Giving the Gift of Curiosity

Giving the Gift of Curiosity

An Alumna gives back in kind

by Darrach Dolan

Joan Thuebel ’52 grew up and still lives in Chatham, N.J., but she has traveled the world in body, spirit, and mind. Specifically, she combined a love of exploring countries and cultures with her interest in science. Over the last four decades, she has helped research apes in Gibraltar, elephants in Kenya, butterflies in Japan, platypuses in Australia, medicinal plants in India, and more. These days she doesn’t travel far from home physically but does vicariously through reading and, of course, talking with the Wilson student and faculty researchers she sponsors to go on the same Earthwatch expeditions Thuebel enjoyed for decades.

When she was in high school and thinking about college, a classmate suggested she contact her sister, Lois, who attended Wilson. Thuebel did just that, and Lois invited her to stay in her dorm room while her roommate was away.

Thuebel says that her mother did “a very smart thing” — she baked a whole container of Toll House cookies to bring. Thanks to this gift, Thuebel was “a very interesting person” to the other students. “I stayed with Lois for the weekend and was really impressed with all her classmates and friends. They all accepted me and were as nice as could be. So I never applied to any other place.”

Wilson was a transformative experience. She entered the College as a shy high schooler and graduated a confident woman. “After I left Wilson, I wasn’t shy anymore. Part was maturing, but part was Prof. Rodgers.” She took a class with Rodgers and wanted to drop it because she would have to give a presentation in front of the whole class. Her advisor persuaded her to try, and she did. “That experience helped me more than anything I can think of because later on, when I went into business, I had a job where I had to get up in front of 40 to 50 managers and talk to them about projects I was in charge of. I would never have been able to do that if I hadn’t had Prof. Rodgers’ class.”

Thuebel went straight from Wilson to AT&T, where she would spend the rest of her career. She was hired to do “a job I knew nothing about — psychological testing and measuring for employment.” Luckily, Wilson had prepared her to be a lifelong learner. She took courses at Rutgers University to learn about psychological testing, then earned an M.B.A. at Pace University. Both were paid for by AT&T, the latter a pilot program to educate managers. Later, Thuebel would be responsible for managing the M.B.A. program (no longer a pilot) AT&T offered its employees.

Thuebel succeeded when women managers were the exception and few and far between. A highlight was her appointment to oversee affirmative action and equal opportunities at the company after AT&T was charged with discrimination in 1969. She visited and assessed AT&T entities in several states to determine what was wrong with their hiring practices and how to fix them. “It was the hardest job I ever had because you were not exactly welcomed with open arms, as you can imagine. On the other hand, it was the most fulfilling job because I was committed to the whole idea of affirmative action and equal employment.”

After taking early retirement, she worked as a consultant until she “really” retired. However, just before she left AT&T, she had already embarked on what would become her next passion — scientific expeditions worldwide. It began by chance. She was visiting a friend and leafing through her friend’s Earthwatch catalog — the organization “connects people with scientists worldwide to conduct environmental research and empowers them with the knowledge they need to conserve the planet.” Thuebel was intrigued and persuaded her friend to go on an Earthwatch expedition to research raccoons in North Carolina. However, the raccoon research had concluded by the time they had accumulated enough vacation days. What to do? “There was an expedition in Jan. 1980 on the apes of Gibraltar. I said, ‘What do you think?’ She said, ‘I think yes.’ And that started it.”

“It was a case of curiosity. I was always curious about science stuff. I just started doing it, and it’s really been fascinating. I’ve worked on 27 expeditions over the years.” Thuebel continues to let her curiosity guide her. She reads articles and looks forward to the “New York Times Science Times” weekly. Whenever a topic captures her attention, she reads more, finds related books or articles, and pursues her curiosity. The concept of pursuing knowledge informs her philanthropy. “That is my whole idea: The more people we can get to be interested in the world around us, the better the world is.”

Thuebel now sponsors up to three recipients to go on Earthwatch expeditions annually. She has also generously given to the Global Studies program to fund travel abroad. “I give to Wilson because of what Wilson did for me. I had an incredible four years, and they affected my life after Wilson so tremendously. So I can’t think of anything better to do than say thank you.”

The three latest recipients of Thuebel’s Earthwatch Prize will tell their stories in the next issue.

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