Man, plant, symbol: the list of words to describe Josh McKenzie seem never ending. But this campus legend won’t be around any longer.
Josh McKenzie, assistant dean of students and director for student transition experiences, is saying goodbye to his loyal fanbase. On Thursday, Jan. 5, McKenzie announced via Instagram post that he is leaving Northwestern.
“On my first day of work at Northwestern, I arrived an hour early bc I was nervous about riding the train,” McKenzie wrote on Instagram. “12.5 years later, I know I am a better person [because] of so many students I have been beyond fortunate to work with. Though I didn’t grow up here, man have I grown here.”
Originally from Alabama, McKenzie completed both his undergraduate and graduate studies in the southern United States. When he was looking for jobs in higher education, he told NBN he didn’t know much about Northwestern.
On July 6, 2010, McKenzie began his role as assistant director of orientation and parent programs, now known as the Office of Student Transition Experiences. He’s been an unofficial Wildcat ever since.
“‘Let's go to a place I've never been to before, where I don't know anyone. I might be there for a few years, then I'll move on,’” McKenzie said on his experience at Northwestern. “For my first role, I really fell in love with the students and the work that we've had to do. So, I was here for more than a few years after that.”
In McKenzie’s office at 600 Haven Street, old Wildcat Welcome shirts are folded in a neat stack on a floating bookshelf and photos of previous Wildcat Welcome board members populate a corkboard near his window. A Willie the Wildcat banner hangs on the wall behind his door, cartoonish in all of its school pride. At his window, the gray Evanston sky casts a faint shadow on a cardboard sign that reads in blocked handwriting “dub dub luv.”
McKenzie’s desire to create lasting memories for new students each fall has driven his work at Northwestern for the past twelve and half years. In doing so, he said he crafted his approach to new student transition experiences by considering the culture of Northwestern.
“I have really, truly learned how I can be better for the students here, because this place is really a challenging place for a lot of people,” McKenzie said. “The priority the whole time has always been, what can we do to actually provide meaningful experiences for people here?”
One notable initiative that McKenzie feels proud of is Purple Prep, which includes a website, routine emails and a personalized checklist for incoming first-years “to keep you on track for meeting deadlines throughout the summer.” He sends out the Purple Prep emails himself, which he believes might have contributed to his popularity amongst undergraduates – and questions to whether or not he actually exists in real life.
“That absolutely is where it started: people questioning if I was a real person or not. Which I am, but that has been a continued question for so long: if I'm actually a real person or just a plant,” he said.
Man or plant, School of Communications fourth-year Eddie Ko said that receiving Purple Prep emails, and Josh’s personalization of them, signaled the start of his own Northwestern journey.
“He was the one who was the name that we associate with coming to college,” Ko said. “So symbolically, it means a lot to everyone here.”
Merci Sugai is the assistant director for leadership development and new student programs in the Office of Student Transition Experiences. When she started at Northwestern in July 2022, she said she had no idea there was a daily celebrity presence on campus.
“A funny part of Northwestern student culture that I definitely didn't ask about in my interview: if they had any celebrities that worked in the office, but I'm glad to know that there is one. It's Josh,” Sugai said.
Weinberg second-year Nancy Zhen agrees. She said that his inclusion of cute emojis at the start of his emails added to his impact in her memory.
“He was like the iconic guy that we all thought of in terms of Wildcat Welcome,” Zhen said. “Although I don't personally know Josh McKenzie, he will forever remain an icon and we will miss him.”
As to why students have been so captivated by McKenzie, Michael Gonzalez, who is the associate director for student transition experiences, said that they might be drawn to him because of his amiable personality.
“It's something that is really special in how he has, in particular, really created some community,” Gonzalez said.
Now, McKenzie said he’s focused on creating community in a completely new environment: Austin, Texas. He’s taking a break from higher education to work for a private company and afford some time for his personal life.
His parting words for Wildcats?
“You have exactly what you need to be yourself and to do good at this place. It's just taking time and being willing to find that,” McKenzie said. “Find that out about yourself if you haven't already.”
Good luck in Austin, Josh. You will be missed! Industry plants are hard to come by these days.