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President Allen smiling in a black and white patterned outfit.

Forever Strong

First Alumna President Leaves Powerful Legacy

By Gaye Hill, Emily Parker, and Melyssa Allen

Forever Strong

First Alumna President Leaves Powerful Legacy

By Gaye Hill, Emily Parker, and Melyssa Allen

Less Fire, More Water

My Reflections and Hopes

One of my favorite Meredith traditions did not exist when I was a student. Fire and Water is an end-of-first-year tradition that encourages reflection, healing, and celebration.

Students are asked, first, to recall an uncomfortable memory and then jot a word or two that captures its essence on a slip of paper. Perhaps something as simple as “C- on chemistry exam,” “argument with roommate,” or “skipping test prep sessions.” 

Then, they are asked to recall a highlight – one they never want to forget – and jot it on a slip of paper.

With two slips of paper in hand, they now put the pleasant memory slip inside a plastic Easter egg and set it in the water of the fountain, where it floats and symbolizes the buoyancy of warm memories – reminders of things going right.

The uncomfortable memory gets tossed into a small container fire, symbolizing a lesson learned without having to carry its sting forever. 

As I retire, I’m going through my own version of Fire and Water. There are several moments and episodes I permit myself to release, but the pandemic, naturally, is my primary fire story. I know that the crush of decisions was hard on everyone, robbing some of the experience and growth they needed but prioritizing the safety of our community above all. Regardless of how history characterizes that time and those decisions, I can release that burden, while acknowledging the evidence of lives saved and appreciating the countless messages of support.

Water is more delightful, and if I were to honor the way we celebrate highlights, I could not possibly cram enough slips of warm memories into my little egg. Seeing the faces of prospective and newly arriving students with their anxiety and excitement as they come to campus for the first time. Meeting new colleagues and re-engaging with those who were here when I was a student. Experiencing new and changing traditions. Appreciating how new academic programs and athletic teams bring vibrancy to learning and engagement. Traveling with students, faculty, staff, alumnae, and other friends of the College throughout the state and around the world. Hearing alumnae recall the experiences at Meredith that solidified their self-image or changed their lives. Seeing renovations and new construction affirm the growth and ongoing spirit of this College and the support of those who want its success to flourish. Enjoying the thrills of gifts throughout the campaign and beyond from the thousands of donors who appreciate all that Meredith represents and achieves.

Current and former presidents and those who truly understand the work of the presidency know our jobs are insufferably hard, and there is rarely a moment of genuine serenity. But it is primarily the people – the faculty, staff, students, alumnae, trustees, donors, and other friends – who make the work either a firestorm or a joyous brook.

As I leave the presidency, I simply thank you for all the extraordinary ways you have buoyed me and helped me float. And I wish for each of you less fire … more water.

President Jo Allen, ’80

When Jo Allen, ’80, assumed the presidency of Meredith College in July 2011, it was a homecoming like no other.

As the first alumna president, Allen brought a unique perspective to her role, one that required her to recognize the ways Meredith had changed while honoring its past – and to explore how the College needed to evolve to maintain its relevance.

“I came back to a place that I love and fell in love all over again,” said Allen. “It is transparently good, in terms of a good education, of good people with good hearts and good intentions.”

President Allen at her swearing in ceremony when she was elected president.

Planning for the Future

One of Allen’s first projects after coming to Meredith was the creation of a strategic plan. Her vision was of a “rolling” plan that would evolve to meet the needs of an ever-changing campus community. To develop such a plan, she knew it was critical to involve all of the stakeholders and take seriously their input.

A visioning conference provided a kickoff to the planning process, which then continued for months through the work of discrete planning committees. Each was responsible for one of six pillars: educational excellence, financial strength, optimal enrollment, IT/infrastructure, enhanced visibility, and quality of life for faculty, staff, and students. 

Meredith Forever, first approved in October 2012, became the strategic plan for the future of the College. Allen takes great pride in its lasting relevance.

“Our strategic plan and its six pillars have sustained our thoughts and plans for 12 years. I think that speaks to having gotten it right from the beginning,” she said.

