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Leading protagonists in the story of Campus Life at Emory
Riordan and moon, posing

— Sarah Woods, Emory Photo/Video

If there were a vault of Emory institutional knowledge, these two staffers would have the keys.

Joe Moon and Bridget Guernsey Riordan have had an impact on the student experience at Emory in a way that belies their time of service. And that is indeed saying something: Moon has logged 44 years and Riordan 30.  

Riordan is retiring on Feb. 7. Read her sendoff from her Campus Life colleagues. 

Moon is a native Georgian who earned his BA at Furman University. Upon finishing a master’s of education at University of Georgia, he began looking for work. President James Laney was recently appointed at the time and was moving Emory from old-fashioned to modern, from having “deans of men and women to something called Campus Life,” Moon says.

Though Moon started as “assistant dean for men,” his title changed the next year to assistant dean for campus life and director of residence life. Nine years later, he would begin serving Oxford as dean of campus life, a position he has held ever since.

“I knew,” says Moon, referring to his start on the Atlanta campus, “that I was coming to a place that would have a lot of change.” Laughing, he adds: “I remember thinking this could be very good or very bad.” And then come the words that he still smiles over: “I thought this would be a nice first job.”

While working at Emory, Moon went on to get a doctorate of education from the University of Georgia’s Institute of Higher Education. He made Oxford College his subject of study, believing “there is no school in the country like Oxford.” He did a deep dive in the Emory archives, mined the memories of retired professors in the community and went on to publish his findings as “An Uncommon Place: Oxford College of Emory University,” which has been through two editions. 

Riordan grew up in Indiana. She got her BS at Ball State University, a master’s in counselor education at University of Cincinnati and a PhD in higher education at University of Pittsburgh. 

There was no mystery as to where Riordan would ply her talents. Not only did she enjoy her own educational experience; she also spent a year as a traveling consultant for her sorority when she left Ball State, visiting more than 25 colleges. In her view, “Everything happens at a college campus. They are multigenerational, develop people and offer a stimulating array of so many things, from the arts to athletics to politics.” 

Emory came onto her radar in part because the city had been awarded the Summer Olympics in 1990. According to Riordan, “There was an excitement about Atlanta, and Emory was the premier institution in the area, showing so much vibrancy.” 

She was hired in 1992 as director of student activities and passed through three other titles indicative of increasing responsibility before assuming her current post in 2014 as assistant vice president for Campus Life’s Parent and Family programs.

Following is a Q&A with Moon and Riordan: 

Q: When talking to a potential Emory student, how do you define the value of an education here?

Moon: Emory is a place that, across schools, wants the student experience to be meaningful in and out of the classroom. The university attracts students deeply interested in learning and wanting to do so in a diverse environment. Emory helps students define what they are good at and how they can use the skills they learn here to solve some of the world’s challenges.

Riordan: It is the sheer diversity of ways you can learn here. Our students come from all over the world; our faculty are leading research on so many fronts. Emory students are able to shape their views by exposure to so many different perspectives. 

Q: Has Emory’s evolution been a straight line in how it conceives of Campus Life?

Riordan: Emory is very leader-influenced. On the Atlanta campus, I was tasked with leading the Division of Campus Life in our strategic-planning process when Jim Wagner was president. I found serving with him a special treat because of the clarity of that university-wide plan. It was a unifying experience.

Moon: The thing about Emory, which can be frustrating or wonderful, is that it is institutionally flexible. But I believe that Emory has had the good fortune, historically, to have the right president at the right time.

Q: A key requirement for staff in positions such as yours is the ability to handle crises, specifically those that occur with students. Talk about that aspect. 

Moon: We are better today at this than we ever have been. To handle a crisis, you need a plan. Who is doing what? What are the general rules of engagement? You need administrators in these roles who are sensible and flexible. I have never known a plan to be executed to the letter, but it is essential to have that framework.

