Meet Telly McGaha: A passionate advocate for the power of education

Telly McGaha

Telly McGaha

Telly McGaha was born and raised in rural Kentucky, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Louisville and a Master of Public Administration from Northern Kentucky University. While his educational journey may look traditional, his background is anything but. Growing up, his parents made sure a college education was in his plans, despite themselves having never graduated from high school. His father dropped out to serve his country in the Marines, and his mother left her schooling to work, helping her own mother support their family.

“They both instilled in me the value of education because they knew it could change the trajectory of my life,” McGaha says. “My parents knew nothing about the college application process, let alone what a FAFSA was or what pursuing four years of college really meant.”

Despite that, they knew higher education would set him up for success, and McGaha had teachers, counselors, professors and advisors who helped him along the way. While in college, McGaha participated in an exchange program in Montpellier, France, where he helped work on and plan for the 1998 World Cup; and a language immersion program in Kyoto, Japan. Both experiences were made possible because of the generosity of donors whose scholarships lightened the burden of student loans.

“Scholarships are really a vote of confidence in your potential, and they enabled me to experience the world and the education of other cultures in a whole new way,” said McGaha.

As he was deciding on a career path after college, McGaha looked to his past experiences. Having worked a variety of odd jobs throughout his undergraduate, he realized the fulfillment he found working for a non-profit, and so he returned to college to pursue master’s degree in public administration with a focus on non-profit management.

“I had found that work to be really rewarding,” he remembers. “It was tough, but I enjoyed it, and I felt there was value in the work of helping build up a community and helping people improve their lives.”

From there, McGaha dipped his feet into community development and found a “baptism by fire” in the work of federal funding. Despite the complexity, he thrived in the challenge of learning how to work through the mechanisms of writing grants and the programmatic side of ensuring the grant commitments were accomplished.

That experience led him to a similar job working to secure federal funding for a non-profit in Baltimore, but after a few years, he was looking to learn something new. He pursued an opportunity with the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Washington, which offered a chance to start working directly with foundations and individuals.

“That experience,” McGaha says, “is when it really started to click.”

One of the linchpins in McGaha’s path toward major gift fundraising was a series of conversations with a donor who wanted to remove barriers to education for youth in underserved areas of D.C.

“It was one thing to work with foundations on gifts or government grants, but to work with people who were giving away their own money, who were passionate and wanted to have an impact on others’ lives, that was rewarding in an entirely different way,” he says.

From there, McGaha sought out opportunities to do more major gift fundraising and eventually found himself returning to the world of higher education; still learning, but no longer a student. He took a role as a senior director of development at the University of Louisville, followed by a role at Georgia State University as associate vice president, then interim president, of university advancement.

Now, McGaha has joined Shocker Nation as the president and CEO of the WSU Foundation and Alumni Engagement, bringing his passion for continued education and advocacy with him.

“My experiences have helped me understand the challenges and, for many, the barriers that come with higher education,” he says. “It’s one of the things that drew me to this opportunity at Wichita State. WSU’s focus on ensuring higher education is within reach for everyone really appealed to many of the reasons I’ve spent my career working in development for the past 25 years. I am standing on the shoulders of what my parents and other donors did for me, and I hope to pay it forward and inspire and encourage others to pursue their education and be advocates of its power to change lives.”

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