Strengthening Alumnae Engagement

As an alumna herself, it was natural for Allen to inspire new ways for alumnae to engage with the College. Under her leadership, the Office of Alumnae Relations launched numerous exciting initiatives designed to engage current alumnae and lay the groundwork for future alumnae to feel connected to Meredith. Programs include Meredith Mentors, an online network that fosters personal and professional networking, and the Meredith Alumnae Business Directory. Ask an Alumna, Life After Meredith, and 1891 Club all help current students prepare for lifelong relationships with the College.

Hilary Allen, director of alumnae relations, estimates that her office has coordinated over 1,200 alumnae events during Jo Allen’s presidency.

“Dr. Allen has always supported the continued outreach and engagement of the Alumnae Association,” said Hilary Allen. “After all, she is an alumna, and she has made it a priority to share updates at alumnae events, both on and off campus, throughout her tenure. Meredith is truly Forever Strong thanks to her leadership, vision, and support.”

Those close to Meredith value the unique perspective President Allen has brought to her alma mater. 

“I appreciate that an alum has been leading Meredith,” said Abby Dittmann, ’24, senior class president. “She understands our history and appreciates our strong values and traditions. These things are what make Meredith such a special place.”

Courtney Allen, ’10, president of Meredith College Alumnae Association, shared this sentiment. 

“Dr. Allen has led the charge to elevate and transform our campus and community in so many positive ways. We are blessed to have had her as the first alumna president of our beloved alma mater and we wish her all the best as she embarks on this next journey!”

Johnson Hall on a clear day.

Academic Growth and Evolution

In addition to new educational facilities like the CHESS building, Meredith’s academic offerings have also grown. Academic highlights include

  • Creating new academic programs including public health (2014), a pre-health post-baccalaureate certificate (2014), hospitality and tourism management (2018), as well as master’s degrees in industrial-organization psychology (2018), criminal justice (2020), and biomedical sciences (2024).
  • Ongoing strength of Study Abroad, including a return to programming after the 2020 pandemic pause. In summer 2022, 113 students participated in study abroad, including 109 in programs led by Meredith faculty. This tied the 2009 record for Meredith faculty-led programs.
  • Consistently earning top rankings and accreditations from a variety of organizations.
  • Relaunching Wings, Meredith’s adult education program, in 2014. Wings’ 50th anniversary was celebrated in 2022.

Matthew Poslusny, provost and senior vice president for academic programs, previously worked with Allen at Widener University and came to Meredith in 2013, two years after her arrival. 

“I have had the privilege to work with Jo for 17 out of the last 19 years,” said Poslusny. “I have always been appreciative of her ability to generate new ideas and transform them into reality, from the StrongPoints® program to renovations to Jones Auditorium to CHESS, the new academic building. She has made a lasting impact on Meredith’s academic footprint.”

Professor and Department Head of Dance and Theatre Carol Finley observed that Allen’s support for academic programs is inclusive.

“Jo Allen understands that the arts are an important means of understanding the world. Under her leadership arts faculty were empowered to shape thriving academic and co-curricular programs that make Meredith a highly regarded institution in the regional arts education landscape,” said Finley. “Dr. Allen has a twinkle in her eye when she talks about Meredith and her love of the College has been a joy to experience.”

Transforming Campus

A key component of Allen’s presidency has been the renewal of Meredith’s historic campus to meet the evolving needs of students, faculty, and staff. During Allen’s tenure, at least 14 major projects were completed as well as numerous minor renovations.

All renovations were funded by contributions from donors, which is a point of pride for Allen.

“I’m very proud of all that we’ve done, and we’ve done it all without borrowing,” said Allen. “I think it speaks to how much people care about this College.”

Decisions regarding additions and renovations have been driven by input from the campus community and donors, with an overarching emphasis on drawing students to Meredith. 

“This is an investment – no matter what, you have to make people want to come here,” she said. “We also had to think about it in the context of our population. For instance, our students weren’t using the pool, so we turned it into a workout area they would – and do – use.”

Projects still underway or on the horizon include phase two of Jones Auditorium, the Estes-Speight Family Athletic Center, and a facility to house a new academic program.

The Meredith Lake on a beautiful fall day.

