Ridley welcomes new Director of Development, Shelley Huxley
Though we’d hoped to welcome her in person, the pandemic had other plans. So, we sat down for a virtual Q&A to learn more about the Niagara native—and get a sneak peek into what she has in store for our community. With her passion for education, strong local ties, and decades-long experience working at universities across Ontario, Shelley’s ready to hit the ground running.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? I was born and raised in Niagara (specifically, Fonthill), though I left for a period of time to attend university and launch my career. After my son was born, I realized there was no better place to raise a family, so we came home. It was really important to me that my kids understand the traditions of my family and grow up with their grandparents nearby — I grew up with mine and they taught me a lot. I wanted my own children to have that same experience. Now, I live in Fonthill with my partner, Iain, my two children: Evan, who’s 16, and Nathan, who’s soon to be 12. We also welcomed a new addition to the family, a now 10-month-old Labradoodle, named Coco! We’re a busy family; the kids are involved in a number of activities, so a lot of my free time is spent supporting them.
You’re coming to us from Brock University, where you were their Director of Alumni Engagement. Can you speak a bit about your professional background? It’s usually a circuitous route that gets you to Development. [laughs] Originally, I went to Wilfrid Laurier University to study Business—I wanted to be a floor trader. But a year into school, I realized I could spend all my time studying, or I could invest in the fulsome student experience that Laurier had to offer. I switched my major to English and Sociology and spent a lot of time doing various activities on campus and working in student government.
That’s what really set me up for my career path, because it introduced me to senior administrators, and those relationships ultimately led me to return to support my alma mater professionally—initially through communications, speech writing and working for the President—and that then led to working in alumni relations.
From there, I went on to work at Queen’s University. Queen’s was embarking on a $250 million capital campaign at the time, and I was responsible for setting up their Toronto office, working with campaign cabinet members and developing campaign strategy. I next had the opportunity to work at McMaster University—which is a big research-intensive school—where I was able to blend both alumni relations and development in my role. Five years later, I had my first child and it was then that I decided to move home. By happenstance, a job came up at Brock University and I was the successful candidate. Over the past 15 years, I’ve worked in all areas of development at Brock: I started as their event planner, then as their advancement strategist, which later morphed into responsibility for donor relations and stewardship and most recently alumni relations. I’ve spent the past six years as their Director of Alumni Engagement.
What led you to Ridley—and what are you most looking forward to as you embark on this new journey? I’ve been lucky enough to work for some great institutions, so when you decide to make a move it has to be the right one, and there were a number of factors at play. The top of my list was that I would be going to a place where I felt I could make a difference, and at the same time felt that Ridley really believes in what they’re doing and how they’re doing it.
What I love about Ridley is its level of tradition, its strong reputation and collegiality, its dedication to education and commitment to innovation. Take the recent pivot to online learning: for any school to have done this so quickly would have been a challenge, but Ridley made the transition beautifully. These are all really appealing to me and working in development will allow me to use my skills to connect with alumni and engage donors in philanthropic opportunities. I’m really just hoping to help Ridley grow and prosper.
“Together, alumni and donors provide support, foster strong reputations, contribute to our admissions, and are an essential part of the student experience. They’re a core part of the school’s mission and values—and that network is important for the health and well-being of any institution.”
You obviously have some close ties to the local community. What are your thoughts about the changes taking place in the Niagara Region—and what is your approach to fostering relationships between school and community? The Niagara Region has been steadily growing both in sophistication and opportunity—particularly over the last ten years. We had a fair amount of big business exit our region, but Niagara’s response to that has been good: both Brock and Niagara College have developed programming and outreach strategies in terms of innovation, entrepreneurship and growth. For example, their makerspaces and the programmes they’re putting in place to help businesses develop within the community have been incredibly beneficial for us as a region.
The result is that there’s a lot of opportunity for students to participate in this innovation. I find myself thinking about cultivating the student experience, about potential experiential opportunities, and finding partners for mutual benefit. How can we engage our community partners to allow students these opportunities? How can we leverage our alumni connections both within our local community and beyond?
