Former graduate returns: Natalie Mahaffey calls English Dept. home

Rachel Baggett, Staff Writer

Many students have different reasons for attending Francis Marion University, but instructor of English Natalie Mahaffey said that she based her decision on something she called downright embarrassing.

“I chose to stay in Florence because I was in love,” Mahaffey said. “Needless to say, the boy did not last, but my memories and education from FMU did. I ended up in the right place, even if it was for the wrong reason.”

During her time at FMU, Mahaffey sampled almost every major the university had to offer, including biology and accounting. While she was constantly changing majors, the one subject that she kept consistently gravitating toward was English. However, Mahaffey didn’t decide to become and stick with an English major until she was pushed in the right direction by one of her English professors.

“I ended up in one of David Cowles’ classes, and he looked at me halfway through the semester and said, ‘You know you’re supposed to be an English major, don’t you?’” Mahaffey said.

Mahaffey said that studying words and seeing how an author’s writing forms thoughts and ideas from words drew her to English. Mahaffey also went on to describe the power behind written word.

“[The written word] has the power to stop someone in their tracks or totally reinvent their beliefs,” Mahaffey said. “Can you imagine if we didn’t have stories? This world would be super boring and unoriginal.”

After realizing her passion for English, Mahaffey spent the time she wasn’t in class helping and tutoring other students in English 111 labs and the Writing Center. During her time tutoring, Mahaffey discovered that she got a kick out of seeing someone finally understand something because of the way she taught it. It did not take long after that discovery for her to decide that her calling in life was to teach.

Once she decided on a career path, Mahaffey went on to earn her master’s in English at Clemson University and later ended up teaching there.

Eventually, Mahaffey ended up heading back to FMU and accepted a position to teach composition courses. When asked why she returned, Mahaffey recalled an exit interview that she took with English Department Chair Dr. Christopher Johnson as a senior.

“I remember writing on my survey sheet that if I were ever to have him as a boss and this department as my colleagues, I’d consider myself one lucky girl,” Mahaffey said.

Johnson said that he considers himself and the rest of the English Department fortunate to have Mahaffey as a graduate and a colleague.

“In her senior year, Natalie won the department’s most prestigious award, and we were delighted when she announced her plans to attend graduate school,” Johnson said. “In the MA program at Clemson University, Natalie received excellent training, and she returned to FMU an energetic and innovative composition teacher.”

Mahaffey listed several qualities she enjoyed about FMU, such as that it is an institution that cares about its employees and is not overwhelming in size and ego.

These qualities allow Mahaffey to not only have a close relationship with her fellow professors but also with her students.

“The students on this campus are unique,” Mahaffey said. “I wanted to come back and teach them. I think maybe in doing so, I am able to say thank you to the university that gave me such an excellent education.”

Johnson also remarked on Mahaffey’s interaction with her students.

“As chair, I have been particularly impressed by the thoughtfulness and creativity of her syllabi and assignments,” he said. “Her courses are challenging, engaging, and oftentimes inspiring.  She also spends many hours each week conferencing with her students, using those skills she first developed in the Writing Center.  It is not at all surprising that many of her students request her for subsequent courses.”

Mahaffey spends the majority of her free time writing. One of her current writing projects includes a timeline memoir, which she described as focusing on the events the mind remembers most rather than what are considered important events in life.

When she is not writing or teaching, Mahaffey divides her time between a lot of knitting, reading, watching television and spending time with her family.

“I have an obsession with Neil Gaiman books and zombie movies/televisions shows,” Mahaffey said. “And I’ve been known to have random dance parties with my two children in which we sing Justin Bieber songs at the top of our lungs.”

As someone who attended and graduated from FMU, Mahaffey had some parting advice for current FMU students.

“Get to know your professors,” Mahaffey said. “I know the teacher/student relationship is a bizarre thing … but, you’ll find that making an effort will be beneficial for both you and your teachers. Trust me, I know many of your professors … I knew them as a student and now as a teacher. There are some pretty rad people on this campus.”