Strong Fundraising

President Allen and the Institutional Advancement team, led by Vice President Lennie Barton, have exceeded major fundraising milestones year after year. Ongoing fundraising, despite the pandemic, has consistently generated over $10 million per year.

The largest fundraising effort in the College’s history, Beyond Strong | The Campaign for Meredith, raised $90,466,720. The silent phase began in July 2012 and concluded in December 2018, having surpassed its $75 million goal. Funds raised through the Campaign supported scholarships, special programs like study abroad, facilities, faculty and staff development, and more.

Allen takes special pride in the growth of large-dollar gifts during her tenure. 

“Every gift matters and everyone can’t give $1 million, I surely understand that,” she said. “But the fact that we went from three $1 million gifts in the previous campaign to 33 in this one speaks volumes about the growing sense that Meredith is worth investing in.”

In addition, contributions have increased in all categories, from annual giving to the Meredith Fund, from planned gifts to faculty/staff giving.

Another point of pride is establishing Giving Day. When the first event took place on February 23, 2016, 1,791 donors contributed $283,052 during the Make It Count for Meredith event. In less than 12 hours, the initial goal of $125,000 had been reached and a new goal of $250,000 was set by President Allen. Giving Day has continued to grow each year, and in 2024, the goal was $1.1 million.

Barton credits Allen with advancing Meredith’s philanthropic efforts.

“Of all the leaders I have worked with in the past, Jo has given fundraising more of her time than any of them, both during and after our Campaign. We meet regularly and she is always willing to make phone calls or go see someone,” said Barton. “She is responsible for our fundraising success.”

“Dr. Allen’s leadership has been recognized by other independent college and university presidents in the state who elected her to two terms as chair of the board of North Carolina Independent Colleges and Universities (NCICU). Her broad vision for private higher education has also been sought at the national level, where she has served as chair of the board of NAICU. The Board of Trustees of Meredith, the independent college and university presidents in North Carolina, and presidents nationally have placed their confidence wisely in Dr. Allen’s leadership at all levels and she has worked tirelessly and with great effect on behalf of Meredith, in particular, and all of private higher education in North Carolina and across the country. I especially want to thank her for her strong support for NCICU and for me as president. It has been a joy to work with such an effective leader in all these roles.”

Hope Williams
President, North Carolina Independent Colleges and Universities

The Power of Going Strong

Early in Allen’s presidency, the College began developing a brand campaign to fully capture the unique experience and impact of a Meredith education. In-depth research gathered feedback from stakeholders including students, faculty, staff, alumnae, and friends of the College. That research was shared with a marketing agency, which then pitched the Meredith College | Going Strong concept to President Allen, the Executive Leadership Team, and other representatives from across campus. 

The rest is history.

“That was one of the greatest aha moments and one of the ways it became clear to me that Meredith was where I belonged as a president,” said Allen. “Going Strong is foundational but also aspirational. I don’t know any institution that’s built its brand on something so tangible that works so well in the context of who the institution is.”

Under Allen’s leadership, strengths became a singular focus at Meredith. The Marketing team took the kernel of the Going Strong concept and built it out over the next decade, having a demonstrably positive impact on enrollment, perception of academic strength, and more. New research conducted in 2019 found that the Going Strong brand campaign still resonated and, indeed, had even more growth opportunities. 

“The Going Strong campaign and Meredith’s branding successes would not have happened without President Allen,” said Kristi Eaves-McLennan, vice president for marketing and communications. “In the early days of her presidency, she recognized that greater visibility would be key to Meredith achieving its strategic goals. Since then, she has consistently championed and supported Meredith’s branding efforts.” 

StrongPoints®, Meredith’s signature advising and personal coaching model, was developed in 2014. An essential component of the College’s emphasis on strengths, StrongPoints has empowered thousands of students by helping them identify their unique strengths and learn how to apply them in their academics, experiences, careers, and finances.

Professor of Religion Shannon Grimes sees Allen as the perfect ambassador for the brand. 

