What are the chances that a U.S. Marine from Philadelphia, stationed in Quantico, Virginia, taking an English class at Northern Virginia Community College (NVCC) would meet a UTM student, fall in love and eventually make a home in Martin?
The chances were once in a lifetime for Chris Gunlefinger.
Gunlefinger found himself at NVCC preparing to depart from the Marine Corps after eight years of service when he met his wife, a Martin native, who was also taking summer courses at NVCC. When Gunlefinger’s enlistment ended, he followed his then-girlfriend back to Martin from Quantico, continued his education at UTM and married her.
“I’ve been happily here since,” Gunlefinger said. “We were both lucky after graduation to find opportunity here, make a home here… because it’s a good town.”
Gunlefinger graduated from UTM in 2011 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and is currently earning his master’s degree in Strategic Communications.
Gunlefinger has served as the Assistant Director of Student Life since June 2018, where his main responsibility is to advise the Interfraternity Council (IFC).
“My job as the advisor is to help make their organizations as successful as they can be. I help their organizations provide a positive, beneficial and helpful of a fraternal experience as is possible because fraternity is the means by which they will, in turn, succeed as students in general.”
“So if I can help them succeed in that realm, that in turn helps them, allows them, to succeed and thrive as students on our campus generally and take those skills and carry them forward and beyond.”
Adam Jamerson, a junior Agriculture Business major and IFC VP of Finance from Collierville said, “He’s willing to work with us to help serve the community and expand Greek life on campus. Male Greeks have someone who they can go to and not worry about overworking one person [since the staff has expanded.]”
The Division of Student Affairs helps organize all of the student organizations on campus through the work of a diverse staff capable of meeting each group’s needs.
“Those of us who work in student affairs, we can kind of look at the student population and there is a group of students that we can each say ‘That was me once’ and having been in their shoes, we are able to help them and to relate to them a bit more,” Gunlefinger said.
While working with the IFC, he has also found his niche serving student veterans through the Skyhawk Veteran Association.
“I was in their shoes once,” Gunlefinger said.
“For me, the student veterans, the nontraditional ones coming onto this campus after having served, that was me not too long ago it feels like. So I really feel like I can land a better perspective and help them through that set of challenges and experiences that they’re facing at the moment.”
He said his experiences in the Marine Corps influence his everyday life in some way or another but has found purpose in helping other veterans through their transition into a civilian lifestyle.
Gunlefinger believes that his one-on-one connection with students and being able to recognize his impact in students’ lives has been his greatest triumph at UTM. Working in Student Life is about being authentic and being there for the students, according to Gunlefinger.
He admits developing relationships with students is a challenge, but believes “it is a challenge in all of the ways one would want their job to be challenging.”
“It’s very rewarding when it’s successful… The biggest kind of win and victory you feel in this job is when you can see and realize that you did make a connection, you were able to make an impact and help students through whatever it is for them… That’s the good stuff.”
Gunlefinger hopes to see the office share more of the resources it possesses and become more involved with all of the student organizations as the staff continues to grow.
One of his goals is to make student groups on campus more aware of the role Student Life can play in their organization and the help they provide.
“I am glad to be here. I am forever grateful for this campus; the faculty and staff; for my own educational experiences; the campus and community at large for welcoming me and allowing me to make a home here and feel like part of the community, not just someone who happens to live here because I’m not from here,” Gunlefinger said.
“That’s one of those things that makes Martin, Tennessee very special. I very much hope that through what I do that I am able to return that favor here and there as I am able to.”
While Gunlefinger acknowledges that he still has much to learn from the job, he hopes he is making a positive impact on the campus and the students he works with.
“In this line of work, you do what you can as you are able,” Gunlefinger said. “You do the best you can and you celebrate the victories and don’t let the defeats slow you down and drag you down and stop you from moving forward.”
Chris Gunlefinger, the assistant director of Student Life, presents his experiences in the U.S. Marine Corps to audience members at the annual Veterans Day exposition Nov. 9. The Veterans Day service is held each year in Watkins auditorium in honor of the veterans on campus and in the community. | Photo credit/ University Relations