emory College of Arts and Sciences and Oxford College, a specialized division of Emory University that offers a liberal arts intensive program of study for the first two years of the Emory baccalaureate degree.

For the 2014-2015 academic year, 94 percent of incoming students were dual applicants to Oxford and Emory colleges, compared to about 87 percent last year. And though the raw numbers remain modest (about 31 students) Taylor has seen students selecting Oxford when admitted to both campuses more than double this year.

That's been important in helping to actually "shape" the incoming class — evaluating what students bring to campus in such areas as academics, outside interests, and ethnic and racial diversity — as opposed to simply filling it, Taylor says.

Stepping up to that challenge has long been important at Oxford and a goal that Taylor took seriously, says Oxford's Dean for Campus Life Joe Moon, who tracks the college's growth from Emory's first historic home to its current role within the university in his book, "An Uncommon Place: Oxford College of Emory University."

"During Jennie's years of service, the number of applications and the academic credentials of prospective students have improved dramatically," Moon notes. "And the racial diversity of the student body has continued to grow, creating a varied and interesting campus culture."

"She leaves Oxford a better place, in many respects, and we all owe her our gratitude," adds Moon.

A legacy of leadership

Beyond the advances she brought to admissions, Taylor will be remembered for her warm collegiality and skill in creating campus-wide connections.

"Across Enrollment Services, and the university as a whole, Jennie is known for her steady leadership and for empowering her staff to develop and grow professionally," says Kelley Lips, 02Ox 04C, who has worked with Taylor for the past decade and is Oxford's new dean of enrollment services.

Lips joined Oxford's Office of Enrollment Services upon graduation from Emory College in 2004, never anticipating how fulfilling the work would be "and how Jennie would continue to support me with new challenges, responsibilities and opportunities for growth," she says.

"Ten years later, I am honored to have been selected to carry forward Jennie's legacy of success," she adds.

During her years with Emory, Taylor left Oxford only briefly in 1982, at the invitation of Emory College administrators, to serve as director of financial aid on the Atlanta campus. After four years, she returned to Oxford and the chance to engage with the full cycle of student admissions.

Sitting in Eady Admissions Center earlier this summer, Taylor calculated the number of staffers she's worked with over the past 35 years. "There were well over  75 people passing through one way or another, and many I'm still in touch with," she says. "It's especially fun and rewarding to connect with them, as well as work with their children as they begin their college searches."

"To me, that's the most heartwarming part of it all, that there is still a connection with so many of them," she adds.

That comes as little surprise to Kitty McNeill, dean of the library at Oxford, who served with Taylor on the dean's council. "She is loved by faculty, staff, students and alumni alike," McNeill says. "It's really amazing what she's done and what an essential part of the community she's become."

Oxford College Dean Stephen Bowen praises Taylor's "consummate skill in recruiting a strong freshman class" and describes her as "a generous and energetic manager of her staff."

Taylor chuckles at her nickname, "The Queen of Reorganization," but Bowen saw that quality as a strength. "She frequently reorganized so that members of her team had new challenges that brought out the best in them and improved the office's overall efficiency," he says.

Time to learn something new

After 35 years, how do you know it's time to leave?

"For starters, I was actually old enough to retire," Taylor laughs. "I think it's just a new day, time to make way for new, creative, innovative ideas that will resonate with students."

The fact that her husband, Ron Taylor, retired as Emory's associate vice president of Campus Life three years ago weighed into the decision, too: "I teased him that when he got all the home projects done, I would retire and not before — and he's actually got quite a bit done. So I'm looking forward to just spending some time with him."

Though not being at Oxford and Emory will be an adjustment, Taylor plans to enjoy quality time with family and friends, gardening, travel, and eventually returning to school "to take some sign language courses, which have always interested me."

Looking back, "what hasn't changed about Oxford is the sense of community and commitment to this place — to me, that has remained strong and only gets stronger," Taylor says.

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