“It is fitting that Meredith’s Going Strong brand was created under President Jo Allen’s leadership, because she herself is a shining example of a strong Meredith graduate, and she has strengthened this college in many ways, especially through her impressive fundraising and networking efforts,” said Grimes. “Throughout her time here, and most notably during the difficult pandemic years, President Allen has led with skill, vision, and integrity. She has been an excellent steward of Meredith College, and she will certainly be missed.”

“It was my privilege and pleasure to have been both Jo Allen’s freshman advisor and her freshman English teacher. Honesty demands I acknowledge that was the last time my achievements surpassed hers. I have followed her career with pride. When I was fortunate to visit her at Widener, where she was a vice president and provost, I left wondering if we could possibly woo her to return to her alma mater as president. And weren’t we lucky we were able to? 

Everyone is aware of the gift to Meredith Jo Allen has been. When she told me she was retiring, I paused a moment (fortunately) and instead of declaring, ‘You can’t!’ said, ‘You have every right to.’ And as sad as we all are, we know how hard and successfully she has worked for us and wish her all the best in what will inevitably be a more relaxed (as well as fun!) future. That said, we know she will miss us too. Meredith is like that, isn’t she?”

Betty Webb, ’67
Professor Emerita and Wings Outreach Director

Looking Forward

So what lies ahead for Jo Allen?

She will continue her lifelong support for higher education and plans to complete a book that has been in the works for a couple of years.

In addition, she has recently agreed to serve as President in Residence for the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC) in Washington, D.C., only the second individual to hold this position. She will continue to reside in North Carolina while holding the year-long position, which started January 2024. She will focus on important topics in higher education and help line up speakers and sessions for the organization of college presidents.

She is also looking forward to taking some time to settle into being a “good alumna,” and read books and other materials that are not about higher education.

Allen said she leaves Meredith feeling satisfied about the impact of her presidency.

“I feel like I’ve done what I came here to do,” said Allen. “The next president will come in and I hope they’ll feel as blessed and fortunate as I do.”


Major accomplishments and moments that occurred during Jo Allen’s time as Meredith’s eighth president.

Growth in Athletics

During Allen’s years as president, the Avenging Angels athletics program has celebrated championship wins across several sports, expanded its offerings, and been supported with new facilities. Sports added include lacrosse (2012), track & field (2016), field hockey and golf (2019), and indoor track (2024). Athletics facilities investments include the Lowery Fitness Center, athletic field and track enhancements, and the Estes-Speight Family Athletic Center, which is now under construction.

Celebrating 125 Years of Going Strong

Meredith College celebrated the 125th anniversary of its founding in 2016. The year-long celebration culminated on February 27, the official date Meredith’s charter was granted in 1891, and included a campus open house, with trolley rides to the City of Raleigh Museum, an alumnae artist exhibit, and a display of a time capsule created by students for the anniversary. A new historical marker proclaiming Meredith’s place in North Carolina history was unveiled as part of the anniversary commemoration.

Leadership Through Pandemic Challenges

As president, Allen provided leadership during the unprecedented challenges faced during the COVID-19 pandemic. Like other organizations around the world, the College had to pivot to remote learning in 2020, while still providing the sense of community that is a hallmark of the Meredith experience. Through the pandemic, no employees were laid off or furloughed; emergency fund sources were established or enhanced to help students and employees with unanticipated expenses.

Other initiatives

In 2015, the Meredith Poll was established. The Poll asks North Carolinians their opinions on a range of public issues. Results regularly garner media coverage in local and national media outlets.

As part of Meredith’s college-wide anti-racism initiative, the College’s first Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) professional was hired in 2022. Responsibilities include working with colleagues across campus and with student groups to review organizational practices, processes, and structures, and recommend ways to make them more equitable. Another element of the anti-racism initiative was a focus on understanding College history, which led the Board of Trustees to approve name changes for some campus facilities.

Making Higher Education Stronger

President Allen is a powerful advocate of higher education. One of her priorities has been to raise Meredith’s profile nationally, and her work with statewide and national organizations provided an ideal opportunity to do so. We asked some of her colleagues at other colleges, universities, and educational institutions, as well as family, classmates, and friends, to share their thoughts on Allen’s presidency.

