Assistant Dean of Students Josh McKenzie reflects on ‘a unicorn of an experience’ at Northwestern


Elisa Huang/The Daily Northwestern

Director of Student Transition Experiences Josh McKenzie has spearheaded the Wildcat Welcome orientation since 2020.

Pavan Acharya, Campus Editor

Alabama native Josh McKenzie knew no one in the Chicago area when he arrived at Northwestern in July 2010 to take on the position of Assistant Director of Leadership Development.

“I was so nervous stepping into this very first role because it was a place I’d never been to,” McKenzie said. “It was a role that had never existed before and I was going to be tasked with creating a lot of things from scratch.”

Fast forward almost 13 years later, and some students consider McKenzie, now Assistant Dean of Students and Director of Student Transition Experiences, a campus celebrity.

McKenzie, whose last day at NU is Jan. 18, has led Wildcat Welcome since 2020 and has helped plan it since 2010. Wildcat Welcome, the annual student orientation experience, typically occurs during the week leading up to Fall Quarter and features older students acting as peer advisors to help freshmen and transfers acclimate to campus. 

The 2020 Wildcat Welcome experience was virtual due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which presented challenges for the Student Transition Experiences team and peer advisers, McKenzie said.

McCormick graduate student Jay Zou, who was a peer advisor in 2020 and 2022, said McKenzie was a strong leader throughout the virtual Wildcat Welcome experience.

“Josh was able to emanate positivity across the entire structure of the organization,” Zou said. 

He said McKenzie had an ability to make every peer advisor feel special. If you waved, McKenzie waved back, Zou added.

Weinberg freshman Faith Khiet Nhi Do said she appreciated McKenzie’s engagement with students through “Purple Prep” email reminders prior to Wildcat Welcome in 2022. 

“I feel like (Wildcat Welcome) would have been less comfortable without him,” Khiet Nhi Do said.

McKenzie helped develop the Purple Prep checklist to serve as a centralized system for prospective NU students, making for a more organized transition to the University. 

He said one of the accomplishments he was most proud of during his time with the Student Transition Experiences Office was his team’s ability to connect with students.

“It doesn’t feel like it is a robot that is helping to move them through Wildcat Welcome or orientation, but a group of people that truly care for them in their experience,” he said.

Assistant Director of Student Enrichment Services Mayra Garces said the current version of Wildcat Welcome has McKenzie’s “fingerprints all over it.” 

Garces, who was Assistant Director of New Student and Family Programs from 2015 to 2019 and helped plan Wildcat Welcome in 2020, also said McKenzie helped her learn about being a professional in higher education and allowed her to try new initiatives in the office. 

Early in Garces’ time working on Wildcat Welcome, McKenzie allowed her to modify the peer advisor training program for Wildcat Welcome by increasing the number of training dates, she said.

“He was such an encourager and a true champion of the changes that I wanted to implement,” Garces said.

She added that McKenzie’s impact on the Student Transition Experiences Office was part of a “real care” for new students.

Assistant Vice President of Wellness and Dean of Students Mona Dugo wrote in an email to The Daily that one of McKenzie’s greatest skills is his ability to understand students’ needs. She said under McKenzie, his team has been able to consistently “meet the moment” for students.

“His warm smile and sharp wit have been a constant for our entering students for 12 and a half years,” Dugo wrote. “I will miss him dearly and know that he will be incredibly successful in his next endeavors.” 

McKenzie did not disclose his next position in Austin, Texas, but said he will work outside of higher education and is looking forward to living closer to family.

He also said he now has to — ironically — support himself in the transition to the next part of his life. 

“This really has been a unicorn of an experience that I know I will not be able to replicate anywhere else,” McKenzie said.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @PavanAcharya02

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