What Resilience Means to Stony Brook University President Maurie McInnis

By Sarah Stoss, Development and Communications Associate

Stony Brook University, Stony Brook, NY: President Dr. Maurie McInnis

Stony Brook University is leading the fight against COVID-19 on Long Island. In the middle of the pandemic, a new President was appointed. Dr. Maurie McInnis is the embodiment of what it means to be strong, smart, and bold. She is also incredibly resilient. For that reason, we are honoring her at our 2021 Annual Breakfast: The Resilience of the Girl Presented by KPMG. Dr. McInnis is an inspiration, and we wanted to get to know more about her and how she overcame the obstacles of this last year, her first year as Stony Brook University President. Her responses only confirmed what we already knew- women leaders rule.

Question: How has this last year impacted you professionally and personally? How did you respond to the challenges?

Dr. McInnis: In addition to the challenges that we’ve all been facing since last winter, I also took on my role as President of Stony Brook in summer 2020—which meant moving my family halfway across the country to start a new job, and the related challenges of that process in the middle of pandemic. At first it was really disappointing not to be able to join the community as quickly as I hoped—the tools I’d learned for leadership and for developing community had been forged in a time of mostly in-person meeting, and so I had to learn how to cultivate a relationship with the people in my University community in a period of remote interaction and distancing. Early on, however, I chose to use the word “physical distancing” instead of “social distancing,” in order to remind myself that it was both possible and imperative to connect with people despite these difficult circumstances. During the summer, when the weather was great and case counts were low, I had a number of distanced meetings with individuals and groups; but the key to getting through this has been to embrace the unique opportunities that remote socializing—Zoom—can offer. While a video interaction is unquestionably less fluid, I have to admit that Zoom can be oddly more intimate than a traditional professional setting; think about it: you’re seeing people’s homes, meeting their pets and children, focusing intensely on their face and expressions. This, combined with the shared challenges and, frankly, stress of the pandemic ironically allowed for some very fast and intimate friendships to be made early on in my tenure.

Question: Describe what resilience means to you.

Dr. McInnis: This is a difficult question. The word “resilience” has accrued an especially powerful meaning since the pandemic, but I think that its definition, to me, is pretty universal. Resilience means not only persevering through obstacles and challenges, but being willing and capable of regrouping after failure. Of trying again. Of learning from one’s mistakes and using that critical knowledge to better inform your next decision, your next pursuit, your next attempt. I think there’s a significant amount of bravery and honesty involved in resilience.

Question: Who is the most resilient person you know? Why?

Dr. McInnis: While I truthfully can’t single out the most resilient person I know, I have to say that I’ve been incredibly impressed by the grit shown by students in this time. Many of them have had to persevere not only through remote learning and the isolation of the pandemic, but through massive upheavals in their own lives. Melanie Formosa, one of our sophomores in Journalism, suffered the loss her grandmother and instability at the onset of the pandemic, and emerged from this hardship with a revitalized desire to become involved in our campus community and health. She became a co-producer and co-host of GRIT 2020, a video podcast that highlights resources and acts of resilience at SBU in this challenging time, where I had the pleasure of speaking with her a few months ago. Her work with GRIT led her to becoming a TV Studio Assistant for the Educational Communications Center and a Student Assistant for the “Healthier U” Wellness Program, in addition to her excellent academic work.

The ability to stay interested in the world and motivated to achieve your goals, in the face of exhaustion and hardship, is a type of resilience I have seen demonstrated again and again with our students at SBU.

Question: Is there one thing in particular that has helped you make it through difficult times, or even allowed you to thrive in difficult times? This can be a routine, a mantra, a person, etc.

Dr. McInnis: It would be inauthentic not to mention the enormous amount of strength I draw from my family right now—from my husband, two children, dog, and cat… in the highly variable event that the cat is friendly. But I also think that, like many people during the pandemic, I’ve been able to replenish my energy and focus by going outside and being physically active. This summer, I was taking a lot of walks to reflect and get some solitude. Even the ability to stand outside, look at the sky, and have a moment to myself—or just take a phone call in privacy—has been incredibly helpful in getting through this time. Because we all need space. And I think it’s important for everyone but especially women to feel validated in our need for space—for the time to wander, wonder, muse, and reflect on our own. 

Question: When you look back on 2020 in 20 years, what do you think you will remember? What do you hope our community of Long Island remembers?

Dr. McInnis: I think it’s both unavoidable and profound that our community remembers the difficulty of this time—Long Island, our state, our country, and our world have lost so many, and grieving them is important for our collective health and for our future. But I also think and hope that Long Island will remember the incredible sense of community and togetherness we demonstrated during these terrible events. I was truly amazed by individuals’ ability to join together and support one another—to follow guidelines, to do wellness checks on the isolated, to form infrastructure and help for families who have lost loved ones, to give to neighbors in need, to volunteer at the hospital and at vaccination sites. And that’s what I’ll remember—the fact that Stony Brook and Long Island answered a call for accountability, community, and support in a troubled and hard year. That our students were able to find ways to perform concerts online, facilitate workshops, continue club meetings, even celebrate. Just this week, our students participated in a virtual Spoken Word open-mic in honor of Black History Month! So I will always remember how our students, staff, faculty, and community found new ways to contribute, communicate, and create.

Thank you to Stony Brook University President Maurie McInnis for taking the time to respond to our questions. To hear more from President McInnis, tune in to our 2021 Annual Breakfast: The Resilience of the Girl on March 25th, 2021.

Register for the event here.