“Over the 25 years in my former capacity as president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU), it has been my privilege to work with more than 1,000 college and university presidents. I’ve been especially fortunate to serve with Jo in her capacity as Chair of the NAICU Board of Directors, and currently in my role as a Meredith College Trustee. I consider her to be one of the most creative, resourceful, inspiring, and competent presidents in America. Meredith has been incredibly well-served by her landmark leadership!”

David Warren
Member, Meredith College Board of Trustees
President, National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU)

“Dr. Allen has been a national leader and a champion for the independent sector of higher education. Few higher education leaders in America have had as much influence on state and national policy positions for independent colleges and universities as Jo. Her impact and legacy extends well beyond the Meredith College campus.”

James T. Harris III, D.Ed.
President, University of San Diego

“Jo brought an uncommon graciousness to every occasion I was with her. Whether it was leading the selection process for the new president of NAICU, or calming dissension while we served together in higher education gatherings, she was just superb, and she was unfailingly right! She will always be one of my favorite colleagues in the cause of higher education and I wish her well.”

Andrew K. Benton
President Emeritus, Pepperdine University

“I have known Dr. Allen since we were sitting in the classroom taking freshman English Composition together. She was just Jo back then, wide-eyed and eager to discover all the possibilities that lay ahead. I’ve also sat in the boardroom with Dr. Allen as she led the College through a pandemic, social unrest, and prepared our students for changing workforce needs. Meredith prepared Jo well to become the leader she is today. A listener and life-long learner with a keen sense of humor. We’ll miss Dr. Allen, but I have no doubt her footprint is big enough to inspire wide-eyed and eager young women long into the future.”

Ella Frantz, ’80
Member, Meredith College Board of Trustees
Co-Chair, Presidential Search Committee

“While there have been many times throughout history that have brought significant challenges to higher education, I believe it is fair to say that the period during which President Allen served Meredith was one of the most challenging times for our profession. Issues surrounding enrollment, the pandemic, inclusion and belonging, not to mention challenges to the whole notion that higher education is critical to advancing our society have made this a challenging period to provide stable and forward-looking leadership. That is exactly what Jo Allen has done for Meredith. She has navigated these choppy waters to perfection and leaves Meredith much stronger than when she arrived. I am confident that when the story of Meredith College is written in the future, Jo Allen will be remembered as a strong, focused, and highly impactful leader.”

Randy Woodson
Chancellor, NC State University

“When Dr. Allen began her tenure as the eighth president of Meredith College on July 1, 2011, she arrived on campus with a unique perspective. She was the first alumna to serve in this leadership role. President Allen brought to the position a deep and abiding love for and understanding of her alma mater. Her vision was to honor the important traditions and legacy of the College while at the same time preparing its students for the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century. ‘Going strong!’ soon became the College’s mantra. President Allen has exceptional communication skills – both verbal and written. Her presidency has been personified by transparency and integrity. Meredith College is a much stronger institution today than when Dr. Allen arrived in July 2011 – due in large measure to her leadership.”

Sam Ewell
Past Chair, Board of Trustees

“Dr. Allen has consistently demonstrated exceptional leadership, guiding students with unwavering dedication from freshman year through senior year. Her enthusiastic presence, particularly during cherished traditions like Cornhuskin’, has been a source of joy for me and many others. As she steps into retirement, we express our deepest gratitude for her transformative impact and will dearly miss her influential leadership on our academic journey.”

Mary Grace Teachey, ’24
Student Government Association President

“Selecting a president for Meredith College is a daunting task! Taking its responsibility with great seriousness, the 2010-11 Presidential Search Committee began to look for that uniquely qualified person to serve Meredith as its eighth president. As the search unfolded and many, many candidates were considered, one candidate continued to stand out above all the others. Dr. Jo Allen’s educational work, background experiences, and extensive skills became quickly apparent. Equally important and captivating was her charisma highlighted by her warm engaging smile. AND she was an alumna! Jo had a deep and abiding love for her alma mater – an understanding of the power of a Meredith education personally and professionally.

When Jo began her tenure, she actively reached out to all constituents. She knew the importance of including all the voices. While confident about the direction for Meredith, Jo opened herself to listening and learning from a variety of perspectives. I believe it was this openness to the faculty, staff, alumnae, parents, and friends that has allowed Meredith to continue to grow and develop. Jo Allen has exceeded all the expectations of the Search Committee. How fortunate for the College that it has had the benefit of her leadership for these 13 years.”