Riordan: It is important to understand that, in every crisis, there is a ripple effect. My and Joe’s job is to listen to everyone who has been impacted and find out what their needs are. You have to hope that you have wrapped your arms around everyone who has needed support. 

Q: What does it take to be a good counselor to students?

Riordan: Joe and I help students do a few things: consider what their purpose is as well as strive to realize their potential. We help with a holistic approach on student development — the academics, which are vital, and the character development that goes along with it. So, when we work with students who have conduct cases or difficult circumstances, often those students benefit just as much or more than those who go through Emory without any major challenges. 

I don’t have a degree from Emory, but I love it. And I think I have cultivated that love in a way that makes students want to be fully engaged here.

Moon: You have to treat every encounter with students as a chance for education. Remind them of who they are, acknowledge their relative strengths and consider what is possible as their identity continues to come into focus during these formative years.

Q: What are some of the top achievements of your time here?

Moon: I like to think I helped make Emory residentially coed in a smooth way. I started both the First Year Council, which I took with me to Oxford, and the Sophomore Advisor Program in the residence halls. Along with others, I advocated for a counseling center and launched the Helpline, which still exists. I also started Songfest, one of the most distinctive of our campus traditions.

Across the years, I am proud of whom I hired and mentored at both campuses. They are wonderful human beings — people who really care about students.

At Oxford, we know that we have to build community every year because half our students leave us. That is why we have put in place some of the best leadership programs in the country. We work to make sure that our second-year students are confident, ready and know who they are before they continue to the Atlanta campus as juniors.

Riordan: In 2006, John Ford asked me to assume the role of dean of students. To connect with students, I not only attended meetings and programs; I decided to pack a suitcase for a three-day stay to understand the residence hall experience. But I did so with a little twist: I brought my family. That consisted of a husband, grade-school daughter and a dachshund puppy named Jelly Bean. Each time my family moved on campus, I learned more.

I led the work on the strategic plan (2006-2015) for Campus Life and also was part of creating Sorority Village, which provides housing for upperclass women right in the center of campus. The multipurpose center that we had defined in the strategic plan didn’t happen by 2015, but it paved the way for our amazing Emory Student Center. I am proud that we made McDonough Field a wonderful stage for artists like Ludacris and the Indigo Girls. I strived to engage alumni so that the many who are grateful for their Emory experience would give back. One watershed moment was when alumnus Michael Kaminsky made a $1 million gift to the intramural athletics program.

Q: What are Emory’s most memorable chapters, in your view? 

Riordan: The Carter Town Hall meetings. What Emory has done for LGBTQ life, being the first southern school to establish an LGBT office. How the university rose to the occasion with the Ebola patients.

Moon: The Woodruff gift, which put Emory on the map. The university’s stand on integration. Emory’s development of athletics, which is such a positive source of health and camaraderie. And let’s not forget the Barkley Forum, which I consider Emory’s football team. 

Q: Be honest. How have you batted away headhunters over the years?

Moon: You sometimes get more acclaim when you move institutions. I never have been motivated that way. I have wanted to be, and have been, challenged in my work. My preference has been to be where the value set was consistent with what I believe to be important. 

Riordan: My only move was deeper into Emory, moving into the residence halls. Seriously, though, here you can challenge yourself and others, suggest and test ideas. It is a joy to be at a place long enough to see what people do with themselves: one of the first students I met in 1992, Doug Shipman, is now president of the Atlanta City Council, and other students I encountered are accomplished medical professionals at Emory.  

Q: You two have chemistry. What is the formula? 

Riordan: It is all about providing continuity of care between the two campuses. I couldn’t have a better partner than Joe in carrying that out. He is warm and welcoming and makes everyone feel they are valued members of the Emory community. 

Moon: Bridget and I just click; we like and respect each other. We both are optimistic during times of change, genuinely appreciate our engagement with students and believe our work at Emory has lasting meaning. And, honestly, Bridget’s broad smile never ceases to make my day.

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