A dedication to the Ignatian tradition and a commitment to helping others has kept Gonzaga alumna Michelle Wheatley working on campus for 12 years, now as the acting vice president of the Office of Mission and Ministry.
Wheatley works to lead the members of the office in living out their mission and aiding students in their discovery of self and spirituality.
Hailing from just south of Portland, Oregon, Wheatley attended Jesuit High School before GU. According to Wheatley, it was there that she originally took interest in Ignatian spirituality.
“That was a time when I began seeking out opportunities to grow deeper in that tradition,” Wheatley said. “That spiritual tradition, I would now say, is my home.”
However, she said it was not until a few years into her time at GU that she realized her passion could be translated into a career. After working in what was then University Ministry her senior year, she suddenly found herself carrying more responsibilities after another staff member left. According to Wheatley, this ultimately gave her a launching pad into a professional position at the office.
“At the time, I was still discovering what I thought my call was,” she said. “Looking back now, I can see there was this thread running through everything that was leading me into this work.”
Now, 12 years later, Wheatley doesn’t feel like she has exhausted her potential at GU. A sense of belonging keeps her grounded. In fact, she finds the longer she stays here, the more extensive the opportunities become, at least for the time being.
“There are certain possibilities that can only emerge after you’ve been in a place for a while and you’ve come to know it well and know the people,” Wheatley said. “Those are the kinds of benefits that I am trying to draw out and cultivate right now.”
In 2013, Wheatley was made acting director of University Ministry. This made her not only the first female, but also the first layperson to hold the position. According to her, this essentially means she was the first non-Jesuit to hold the position.
After combining University Ministry and the Office of Mission into what is now the Office of Mission and Ministry, Wheatley was reassigned to acting vice president.
The Office of Mission and Ministry now resides in two physical locations, John J. Hemmingson center in room 104 and College Hall in room 240. As described by Wheatley, the office takes on three primary roles under her leadership: to educate about its personal mission, to offer pastoral and spiritual care according to the mission identity and to aid in the formation of discernment and leadership.
“My role is to lead this team,” said Wheatley. “And I think a big part of that is to help establish a clear and exciting vision.”
According to Wheatley’s colleague and current director of the Office of Mission and Ministry, Luke Lavin, she does not fall short in her duties.
“In Ignatian spirituality there is this idea of seeing the best in people, it’s called the presupposition,” Lavin said. “I would say, both as a supervisor and as a leader, Michelle has always been an embodiment of that.”
Her leadership style, as described by both Wheatley and Lavin on separate occasions, works to meet students where they are at spiritually. She is able to do this so well, according to Lavin, because she is both a GU graduate and now an employee.
“For students particularly, this melding of someone who is deeply intellectual but also deeply human is very important,” he said.
This comes into play when engaging with students for the first time, no matter their religious background. According to Wheatley, it is incredibly important to begin from a place of no assumptions.
“If I am meeting with a student for the first time, I’m not going to make any assumptions and I’m going to ask a ton of questions,” she said. “I want to hear where you come from, what your hopes are and how you want to grow.”
This openness comes from a broad definition of spirituality, according to Wheatley, that can help students find their sense of purpose and place.
She describes this spirituality as, simply, “a dynamic capacity for engaging big essential questions.”
In the coming years, Wheatley hopes to continue to build upon the feedback from the community and to help GU discern who it is as a Jesuit Catholic, humanistic university.
“What I am excited about right now is how we as an institution may be able to show greater leadership and become an exemplar of higher Jesuit education,” she said.
For now, Wheatley said she brings her heart and experience into her work as she tries to bring the mission alive in concrete ways while creating an environment in which other people can thrive.
“The moments when I get to experience that this community is genuinely thriving, those are the moments I celebrate,” Wheatley said.