Desirée Rieckenberg lifts students in need

The Massey Award winner and dean of students is always on call to help them navigate difficult situations.

Desiree Rieckenberg posing on UNC Campus.
Desirée Rieckenberg (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

Desirée Rieckenberg’s passion for helping students began when she was in their shoes.

Rieckenberg, the UNC-Chapel Hill dean of students, was a first-generation college student from a rural community when she arrived for her first year at Eastern Illinois University. She was forced to do a lot on her own as she learned how to navigate campus life.

Fortunately, she met people who invested in her when things were good but also supported her when they weren’t. That experience stuck with her and is something she still draws on today.

“The notion of working in a space that allows me to lift up and celebrate folks, and also support people as they navigate something, really rang true to me,” she said.

For helping students in many situations across her 12 years at Carolina, Rieckenberg was given a 2024 Massey Award. The honor recognizes “unusual, meritorious or superior” contributions by University employees.

Rieckenberg sees most of her work at what she calls intersections of the student experience, key moments that include anything from taking a leadership role in a student organization, struggling to pass a class or having a mental health challenge. From there, she strives to help support their success at Carolina.

Nominators highlighted her work creating the Care Team, which meets weekly to assist students experiencing challenges that threaten to disrupt academic progress, and partnering with the Office of Scholarship and Student Aid on a new financial literacy initiative. Carolina hired its first director of financial well-being this spring.

Additionally, Rieckenberg was praised as a “relentless champion” of the Carolina Veterans Resource Center, a “committed collaborator” and an unselfish servant leader who creates a culture of trust within her office.

Her team has grown over the last several years as it serves more students, particularly in times of crisis and emergency. No matter the situation, Rieckenberg keeps the individual student at the forefront.

“Carolina may be a big place, but Carolina should be a place where they feel like they are family and that they’re cared for,” she said.

The nature of her job means she’s as likely to get a call at 3 a.m. as she is at 3 p.m. She’s the primary contact for students going through traumatic life events ranging from the death of a loved one, a serious injury or significant financial setback.

She credits the people around her for helping juggle those difficult situations.

“It comes down to being able to surround yourself with good people and really talented people, and being able to have a supportive family and personal life that allows me to do those things,” Rieckenberg said. “I have a fantastic team of people who do the work and who surround me in a way that lifts up the things we’re doing in support of students. I have a fantastic partner, and I have two kids I’ve had since I’ve been in this role. They have come up in the space that they understand the work I do is important, that it helps and serves so many people.”

Rieckenberg was speechless when told of her Massey Award. She was drawn to this work because she saw its impact first-hand, as a student. She’s humbled to know others see that, too.

“It touches your heart in a way that recognizes an impact,” she said. “That’s really how I got into this work, because I had people who poured into me and created an impactful experience for me. And I continue to do this work with the hope that I can be impactful on our students and our campus and colleagues.”