Anne Witchner is like your second mother, even if your own did just as good of a job of packing your lunch and making sure you got to school on time. She is the unsuspecting doctorate, the one who runs a marathon just because, and the one who seems to hold the entire university of Carnegie Mellon in a balance in the palm of her hand.
Witchner has been working at Carnegie Mellon for over 22 years, currently holding the position as the Assistant Dean of Student Affairs. If you were an Orientation counselor you know her as the sassy bosslady. But, Witchner has been a part of so many other unsuspecting Carnegie Mellon events and traditions—most of the time working behind the scenes of campus events like Homecoming Weekend, as the master puppeteer pulling strings behind the curtain.
In fact, it’s hard to imagine a Carnegie Mellon occasion that Anne Witchner hasn’t touched. The truth is that Witchner has helped create tons of programs like Orientation, Family Weekend, the Madrigal Dinner, Homecoming Weekend, Carnival, the Christmas Concert, and many more. When you walk into her office in Morewood Gardens you can instantly see all the Carnegie Mellon history that comes with Mrs. Witchner’s presence. The walls are flanked with collaged frames from the years and years of Head Orientation Counselors that have worked with her since she started Orientation at Carnegie Mellon in 1991. There are pictures of buggy cars, booths from Carnival back when it was held in the University Center parking lot, all surrounding some photos of her family. For Witchner, Carnegie Mellon has been and will always be such a big part of her life. She even thinks, and perhaps hopes, that her 13 year old son would be a good fit for the Tartan atmosphere.
“I think I always wanted to be in the planning of things,” said Witchner. “I liked being involved, but not overtly involved. I liked being behind the scenes.” Even in high school when Witchner was President of the Thespian club and landed a role in the play her senior year she was discovering out what she was truly passionate about.
“I wasn’t as keen on being in the play. I liked being behind the scenes. I thought it was fascinating. I wasn’t somebody who needed to be in the limelight but I liked being part of a team,” said Witchner.
But that’s just the amazing humbling ability of Anne Witchner to be such a big part of something like the award-winning Orientation program, and let her student leaders take all the credit. Witchner seems to have an acute awareness for Student Affairs that allows her students to flourish in their work as student leaders.
“Working with Anne is an experience. She is always nine steps ahead of you. She has already thought about what you are thinking about, finished what you started to work on, and knows how everything will turn out. She does this all behind the scenes, and only after working with her for 7 months, did I realize how truly magical she really is.” said Sean Chin, a former Head Orientation Counselor.
Born in another small steel-slicking town, Witchner grew up in Youngstown, Ohio about seventy miles west of Pittsburgh: “My roots are in Ohio. I went to Ohio University for two years and I transferred to Carnegie Mellon University,” explained Witchner. “As a transfer it’s sort of hard to get involved because you’re halfway through your undergraduate career.” But Witchner didn’t let that stop her. She instantly became super involved in Carnegie Mellon life by joining the carnival committee and Kappa Alpha Theta her junior year.
Like lots of college graduates, when it came time to figure out her career goals Witchner was having trouble deciding the next step of her life.
“After I graduated I stayed with a cousin who lived in Pittsburgh who goes to Pitt. I was still in touch with the former Director of Student Activities, Bob McCurdy who was known in the field of Student Activities across the country. Bob convinced me to go on to graduate school and get a degree in Student Services, or it could be [now] called Higher Education Administration. ”
Witchner went on to graduate school at the University of South Carolina for a Master’s in Counseling and Student Personal Services which would lead her into her career in Student Affairs later on. She was then offered a position as the Assistant Director of Student Activities at Allegheny Community College.
“I loved it, loved it, loved it! I got to deal with students completely different from the ones I went to Carnegie Mellon with, and students I went to grad school with,” said Witchner.
In 1990, Witchner was offered the job as Assistant to the Dean of Student Affairs at Carnegie Mellon, and was excited to return to her alma mater with big ideas for the future. One of Witchner’s favorite pet projects was to start an Orientation program for incoming Carnegie Mellon freshman in ‘91. Over the years, Carnegie Mellon’s Orientation has grown into a dynamic week-long and award-winning program with over 150 student orientation counselors who volunteer their time and effort to help the first-years have the best experience possible.
Every time Witchner speaks about her work, it’s the students that really come alive in her stories. She remembers their names, their hobbies, who they dated in college and when, and even how wonderful they were when they gave that solo performance on the flute at the annual Christmas concert. Even with other job offers springing into her lap through the years, she hasn’t found the heart to leave “her” students. She says that as smart as students are, they need someone behind the scenes to help them navigate the system.
“It’s about the students. They’re so gifted and they keep you on your toes because they’re so bright. But they need support behind the scenes because they’re still just students and their academics come first. It’s been really rewarding. I always say it, I get to work with the cream of the cream of the crop.” said Witchner.
Over the years, Witchner has worked as the primary advisor to Spring Carnival, Buggy, the Activities Board, Scotch ‘N Soda, and many other student organizations, relishing her close personal relationships with students, many of which she still keeps in touch with. But one of her most touching experiences was getting to know late writer of the Last Lecture, Jeff Zaslow. Witchner remembers when Zaslow was a creative writing student at Carnegie Mellon, editor for the Tartan newspaper, and then later building her friendship with him as he gained success for his incredible writing abilities. Zaslow recently passed away in car accident while he was on his way to give a lecture in Michigan. “I knew Jeff as a student. And I always knew he’d do something with his life to make an impact. He’s left a pretty amazing imprint on my heart and on my life,” said Witchner.
At 60, Witchner’s work is never finished as she is seemingly the embodiment of founder Andrew Carnegie’s motto, “My heart is in the work.” There’s always something bigger or better that could be happening for Carnegie Mellon in Witchner’s mind. But that doesn’t mean that in all the chaos she loses sight of what’s really important: the students.
“I always knew that Anne as an incredible supervisor. However, this year, when I struggled with post-graduation plans, I learned that she is also an incredibly caring mentor to her students. She did her best to connect me with possible resources and was supportive of me in all of the decisions that I made. No matter what she was doing, she always made it a priority to talk to me if I stopped by her office,” said Chuck McCain a soon-to-be graduating, Head Orientation Counselor.
Anne Witchner becomes a go-to for all of life’s important moments, academic or not. She finds herself invited to student’s weddings and baby showers, because Anne Witchner is not just a boss or a colleague, she’s family. As long as Anne Witchner is a part of Carnegie Mellon’s community, great changes are bound to happen. The Beatles’ song may go “We get by with a little help from our friends,” but here at Carnegie Mellon it seems to be, “We get by with a little help from Anne.”