May 13, 2020
Julia Gaffney ’20 grows into leadership role as an advocate for others
By Charles C. Joyce
In the process of finding her own voice at Providence College, Julia Gaffney ’20 learned to become the voice of others. And now, the English (literature) major and Spanish minor is about to embark on a career path in law where a public-service hue is appealing to her.
Literally hours into her PC journey, Gaffney’s head began spinning. Her orientation leader, who was the junior class president, mentioned that one of the many student life options first-year students had was to run for an elected position with Student Congress. Deeply involved in extracurricular activities in high school, Gaffney ran and was elected a class representative.
The decision jumpstarted a trajectory of four-year, Student Congress service that led to her election as senior class president this academic year. In between, her student government résumé includes serving as sophomore class vice president and introducing mental-health initiatives that now are a part of orientation programming.
“I had no idea how it would shape me. Student Congress defined my PC experience,” said Gaffney, who will graduate with summa cum laude honors as a member of the Liberal Arts Honors Program. “This organization is all about giving voice to students, and I learned how to raise my voice and advocate for others.”
It didn’t take long for Gaffney to expand her desire to advocate for others through leadership. Following her first year, the Hampton Falls, N.H., resident was chosen an orientation leader and served in that role for two summers.
As a second-semester sophomore, she began a three-year run as a member of the College’s chapter of Habitat for Humanity, in which teams of students build and restore houses for low-income families, mostly in the Northeast. She was a volunteer one year, the leader of a team that worked in Rockport, Maine, another year, and the executive mission chair the third year.
During her junior year, Gaffney served as a member of the Student Advisory Board for Mental Health and Wellness. A passionate proponent of mental health resources and programming for students, she acted as liaison between the student body and the Personal Counseling Center.
Her work in that regard actually started in the spring of her sophomore year. Gaffney pulled together Student Congress representatives and a group of administrators and staff from student life, student health, and academic affairs offices to discuss having Personal Counseling Center staff and others address topics around mental health in the New Student Orientation program.
“Julia highlighted how important it is to have conversations about taking care of one’s mental health early in our first-year students’ time at PC,” said Dr. Rosemary F. Mugan ’98, director of the counseling center. “She also wanted students to have the opportunity to meet counseling center staff in an effort to reduce stigma around seeking assistance about mental health concerns and overall life stressors.”
The conversations evolved into Self Care 101, a program presented during orientation by counseling center staff, the director of prevention and outreach, Cheryl Granai, Active Minds, and the Student Advisory Board for Mental Health and Wellness.
Mugan praised Gaffney for her ability to work with people with differing opinions and for her attention to detail during the orientation planning process.
“Julia stands out as a student leader who exudes care and compassion for the campus and its members. She leads without boasting and always keeps the greater picture of the final goals in mind. She is a personable, supportive, and approachable leader,” she said.
Another powerful experience that Gaffney said impacted her worldview and career focus was serving with the Dominican Sisters of Tucumán, Argentina, for six weeks in summer 2018 in the Father Philip A. Smith, O.P. Student Fellowships for Study and Service Abroad program.
“It was one of the most surprising aspects of my PC education,” she said, adding that she decided to apply for the fellowship at the suggestion of Rev. R. Gabriel Pivarnik, O.P., assistant professor of theology. “I wanted to do it; I knew it would take me out of my comfort zone.”
Her chief responsibility was teaching English as a second language to children and young adults ages 6 to 18 from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds. “I taught the wealthy and I taught indigenous kids,” said Gaffney, who had never been to South America. “That experience just blew my mind. I learned about marginalized societies.”
The fellowship inspired her to commit to going to law school and made her think about a specialty in public service.
For all the time in student-life roles she put in and service experiences she had, Gaffney didn’t shortchange herself on the academic front, as her honors status attests. In fact, in addition to Mugan, she said two of the biggest influences on her during the past four years were English professors — Dr. Stephen J. Lynch, professor and director of the honors program, and Dr. Cristina M. Rodriguez, assistant professor, who specializes in Latinx literature.
Lynch was one of her professors in Development of Western Civilization her first year and taught her in another course as a sophomore. “He’s always been there and believed in me from my first year,” said Gaffney, who noted Lynch wrote several recommendation letters for her.
Gaffney’s relationship with Rodriguez blossomed her senior year, when she took Literary Theory and Introduction to Latinx Literature in different semesters. “She is an incredible professor and mentor. She connects so well with her students,” said Gaffney. She added that Rodriguez encouraged and supported her throughout the law school application process.
Rodriguez is equally impressed by Gaffney, whose intellect is recognized by many of her professors, she said.
“I had to start giving 100s for my pre-class writing exercises in Literary Theory because Julia submitted such exemplary work,” said Rodriguez. “Not only were her explanations of each text clear, nuanced, and perceptive … they were also written with elegance and humor. You can tell from Julia’s writing, and her manner in class, that she delights in figuring out difficult concepts and enjoys working through ideas. I often counted on Julia to explain a term or an idea to my other students in class, confident that she had quickly and thoroughly comprehended the material.“
Yet Gaffney never comes across as arrogant or all-knowing, emphasized Rodriguez.
“What stands out to me as much as her brilliance is her warmth and engagement in the classroom. She’s personable, she asks after her peers, and her professors, and she seems to have mastered how to be her authentic self while maintaining an academic ethos,” she said.
Gaffney, who also studied abroad at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, in spring 2019, was undecided about which college to attend as a high school senior, despite getting “an amazing feel” in her visit to PC. She knew she wanted to attend a small, liberal arts school close to home. The decisive factor was her father, Matthew F. Gaffney ’91, who didn’t pressure her but whose unbridled zeal for his alma mater was apparent from the time she was a child.
She said her father frequently wears Friars gear and occasionally talks about serving with the Friars Club and being president of the Board of Programmers for two years as an undergraduate. Several times a week, he speaks with classmates and other alumni friends in a chat, and his best friend, Kurt Kern ’92, is Julia’s godfather. Matthew Gaffney, a financial services executive, has served on the College’s National Board of Overseers for 10 years and on the Boston President’s Council for 14 years. A former member of the National Alumni Association Council, he attends alumni and College events regularly.
“He’s by far the biggest fan of PC I ever met. He and I have something special in common,” said Gaffney. She continued, “Whenever he talks about PC, he just lights up. It gave my father a family. There’s just a sense of community.”
Gaffney feels the same way, saying PC means family to her — one “I will have for the rest of my life.” A member of the College’s Dirigo Honor Society — which honors senior-year students who excel in leadership — and the Sigma Tau Delta (English), Phi Sigma Tau (philosophy), and Sigma Delta Pi (Hispanic) international honor societies, she calls her college education “the best four years of my life.”
Serving as class president her senior year in particular was “a huge growth experience,” in part because of unexpected circumstances brought on by the coronavirus pandemic but also because of the array of events, programs, and initiatives like the Senior Giving Committee. It made her reflect on her role and how every circumstance needed to be viewed from the perspective of classmates first.
Gaffney and her parents, Matthew and Shannon, are excited for her next venture as she enrolls at Northeastern University School of Law this fall. The family will have its share of reunions in Boston, as Gaffney’s younger sisters, Katia, an incoming first-year student, and Arianna, a junior-to-be, also will be attending Northeastern. But PC always will be a distinct part of who she is, she said.
“I discovered myself as a person these past four years — what I am good at, the ability to know how to excel in academics,” she said. “I think the most important growth was learning how to become a leader and how to advocate for others.”
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