Assistant Director of Civic Leadership Melissa Ash leaves the college


Melissa Ash worked with student leaders for in Alternative School Break, Mosaic and Pre-Orientation Service Program. (Photo courtesy of Lafayette College)

By Katie Frost, Managing Editor

Melissa Ash, known to those who work with her as Mash, will be leaving the college as of today.

Ash came to the Landis Center for Community Engagement in fall 2019 as the advisor for Alternative School Break (ASB) and soon transitioned to her current position as assistant director of civic leadership. Mash, a nickname that she includes in the signature of her emails and will answer to in public, is more than a fun name students can remember: it’s a way for her to secure a personal level of transparency with her students.

Ash, who has a background in both the nonprofit and marketing fields, spent her time at the college supporting Landis’s student-led community engagement and service initiatives, ASB, Making Our Society An Inclusive Community (MOSAIC) and Pre-Orientation Service Program (POSP). In total, Ash worked with around 70 student leaders and 200 total students involved in these programs each year.

In her time at Lafayette, Ash has prioritized keeping up with the needs of community partners in order for the Landis Center to make the greatest impact and change on campus and in the community.

“It’s very easy to become complacent in civic engagement,” Ash said. “When I took over this role, we kind of just did things the way that we’ve always done them. We have the same community partners, and that’s not a bad thing, but there wasn’t a lot of innovation to look and really assess, ‘Are resources going to the right places? Are we doing the right things with them?’…It’s those kind of things that I think have really changed.”

Ash explained that the goal of each student-led group she works with is to get engaged in the community as much as possible while also recognizing a civic responsibility to the communities. She said that she tries to get student leaders to think about avoiding voluntourism, Band-Aid solutions to larger community issues and saviorism. 

Overall, Ash explained that civic engagement involves recognizing a responsibility one has after educating themselves and being able to make a true social change in that community, as opposed to just an impact.

“It’s not just enough to check a box saying, ‘I’m going to do community service for an hour because that’s what makes me feel good,’” Ash said. “There’s a difference between community engagement and civic engagement that we’re trying to teach our leaders.”

Ash also emphasized the importance of students having leadership roles on campus, noting that they should establish their interests and passions now so they can continue to make a difference even after their time at the college.

“This doesn’t stop when you graduate [from] Lafayette,” Ash said. “You are going to move to a new community, or you’re going to return to a community that you were once a part of, and you’re going to have this civic leadership experience to bring that change, not just an impact, but a change. And what are you going to do with that?”

Ash said in all her time at Lafayette, she feels the most pride in the work students have accomplished and the rapport she has built with students through having shared goals of making things better.

“I cannot emphasize enough how much I believe you all have the power to truly influence the culture of campus,” Ash said. “I believe that change is possible if it’s done in the right way.”

Ash did note that in her role, there can be pressure to continue growing without stopping to repair systems already in place.

“I think the biggest challenge [of working in this role] is one that is faced across campus, which is a lot of times we’re asked to do more, and we know we can, but should we? There’s a lot of pressure [to] expand, expand, expand this, expand that, and create, create,” Ash said. “And when that happens, you lose sight of what’s existingWe need to focus sometimes on what is existing and what is broken.”

Ash added that innovation in her job means looking inward and figuring out the best way to move forward with the right stakeholders at the table to weigh in.

“I feel like a lot of things on this campus would be better to have student leaders or students in general at the table, so that there’s a level of transparency,” she said.

Outside of the Landis Center, Ash said one highlight of her time at the college was working on Survivor Lafayette through Lafayette Student Involvement, where she got to see relationships cultivating between the contestants.

Nat Schmit ‘22, who has worked with Ash as a POSP executive director, Mosaic team leader and program coordinator for the past three years, emphasized that Ash is “everywhere on campus” and reflected on their funny, interesting conversations throughout hours of POSP planning.

“Mash fostered a work environment that encouraged honest communication, even for difficult conversations,” Schmit wrote in an email.

Beth Anne Castellano ‘22, who has worked with Ash as a student leader in several capacities, said that Ash “gave us permission to change things and see…what we can do that’s most relevant or most helpful to our community in this time.”

“[Ash] encourages us to become better leaders by allowing us to take our own initiative on projects, yet also provides a strong sense of support and guidance to lead us in the right direction,” Gam Pham ‘22 said, who also worked with Ash the Landis Center.

“Mash’s biggest impact on me comes from the fact that she goes beyond simply offering her time to support you, but makes true on her promise to be there for each and every student,” Sharon Engel ‘22 wrote in an email.

“Thanks to [Ash], I have learned how to be a better leader and learned how to advocate for myself more,” Pham said.

Ash emphasized that her decision to leave the college was bittersweet.

“I know that students are pretty regularly overworked and overwhelmed, especially with the pandemic, but when you have the right energy in the right atmosphere, [that] is what sticks out, and that’s what I’m going to miss the most, just witnessing that energy and that passion that people get and that fire the lights up in students’ eyes, that’s the most memorable for me,” Ash said.