VP of Academic Affairs has seen a long line of work

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O'Kane has empathized with students during her career in higher education. (Photos: Gabe Hewitt/City College News)

By Gabe Hewitt/[email protected]
Media Editor

Gail O’Kane calls her resume strange. MCTC’s Vice President of Academic Affairs has seen herself as a psychological researcher in a well-known study, a bike messenger, a journalist and more.

Getting her feet wet

She truly understands when students don’t know what they want to do in life. She’s always loved learning and opening doors to new careers in her own life.

“Learning is one of the most important things to me,” she said. “It opens up my eyes and keeps me motivated.”

Throughout her 20s, learning is exactly what O’Kane did as she experimented with different jobs. During her time as a budget analyst straight out of Boston College, she would ride her bike to and from work. Her love for biking was something that she wanted to turn into a job, so she left what she calls “serious work” and became a bike messenger in the multi-leveled San Francisco. People thought she was crazy for quitting her job and moving out west.

“If you follow your passions, it makes you happy,” she said.

She held that job for about a year and loved it. She delivered an assortment of items from small packages to someone’s laundry and that job led to her being offered a position at a bicycle magazine. There, she wrote travel stories, profiled famous bicyclists and took part in bicycling tour from Colorado to Utah. She would work at several different publications, including one where she had the opportunity to cover arts and entertainment in the Boston, MA area. Her coverage of business and technology for one publication sparked her interest in science.

“At that point, I was always looking for a job that allowed me to be creative,” she said. “I realized scientists and engineers were really creative the more I covered them.”

Her interest led to her pursuing a Ph.D in Neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Between 1999 and 2004, she conducted a number of studies. One of those studies revolved around memory deficits. The subject, Henry Molaison (dubbed as HM during the study), was suffering from complications of a brain surgery that was intended to cure his seizures. HM’s memory became incredibly short and couldn’t form permanent memories post-surgery. O’Kane, one of almost 100 researchers that were part of the 55-year study, was able to interact with HM. She would show HM photos of famous people and determine if he could identify him.

“We were pretty shocked when we worked with him, and despite all that previous scientists had shown about his inability to form any new memories at all,” she said, “we found that he had in fact formed memories of very famous people, like astronaut John Glenn, and events like the assassination of John F. Kennedy, suggesting that with lots of repetition, he could in fact form some new memories.”

O’Kane enjoyed her time as a researcher but eventually felt that it wasn’t what she wanted to do for the rest of her life. She wanted to make a lasting impact in the lives of others.

Higher Education

O'Kane's job today involves looking for ways to increase and accelerate student success.
O’Kane’s job today involves looking for ways to increase and accelerate student success.

O’Kane got into higher education because she wanted to help students and she’s done just that. Most of her education jobs have focused on finding ways to improve student success. She’s held positions in MnSCU and was recently the Interim President at Rochester Community and Technical College.

She’s put the problem-solving and pragmatic skills she learned from her mother into her role as VP of Academic Affairs at MCTC today. In this role, she puts all of her life skills to use while researching and implementing ways to improve student success.

“The heart of what we do at any college is focus on student learning,” she said.

She and the college have bright visions for students including building upon relationships between them and faculty and creating a better pathway for students who are unsure of their career plans.

“I know there a lot of students who struggle to find out what they’re trying to do,” she said. “I think the best thing they can do is try to really figure out what they’re good at.”

What O’Kane calls a “no regrets semester” involves undecided students taking a specific set of courses that fall under the college’s biggest majors and pathways and allowing them to experiment with them to see which courses they like. Each set would have its own morning, afternoon and evening scheduled courses. Doing this would allow the student to experiment with different types of courses while still earning credits that would count under more than one pathway.

“I want to raise the awareness in the community that we are not only the most affordable option in Minneapolis, but we also are a place where students are exposed to high-quality instruction by faculty whose first passion is teaching,” she said.

Besides being undecided multiple times in her life, as a mother of a younger child, O’Kane can empathize with students on another level who have busy schedules. When she’s not arranging playdates, she’s in meetings and finding ways to increase student success at a community college with 13,000 students.

“If they can grow up and be successful like many of our students here, I’ll feel like I did a good job,” she said.