W&M’s First Female President is Passionate about Students Living Healthfully

Katherine Rowe
Written by Alison Johnson

Not long after she was named the next president of the College of William & Mary, Katherine Rowe received a unique congratulatory gift: a signed Ultimate Frisbee disc and jersey from one of the four on-campus teams.

Rowe, an elite Ultimate player and coach for many years, can’t wait to meet team members in person. “I’m always looking for a pickup game,” she says. “I also can teach anyone a forehand throw, or flick, in about 20 minutes.”

For Rowe, who took office July 1, Ultimate Frisbee is part of a personal commitment to physical and mental well-being that she plans to champion at William & Mary. She was an undergraduate herself when she fell in love with the sport’s combination of fierce competition, teamwork, fun and — in the absence of referees — sportsmanship and fair play. Those same principles, paired with an approachable leadership style, have shaped her careers as an administrator, educator, author and businesswoman.

It’s about a drive to compete in an ethical way, and to forge a very strong community,” she says.

Rowe, 55, comes to W&M from Smith College in Massachusetts, where she has served as provost, dean of faculty and a professor of English; she previously taught at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania and at Yale University. She also is co-founder and CEO of Luminary Digital Media, which developed interactive reading apps to help students connect with Shakespearean texts.

A native of the Boston area, Rowe holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Carleton College in Minnesota and a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in English and American literature from Harvard University. As William & Mary’s 28th president, she’ll be the first woman in the role.

An advocate for a strong liberal arts education, on-campus diversity and technology and research initiatives, Rowe says she’s passionate about guiding students to live healthfully, as well as to seek support for any mental health struggles.

Nationwide, multiple studies have shown more undergraduates are in treatment for anxiety and depression on campuses. In the spring of 2017, for example, 61 percent of students reported feeling “overwhelming anxiety” and nearly 40 percent said they felt so depressed that it was difficult to function, according to an American College Health Association survey of more than 63,000 students at 92 schools. At the same time, more young people with pre-existing mental health conditions are able to go to college today, thanks to earlier diagnoses and better medications and therapy plans.

Colleges must educate all incoming students about campus resources, Rowe says. W&M has added counselors in recent years and soon will open a new building — the McLeod Tyler Wellness Center — that combines a health promotion team, recreation and wellness programming and a Center for Mindfulness and Authentic Excellence. “I love that it’s a real multi-layered, comprehensive approach,” Rowe says.

The undergraduate years often are a time of rapid growth and change, when students can build resilience by learning more about their emotional lives, Rowe feels. The key is managing stress, not eliminating it: “Stress is a normal part of a caring or passionate life. It is associated with things that are important to us.

Be bold about what you care about, because that will bring you joy.”

Students also need to discover what restores them as individuals, whether that’s exercise, daily meditation or creative projects, she says. Rowe relies on three-mile run/walks several days a week, preferably along wooded trails where she can run up hills for a challenge. She also likes yoga and binge-reading science fiction novels. “There’s a little geekiness there,” she laughs.

Healthy eating is another priority. Rowe focuses on healthy proteins and fats, such as eggs with avocado slices, tomatoes and hot sauce for breakfast and salmon with roasted vegetables and mixed greens for dinner. She does, however, enjoy a good burger on occasion.

And then there’s Ultimate Frisbee, which involves constant motion on a football-field-sized competition area. Rowe was hooked as soon as she leapt to snag her first long pass at Carleton, where her freshman resident advisor invited her to play in a game. Ultimate was Rowe’s first real experience with organized sports, as she’d been more into hiking, backpacking, biking, canoeing and horseback riding as a child. “It was quickly transformative for me,” she recalls.

Rowe co-founded a women’s team on campus and went on to play on national and international squads. As a coach, she led a Pennsylvania high school program to multiple state championships and worked with teams at Bryn Mawr and Smith.

The sport also is a family affair: Rowe met her husband and fellow coach, Bruce Jacobson, while playing Ultimate; their two grown children, Beah and Daniel, both grew up playing. In fact, the four vacationed each summer with seven other Ultimate families. Happily, Virginia’s warmer climate will make for an even longer playing season.

Ultimately, Rowe hopes her athletic background is just one entryway to talking to W&M students about the importance of whole-body health. “Wellness,” she says, “is essential for excellence.”  

About the author

Alison Johnson

Alison Johnson is a freelance writer who specializes in feature stories on health, nutrition and fitness, as well as biographical profiles. A former full-time newspaper reporter, she has worked for two Virginia dailies and the Associated Press in Richmond. She lives in Yorktown, Va., with her husband and two sons.

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