At the front of the class or behind the scenes, faculty and staff make Wilson a supportive and transformative experience for students.
How many of you remember that inspiring professor, teacher, or coach who changed the course of your life? Perhaps, like Monique Paré Spiers ’11, your biology professor took you aside at the end of a semester and told you that you had a gift for science. That one interaction gave her the confidence to major in biology, pursue a doctorate in bio-chem, and today run a chemical analytics lab for a large corporation. Or, like the current Chair of the Board of Trust- ees of Wilson College Jen Nickle Banzhof ’94, whose liberal arts education introduced her to a subject she did not know she loved. To her surprise, Banzhof walked into a math class and, in her words, “I hit statistics, and they clicked. I completely get stats.”
The story of a transformative interaction with a professor is as old as Wilson herself. For Lisbeth “Beth” Luka ’69, the classes she took with sociology professor Alice Brumbaugh, who taught from 1965 to 1988, inspired her to make her latest gift to the College in honor of current faculty and staff. “Alice was an excellent teacher. She was very small in stature and had a very quiet voice. But boy, did she have a powerful impact on all of us in her class,” she recalled.
“She opened our eyes to all kinds of conditions in the world and things that we could or should be doing. And I enjoyed her as a professor, then as a mentor, and then as a friend. We stayed in touch even after I graduated. I had many excel- lent professors at Wilson, but she just stood out for me.” As co-chair of the We Rise campaign, Luka considered which of the pillars she most wanted to support and hit on supporting faculty and staff.
“The faculty and staff are the backbone of the College,” Luka said. “Without them, students would not come. The interactions with them, the one-on-ones, and the personal attention from the professors at Wilson are among the biggest draws for students.” Because of very tight budgets over the last few years, the College has not been able to make salary increases or cost of living adjustments for her employees. Unfortunately, this has made retaining faculty and staff difficult, and, especially in a very tight employment market, recruiting new employees even more challenging.
“As a Trustee,” Luka said, “it’s been so painful for us as we lose faculty and staff. We cannot compensate them the way we would like to. And it’s not because we don’t want to; it’s just you can’t get blood out of a turnip.”
Staff to the Rescue
Just as Wilson faculty are willing to go the extra mile for their students, the staff play a crucial part in the maintenance and success of the College. Of course, many staff interact with students daily. From the dining hall staff and housekeepers in residence halls to the librarians to members of the Academic Success Center and the counselors in student services, there is an army of professionals directly supporting the students.
And often working behind the scenes and out of public view, there are the administrative, facility, grounds, and technical staff who keep the College going. The staff response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the sudden closure of the campus is emblematic of the dedication and strength of the Wilson staff.
When then Governor Wolf of Pennsylvania announced the stay-at-home order in early 2020 in response to the pandemic, in a matter of two weeks, the College transformed into a 100 percent remote institution of learning. Through video conferencing, digital chatrooms and boards, instant messaging, emailing, texts, and even the old-fashioned phone call, the instructors and support staff maintained the close contact and personalized learning Wilson is famous for and has provided continuously for more than 150 years. The faculty and students deserve a lot of credit for making this work, but so too do the IT, library, and technical staff who worked long hours to create a digital campus, train faculty and students, and maintain the networks and connections throughout the shutdown.
In addition, staff delivered carry-out meals to students isolating on campus, drove interna- tional students to airports so they could get home before flights were canceled, overnight- ed laptops and routers to students and faculty who didn’t have the necessary equipment of their own, and met daily to analyze the end- lessly shifting realities and make the difficult decisions that got us through this crisis.
The faculty and staff, as Luka noted, are just as important to the success of the college as the students and alumni.
This summer, Daniela DiGregorio, an assistant professor of education, took a group of students on a study-abroad trip to the Czech Republic, her homeland, and Austria. Most of the students received some form of financial aid to help them pay for the learning experience and were afforded the opporuntity with the generous support of donors.
DiGregorio was born in the Czech Republic, although it was still a part of Czechoslovakia at the time, and attended the University of South Bohemia (USB), Ceske Budejovice, where she earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees. While in college, she also taught English as a foreign language at a private high school and attended two study-abroad trips with her stu- dents. She saw firsthand how impactful these immersive trips could be for students as they learned about different cultures and presented dramatic improvement in their language skills. “This experience inspired me to organize a study abroad program for students at Wilson College,” DiGregorio said.
DiGregorio used her contacts from her alma mater to set up a partnership between USB and Wilson, allowing Phoenix students to attend classes there. It is her hope that this initial trip will lead to future academic and cultural exchanges. It’s a great example of a faculty member who, on her own initiative, goes above and beyond to enrich the student experience. And, an example of how Wilson is able to facilitate such experiences without the red tape that is typical of bigger and less flexible institutions.
Castles, Classes, and Culture
Odessa Kalathas ’23 is one of the Wilson students who went with DiGregorio on the study-abroad trip. Their first stop was Prague, the Czech capital and the biggest city Kalathas had ever visited. “It felt like it was never-ending,” she said of its size. They got to tour the historic center, visit- ing the Charles Bridge and the Astronomical Clock at the Old Town Square, as well as museums, including the Kafka Museum and the Communist Museum, and other sites of cultural importance. A highlight of Prague was taking a glimpse into the Czech education system and being able to interact with elementary students who were learning English.
Their next stop was Cesky Krumlov, South Bohemia, a town with a stunning blend of medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque architecture. Here they participated in the Five Petaled Rose Festival, a celebration of the town’s 770th anniversary. “It was amazing, so colorful and unique,” Kala- thas said. “Imagine having something that old in America!”
Following the celebrations, they visited Vienna, Austria, and toured the Schonbrunn Palace, once the primary residence for the Habsburg rulers (rulers of the Holy Roman Empire). Returning to the Czech Republic, they met their final destination, Ceske Budejovice, home of the University of South Bohemia where they met with professors and observed classes. Kalathas noted, “It was so different to the classroom experience that we have in the U.S.” She thought Czech classes were more informal than classes here but remained impressed with the instruction.
DiGregorio was delighted with the insights gained from the journey. The students had the opportunity to immerse themselves in the culinary delights and rich cultures of two countries, and she believes that students expanded their global perspective and appreciation. As an unexpected bonus, their connecting flight in Dublin, Ireland, encountered a delay, allowing them to venture out for a delightful meal and explore the vibrant city before their return journey.