Out of the bubble, into students’ lives
Cline keeps learning as Dean of Student Services at SCCC
Seward County Dean of Student Services Mariah Cline did not intend to go into education — or counseling — or student services in any way, shape, or form. She saw and heard all about those pursuits growing up with a mother who was a social worker and counselor, and a father who taught economics at Emporia State University.
“In middle school and in high school, I swore I didn’t want to do the same things my parents did. I wanted to work at the federal reserve,” Cline said. “So I majored in economics at Emporia State, and dreamed about working in Kansas City.”
As it turned out, Cline’s life story followed a different path that led to her current position as SCCC Dean of Student Services.
“Apart from the title, I think of this job as being a ‘dot-connector’ for our students,” Cline said. “I’m in charge of advising, counseling, disability services, retention, career advising — really, everything that the college puts in place to support students. It’s pretty awesome to be in a role where I can help students better connect with the resources they need to be successful.”
Cline’s own process contains elements similar to those she seeks to align for the 2,000-plus students enrolled at Seward. Over time, through employment, relationships, and a sense of connection, she refined her awareness of what she was meant to do.
Shortly after graduation from Emporia, her boyfriend — now husband — Caleb Cline proposed. The couple married, and soon after, they moved to his hometown of Liberal. The windy, tree-scarce landscape was new to her, and the culture unfamiliar.
“I can see now that I had grown up in a kind of bubble, where people were pretty the same race, economic level, education level,” Cline said. “When I got to Liberal, there was so much I didn’t know, wasn’t even aware of.”
With her economics degree in hand, Cline took a job at High Plains Pizza, in the accounting department. “The people there were amazing,” she said. “They weren’t just coworkers, they were friends. They gave me a baby shower, they introduced me to people and organizations around town …They just welcomed me into the community so that it became mine.”
Cline’s coworkers occupied a wide spectrum of educational and professional experience. Some held high school diplomas, others had completed degrees in surprising subjects like art education, and Cline found herself in conversations about how and why they’d chosen a particular career. At the same time, her husband was completing his teaching credentials, which piqued her interest in doing the same.
Cline started work at Liberal High School as a business instructor, at a time when the district struggled to handle community gang activity that spilled over into the high school hallways.
“My friends at High Plains Pizza expected to see me come back after one semester,” she said. “The perception at that time was that the high school was a dangerous, stressful place.”
It was true, she acknowledged, yet she relished the connections she forged with students. A class survey, in which she asked about her students’ employment and career goals, opened her eyes to the realities of lives different than hers.
“More than 75 percent of my high school students said their goal was to work in the meat packing industry … I was devastated, because I thought of them as full of potential for something more than that. I remember going home and crying. I called my dad, and he gave me some perspective. We need people to do all kinds of work, and there is nothing wrong with those jobs … but he also asked if I was interested in learning more about career counseling. So I started learning about that. The next thing I knew, I was learning how to help students remove roadblocks for goals they never even know existed. I loved helping students apply to colleges, get scholarships, see their faces light up when doors opened.”
Soon, Cline had moved to the counseling office. Three years later, she became head counselor at LHS. Along the way, she’d also earned a second bachelor’s degree in education, and a master’s degree. She is currently in the process of earning a doctorate degree in education. The credentials were simply a reflection of how much she enjoyed the everyday work at LHS.
“The high school was amazing for me,” she recalls. “I gained mentors, friends, a sense of purpose. I learned more about myself, this work — the people there were and are my family.”
Over time, her work became more focused on opportunities for students through partnership with SCCC. The success stories crossed the color, race, and economic spectrum. Cline advocated for white students who didn’t stand out as high achievers, and needed to feel someone was on their side; she encouraged first-generation Hispanic students whose families had never sent a member to college; she told black students and Asian student to reach high, no matter what society told them.
“I guess you could say I bought into it so much that I wanted to be there, and when the opportunity came up, I applied,” she said.
Over the years, as career goals became more focused, the Cline family grew as well. Cline’s husband, Caleb, continues his career in education, and will teach wood shop at the newly-opening Seymour Rogers. The couple has two daughters, Savannah, 10, who Cline describes as “artistic, musical, excited about band, choir, everything creative,” and Madison, 8, who loves cheerleading, attends the dual-language program in USD 480 and “aspires to be Mexican when she grows up.”
At the college, Cline has continued her journey “outside the bubble,” as she puts it.
“More and more, I’m becoming aware of the life experiences our students have in completely different cultures,” she said. “I’m in awe of how they overcome challenges I never even had to think about. The process of being more aware of their stories can be uncomfortable and painful. But it’s changed the way I look at people and the world. Not everybody is the same. I think it’s so easy to grow up and go through life without ever realizing that.”
At a recent conference on diversity, Cline found herself in a session designed for African-Americans in academia. She felt more than uncomfortable — she felt painfully excluded, uncertain, and confused. And then, she said, “I realized I have students who have experienced this all their lives, everywhere, from early childhood. Realizing there is no place for you in the system, you are an outsider, your voice isn’t part of the power structure. I wanted to cry.”
The sense of “white guilt” is not inappropriate, Cline said, “but a colleague of mine told me, ‘That’s fine, but you can’t stay there thinking about how YOU feel — you have to keep moving.’ So the experience will shape how I move forward and how I use my influence in my place of employment.”
Cline said this means more learning on her part. She envisions a multicultural center for students from all backgrounds, “where they can experience a sense of belonging,” she said. “I know that starts with listening to them, hearing their stories, creating a connection that results in this feeling of, ‘this is my place. These are my people.’ I really believe SCCC can be that place.”