A legacy three decades in the making, Fanta Aw says adieu to AU
The AU vice president leaves to become CEO of NAFSA
Every day, between meetings with faculty, students and other officials, Fanta Aw would set aside time for a walk around campus.
Her path wound across the quad, behind the library, under the cherry blossom trees and through the tunnel. Students and staff stopped her along the way with smiles and life updates. Aw greeted each individual by name and asked about their experience at American University.
Aw was AU’s vice president of campus life, undergraduate enrollment and inclusive excellence. On March 8, Aw left American University to become CEO of the National Association for Foreign Student Affairs, an organization that was created to help U.S. universities develop foreign exchange student programs. NAFSA now helps students and educators in over 3,500 schools promote international education.
Before she became a vice president, Aw was a student at AU. In total, she has been connected with American University for over 35 years.
Aw is originally from the West African country of Mali. She attended French schools and moved to the United States for college. Aw knew she wanted to go to college in D.C., and heard about AU from a family friend.
“At orientation, I will never forget, there were students from literally all around the world,” Aw said. “I felt at home.”
After studying in the Kogod School of Business, she received her undergraduate degree in accounting. During these first four years, she was a leader in the International Student Association and an editor for The Eagle. Aw also worked the night shift at the library’s copying center and at the front desk of the International Student and Scholar Services office, jobs that allowed her to connect with AU’s international community.
As a student, her favorite place on campus was the Davenport Coffee Lounge.
“Between classes, this is the place you came to hang out,” she said. “We’d talk about politics, we’d talk about literature, we’d talk about everything. It became a home in many ways for many of us as international students.”
After graduating, she did an auditing internship in Senegal. Through this experience, she realized that accounting was not what she wanted to pursue. She became interested in public administration and decided to return to AU, where she earned a Ph.D. in sociology.
“I found that I could have a focus in organizational development,” she said. “I was interested in how organizations function.”
While pursuing a masters degree in the School of Public Affairs, Aw worked part time in AU’s international student office and worked full time after she had graduated.
“I thought, ‘Surely this will be a five-year thing, perhaps,’” she said. “Well, five years have become 30 plus years. When you find that passion, it really fuels you in so many ways.”
Aw worked her way up from helping at the front desk to becoming vice president of campus life. Through it all, Aw prioritized connecting with people around AU. She said she frequently flipped the University’s print directory to a random page, called a number and introduced herself.
“That’s how I got to know the campus, but more importantly, I got to know the people,” Aw said. “Relationships matter tremendously.”
She soon became acquainted with the University’s professors, gardeners, administrators and maintenance workers. To connect with students, Aw walked the campus and listened.
“I know so many students, so I ask questions,” Aw said. “I ask ‘what do you think is working well, where do you see opportunities for different engagement?’”
To answer the needs she heard from students, Aw helped create the quad’s walkable labyrinth, the Center for Diversity and Inclusion, the Bridge Cafe and a 24/7 mental health support network. Through these efforts, Aw has both seen and led changes around the school, watching the campus evolve over the past three decades.
However, Aw said that this role has also come with its challenges.
“You cannot do this work that I do in campus life and not understand crisis management,” she said.
Aw has responded to student deaths, racial incidents, strikes and national emergencies like 9/11, the Jan. 6 attack on the United States Capitol building and the coronavirus pandemic.
“In these different situations, we do the best we can,” she said. “We first always try to think of the community. Sometimes we have it right, sometimes we don’t.”
Aw has collected more and more responsibilities as a vice president at AU. Her days included meetings with leadership teams, student groups around campus, colleagues from consortium schools, parents and alumni. Aw also led AU’s COVID-19 response.
“I think in puzzles,” she said. “I see myself as the connector. I tend to connect different pieces, different people and bring them together. Each person might see one part of it, and my job is to say, ‘What does that mosaic look like?’”
To stay centered amidst these responsibilities, Aw says that she started each morning with rituals like listening to music or walking the labyrinth. Most importantly, Aw blocked off time for a walk on the quad.
“People have said, ‘What has kept you here?,’ and I say, ‘What has kept me here is simple: the people.’”
Aw will continue to interact with students as she begins work at NAFSA, a job that she says is tied closely to her passion for and background in international education.
“So why now? It is time for me to be of service in a different way,” Aw said. “I am really really excited for the next chapter.”
Aw is leaving AU, but not D.C. Her position at NAFSA will bring her to downtown, not far from the White House. She plans to visit AU and its students frequently.
“I’m a triple eagle,” she said “I love the institution. It will always be a part of my story, and that is something I will take with me.”
This article was edited by Maeve Fishel, Jordan Young and Nina Heller. Copy editing done by Isabelle Kravis, Sarah Clayton, Stella Guzik, Leta Lattin