Nancy Williams Cheek, ’63
Past Chair, Board of Trustees

“Jo first became my little sister when I was two, and I realized quickly that she was born STRONG! Not only is she my sister, but she’s been my friend, mentor, and confidante and was a member of my Little Sister Class when she entered Meredith College in 1976.

I am very grateful that Meredith College is our alma mater,
and I am also thankful and proud of our first alumna president, Dr. Jo Allen, Class of 1980. She has worked diligently during her 13-year tenure as a strong, resourceful, intelligent, and positive advocate for Meredith while supporting its students, faculty, staff, and alumnae/i to successfully move the Meredith College family along – Beyond Strong!

Thank you, Jo, and I know that you’ll continue to support Meredith, but now as a retired alumna! Best wishes always from your favorite BIG SISTER!”

Kay A. Blizzard, ’78

A Campus Transformed

During President Allen’s tenure, Meredith’s historic campus has seen extensive renovations and additions – all thanks to the generosity of donors. These changes are integral to Meredith’s strategic plan and enable students, faculty, and staff to learn, conduct research, and stay physically active, as well as provide additional revenue sources through rental fees.

Learn more about campus improvements and the donors who made the renovations possible at

The stone water feature with "Meredith College" engraved on it in  the belk dining hall building.


Belk Dining Hall

Extensive renovations on the upper and lower levels provided a better dining experience and more flexible spaces for events.

A strongpoints counselor meet with a student about her strengths.



A dedicated space supports StrongPoints®, Meredith’s advising and personal coaching program.

People gathered in the rotunda as President Allen delivers a speech on the stairwell.


Johnson Hall

Significant enhancements and renovations created a better experience for prospective and current students and their families, as well as staff whose offices reside in Johnson Hall.

The Meredith college fountain outside of Johnson Hall.


Elizabeth Triplett Beam Fountain

An iconic spot for visitors and current students, the fountain plaza includes the fountain, sitting areas, and accessible walkways into Johnson Hall.

Students and staff working out in the new gym space.


Lowery Fitness Center

The renovated facility, which includes treadmills, bikes, elliptical cross trainers, rowers, weights, and more, serves as a teaching facility, a training facility for Athletics, and supports health and wellness programs for students, faculty, and staff.

The meredith garden with six raised beds, terraces, and other greenery.


Dickson Foundation Community Garden

The garden is a campus resource for education, research, service, and training in sustainability, ecology, food security, and environmentally sound food production.

The new auditorium space in the cate center.


Kresge Auditorium
Renovations included new carpet, seating, and sound system as well as expanded accessible seating and improved auditorium entrances.
The updated Chapel interior.


Jones Chapel

The sanctuary, bridal suite, corridors, conference room, kitchen, and common room were all refurbished.

Upgraded food lab kitchen with brand new appliances and state of the art tools.


Nifong Nutrition Lab

A complete renovation simulates the commercial food service environment students work in once they graduate from Meredith.

The Meredith lake with benches and a statue overlooking the water.


Meredith Lake

After draining in 2017, the lake and small island were completely restored, including ADA-friendly sidewalks, walkways, and patios.

New chairs and study spaces in the library.


Carlyle Campbell Library

Renovations included new furniture, new lighting, and freshly painted walls along with a bathroom converted to being fully ADA-compliant.

The exterior of the new C.H.E.S.S. building.


CHESS Building

A new academic facility opened in August 2022 and provides cutting-edge instructional space for Meredith’s growing communication and health, exercise, & sport sciences programs.

The newly designed interior of Jones Auditorium.


Jones Auditorium

Phase one of the renovation included new seating, carpet, lighting, sound, a new elevator for accessibility, and general upgrades. Additional upgrades include renovations to the black box theater and a marquee-enhanced entrance.

President Allen and other people break ground on the new athletic complex.


Estes-Speight Family Athletic Center

Once complete, the facility will include training space for softball, tennis, and golf, along with a student lounge.

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