Kate Tracy, M.A. ’01, Ph.D. ’03, psychology, holds many titles—newest among them is special advisor to the senior vice chancellor of Academic and Student Affairs of the University System of Maryland. But one of her longest-standing and most important descriptors is “Maxine Tracy in a different form,” laughs Tracy. “A feistier version of my grandmother.”

Raised in a small, mid-western town, Tracy looks back on her grandmother Maxine as a source of unconditional love and support. “My grandmother was a caregiver. In many ways, she was the northstar in my compass, and no matter where I roamed or what challenges life has brought, I always felt anchored—in the most positive way—to her. She did what she could where she was for as many as she could in the way that she could. She opened opportunities for a lot of women. And she will always be one of my heroes,” says Tracy, who is honoring the late Maxine with an endowment in her name to the Women’s Center.  

Tracy’s path back to UMBC and eventually to giving is a winding one that includes almost 20 years teaching at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and shadowing President Freeman Hrabowski through a fellowship as an American Council on Education (ACE) Fellow for the 2019 – 2020 school year. That her tenure (and her background in epidemiology and public health) overlapped with the onset of a global pandemic is a coincidence not lost to Tracy. Much like her grandmother taught her, Tracy has spent the past year and half doing what she could in as many ways as she could. Her expertise made her a natural choice for joining the University System of Maryland’s (USM) pandemic response efforts. “It’s been a great privilege to collaborate with USM leadership and the leadership of our system campuses to promote health and safety plans for all the campus communities,” says Tracy.

In those early meetings, Tracy watched the group’s dynamics take shape: “Freeman’s focus was always ‘We need to stay focused on the people,’” she says. “I think he brought that people-centeredness to the conversations and I was like, ‘That’s how I want to lead.’”

Special recognition

And her leadership has not gone unrecognized. On October 20, Tracy will receive a 2021 Alumni Award for Retrievers directly working on the pandemic response. Other recipients of this category include: Moderna vaccine lead Kizzmekia Corbett ’08, M16, biological sciences and sociology; Baltimore City Health Commissioner Letitia Dzirasa ’03, M11, biological sciences; and National Institutes of Health investigator Kaitlyn Sadtler ’11, biological sciences.

Serving as a special advisor for USM, Tracy sees her role as “an important set of eyes and ears and public health expertise” for the system. She starts by channeling all types of news sources. “I digest that data and then try to break it down into simple bullets that I could then share to Chancellor [Jay A.] Perman and Joann Boughman, the senior vice chancellor.” She does all this while continuing to teach and research as professor of epidemiology and public health. 

Headshot of Kate Tracy on campus in fall 2021 by Marlayna Demond ’11.

The USM masking and vaccination requirements that Tracy advised on have kept campus communities at a much lower rate of infection than their surrounding counties. “Our campuses are among the safest places to be and we are part of the solution of keeping Maryland open and the economy humming along,” says Tracy.

UMBC’s success in this endeavor, says Tracy, is because of the groundwork of trust already laid by President Hrabowski. “He has basically permeated that values system to the most basic level of the organization and it just goes all the way up through the top. When you put in the time to build that kind of culture and when you live your values with your decisions—people see that on display all the time, and the community knows they can trust your leadership during times of crisis like a pandemic.”

Women’s Center Director Jess Myers, who nominated Tracy for the award, says “Dr. Tracy’s work in helping understand and navigate testing protocols and products not only benefits UMBC but all the schools in the system and what better reflection is that of #UMBCTogether?” 

Giving the difference

Maxine Tracy’s graduation photo, courtesy of Kate Tracy.

Tracy has seen the impact of seemingly small gestures like her grandmother Maxine’s open door hospitality, for example. In Tracy’s own work, she helped facilitate the successful effort to vaccinate 11,000 girls in Mali against HPV, which ultimately positioned the country to apply for outside assistance to put that vaccine in their national immunization program.

So when she learned the impact her gift could make for the Returning Women Student Scholars + Affiliates program—a cohort that supports adult learners at UMBC—Tracy said it was an easy decision. She visited a RWS event with President Hrabowski just a few weeks after she started her ACE fellowship. Myers remembers the occasion: “It was a very emotional conversation where we had students who were sharing some really deep and personal experiences of being an adult learner and being undocumented or just what it means to be a parent and be a student. So I think that just hit a chord.”

Tracy remembers something similar. “The energy of that event was just so strong and powerful and I was like, ‘I would like to do something with this. I wonder what that looks like?’ After talking with folks in Alumni Engagement, I started thinking about how my grandmother was such a powerful force in my life, and I’ve been a women’s health researcher, so all of these little dots started linking up together.”

The Women’s Center plans to dedicate the Maxine Tracy Endowment to scholarship support for approximately 25 RWS students each year, offering pre-semester orientations, monthly events, and individualized support for adult learners who are often already at the margins of university life, says Myers. “The funding will have a ripple effect in that the funds we’d usually spend to support the RWS program can now be directed to other critical initiatives aimed towards advancing gender equity, social justice, and belonging on campus.”

Planning the next steps

As Tracy considers her ACE fellowship (an immersive educational leadership experience) and her special advisor role at USM, she is thinking through what the next step of her career will look like. 

“When I think about taking on leadership roles—and I think this is a value my grandmother brought to me—I think about the ways I watched her all through my life make space for people that she didn’t necessarily understand and that she didn’t necessarily agree with, but she always found a way to make them feel welcome and able to participate,” says Tracy. “I think we desperately need strategies to open up dialogue and conversation and I want to be part of that conversation.”

Read more about other alumni award winners and find out how to register to attend the October 20 ceremony in person or virtually. 

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Header image: Kate Tracy and Jess Myers outside of the Women’s Center in fall 2021. Photo by Marlayna Demond ’11.

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