Whenever her time with a student or colleague comes to an end, Maggie Gartner hands each person a magic wand and recites a special blessing to honor their time together.
“I wave it over their heads to remind them that the real magic is not inside the wand, but in their hearts and minds. I want them to remember that the work we do as counselors can work like magic.”
After 22 years at Texas A&M University, the Washington State native has earned her Aggie title with much more than magic. During that time, she has helped to transform the Student Counseling Service from a handful of counselors working in Henderson Hall to a professional staff of 46 that includes psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, and counselors dedicated to helping students facing what can be the most stressful time of their young lives. When she retires next month, Gartner leaves behind a legacy of both compassion and competence.
“Maggie Gartner has a solid understanding of the issues facing college students,” said Megan Culpepper, a professional counselor at the center. “She’s unafraid to speak directly to them, but always does so with genuine care and concern. She is a passionate, trusting, and empowering advocate for her staff—willing to go to bat for us and never asking us to do something she is not willing to do herself.”
Shatter the stigma
Whether they suffer from depression, anxiety, an eating disorder or addiction, every student she has encountered has left a mark on Maggie, motivating her to help more young men and women with innovative techniques and programs.
“When I think back over these incredible years at Texas A&M, I see so many student faces. I realize that it’s these students who make this place so special,” she said. “They have always regarded me as a partner, not an administrator. I have watched so many students succeed, but I have to say that this is serious business—not every story ends with an Aggie ring and a diploma.”
One such story began for Gartner with a midnight phone call.
“I knew it couldn’t be good news,” she said. She was asked to come back to campus to counsel the girlfriend of a student who died by suicide. “He was not one of our clients. In fact, we had never seen either one of them before. When I arrived at the scene, that young man’s face is seared into my memory, and the ‘what ifs’ will never go away.”
Only 12 percent of the 68,000-plus Texas A&M students seek counseling, but there are many more who need help and never ask for it.
“I have worked hard in trying to dispel the stigma associated with mental health issues, but there is much work left to do both on this campus and in our society,” she said. “No one gets through college without a little help from their friends, and I want our students to understand that sometimes those friends work at the counseling center.”
Gartner directed the creation of suicide prevention programs at Texas A&M, as well as a national effort to implement depression screening for students. About 41 percent of college students nationwide suffer from anxiety, while 36 percent report depression.
“Maggie was instrumental in working to treat anxiety and depression on campus,” said Martha Dannenbaum, director of Texas A&M’s Student Health Center. “It involved collaboration between our two centers, allowing medical providers to identify depression earlier and thus engage students in a treatment plan. These interventions can determine whether a student stays in school, progresses and, ultimately, graduates. Maggie is also a strong advocate for this model of care across other state institutions. We have a strong colleague relationship, and I will miss our interactions, but feel blessed to have her as a trusted friend.”
In addition to advancements in suicide and depression prevention, Gartner is most proud of directing considerable change in digital registration and recordkeeping, the 24-hour HelpLine, hiring great staff, and mentoring students.
“Maggie’s vision always included growing this agency to accommodate the mental health needs of our students,” said Travis Batson, senior administrative coordinator. “Her dedication to serving students through embedded positions, new positions and hiring a diverse, highly qualified staff is an integral part of our evolution. She is a thoughtful, patient and empathetic leader who will stand her ground to advocate for her employees and our students.”
Known nationwide for her compassion and competence, Gartner is a former president of both state and national organizations that govern university counseling center directors. With a degree in social science from Central Washington State University, she taught fifth-grade children of migrant workers in Mesa, Washington, and later went back to school to earn a master’s and doctoral degree in counseling psychology from Washington State University. She earned a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors and a Distinguished Achievement Award for Student Relations from The Association of Former Students.
“I have worked with Maggie both as a colleague and her supervisor, and learned much from her in both roles; knowledge that has made me a better professional and administrator,” said Anne Reber, dean of Student Life. “I’m not alone. Her expertise in the field of college counseling is well-respected and many have sought her guidance and advice. It was common for me in my professional travels to have individuals approach me with words of admiration for Dr. Maggie Gartner and her leadership in the field. As a friend and student affairs colleague, I owe much to Maggie for my own development and the support of students here at Texas A&M.”
Counting down to new adventures ahead
As she checks the retirement countdown app on her mobile phone for the last few times (a running joke at monthly division leadership meetings), she is grateful for this experience and excited about new adventures to come. Maggie Gartner will continue to wave her magic wand over hospice patients, food bank clients, new friends in Italy, and her family of two children, two step-children, nine grandchildren, and four loving dogs. All of them are eager to share time and attention with the woman that has devoted so much to Texas A&M students and staff.
“I loved this job,” she said. “I had the opportunity to come to work every day to work with the best staff and students in the world, and occasionally I witnessed miracles. Who wouldn’t love that?”
This story by Sondra White originally appeared on the Division of Student Affairs website.