We’re here to build the student experience, and if we’re talking about preparing them for university—particularly our upper school students—there is a lot happening in this region from which they can learn, whether in business, tourism, or through partnerships with Brock’s Performing Arts Centre, or applied opportunities at Niagara College. There are plenty of ways we can offer experiential learning.
Your experience with events, alumni and development in the education sector is certainly impressive. What is it about this work that you find so rewarding? I find it a lot of fun. Every day is different and brings with it its own challenges. I’m proud of the work we support in alumni relations and development, and in working to educate minds. And that’s what brings me back day after day: I feel I’m making a difference and contributing to the fabric of society. That’s a pretty special thing to be a part of.
Can you speak to the importance of Development and Advancement when it comes to educational institutions? Any good school works hard to build and sustain a strong reputation—and alumni and donor engagement supports that. We think about how alumni contribute: with a sense of pride, loyalty and tradition, and a deep understanding of their alma mater. They share this not only with each other but with those around them who may want to attend or support the school philanthropically.
We think about alumni, who return to the school to engage with student life; they can be really beneficial in judging where an institution might be or needs to be. They can contribute in terms of time, talent and treasure. We think about donors, who invest in our future. Donors support an institution that knows where it is headed and the work that’s taking place now—this support is what allows faculty, students and staff to aim higher and dream bigger. Together, alumni and donors provide necessary support for our success, they help us foster a strong reputation, and are an essential part of the student experience. They’re a core part of the school’s mission and values—and that network is important for the health and well-being of any institution. For me, it’s all tied together: what’s happening on campus and what investments are taking place as well.
You’ve worked at a number of Ontario’s universities. In what ways do the approaches taken in higher education—in relation to development, events, community outreach, and alumni engagement—transfer nicely to an independent school setting? The strongest similarities, I think, will be in the student experience. Some students live on campus and others off, but together they contribute to the fabric of the school. Dedicated faculty are working hard to educate, staff are supporting students and the school at large—and when an institution is collegial and respectful of its faculty and staff, students pick up on it. A strong student experience is made up of more than what is learned in the classroom; everybody plays a role, and this creates a tight-knit community. This feeling of belonging, of family, ultimately contributes to student success, because when there’s belonging, the pride and respect come along with it. And those are wonderful nurturers for life.
We have a very diverse alumni population, comprised of different generations, who may come from or be living in different geographic locations, and who represent a range of political opinions and interests. How can we reach and keep our community strong as a whole, while also ensuring that we’re meeting the different needs of the groups within it? A diverse population contributes to a healthy environment; we learn from each other and learn to respect each other’s values and principles—and these various perspectives that students learn about at Ridley will help them to navigate life. We need to encourage open dialogue and use our vast network to reach out to each other both locally and globally. We all have stories to tell, we all have perspectives to share.
But everyone’s experience is different, and we have to approach those experiences differently. I will reach out to someone who graduated three years ago quite differently than I would someone who graduated 50 years ago; we use different platforms, we respond differently because they’re looking for different things. Each alumni is important to engage and value, to listen to, and provide with opportunity to be involved. And when we do this effectively, our alumni come forward to support us, to provide meaningful input that affects change. It’s mutually beneficial.
Welcome to Ridley, Shelley! We look forward to getting to know you over the coming months and are so pleased to have you join us—we’re sure there will be a number of exciting changes and opportunities ahead! As we introduce you to Ridley faculty, staff, parents, and alumni, is there anything in particular you’d like them to know? I am really thrilled and honoured to be joining this community and can’t tell you how much I look forward to hearing from each of you about what makes Ridley so special. For now, I will say that the Development team is here to support our student experience, to provide resources for faculty to thrive in the classrooms, and to connect alumni to one another and alumni to Ridley. We’re here to support Ridley—and you—today and in the future.