Friday, Nov. 19, 2021
Dedicated students, distinguished colleagues and dear friends,
“We would not have survived without her!”
“Please bring Agnes with you,” said the senior executives at Samsung and LG when a group of senior academic leaders at my previous institution were planning to visit some of our successful alumni in South Korea. I did not know who Agnes was. So I asked around and learned that she had been a departmental administrative assistant who had long since retired. We found Agnes and told her about the request. She said, “Oh, bless their hearts, please thank them for me and let them know that I am in no shape to travel.” So we did. The group of executives insisted, planning to arrange for limo service for Agnes and a first-class flight to Korea. It was “the least we can do to repay her,” they said. Sadly, Agnes was too fragile to travel but she was honored to know of the positive impact she had made on others’ lives by her professionalism and kindness.
You see, our distinguished staff colleagues — from office support staff; to our food service teams; to our staff in admissions, student success and academic support; to our teams in development and advancement; to our wonderful, dedicated and hardworking physical plant, custodial and landscaping crews who keep our campus functioning and aesthetically pleasing; to our residential life and student involvement staff; to our campus police force and security officers; to our counselors and advisors; and to so many other staff members — are often underappreciated. But many of them are on the frontline of interaction with our students, applicants, faculty, visitors, parents and alumni. Their approaches establish first and lasting impressions. They are the bridge builders, the first node of connection and trusted university agents. Many of our staff have served this university for decades, providing continuity during times of transition and disruption. They can be either a go-to source for information, guidance or support or they can be individuals to avoid altogether. Agnes had become a person to go to in times of stress for our students, and particularly our international students. “She was like a mother to us,” the successful Korean executives told me.
I know firsthand what they are talking about. I was an undergraduate student at LSU during the awful times of the Iranian hostage crisis. I had left Iran years earlier and despite the fact that I had nothing to do with the events, as an international student from Iran, I felt embarrassed, helpless and extremely anxious. I was feeling the invisible tremors of uncertainty and the widening of fault lines. I was feeling like a dog before an earthquake. I wanted to help but didn’t know how. I was desperate!
“Mohammad, it is not your fault,” said Barbara, the wonderful typist in the mechanical engineering office — my Agnes. She introduced me to the Serenity Prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.” Barbara’s words and the words of the prayer she shared were healing and therapeutic. This casual chat became a defining moment for me and it was so, so much appreciated that for years — and to this day — I fondly and profoundly remember Barbara. Many years later, I reached out to her and thanked her for the kindness and support when I needed it most.
Who is your Agnes, your Barbara?
In my two years here at S&T, I have come to know many Agneses and Barbaras. I’ve witnessed how our staff work with the mindset of “mission first, people always” like the motto of the U.S. Army.
Our staff realizes that our students — and particularly our international students — are away from home and their familiar environments, perhaps for the first time in their lives. They empathize with the anxieties and hopes of our parents. They realize that our students often face academic, financial and cultural challenges. They know that our students and their parents, like all of us, face uncertainties and fear when they step onto our campus. I know I did two years ago when I arrived – and I was coming in as chancellor!
Many mornings as I walk across campus to my office, Mark Puzach greets me. Mark is a landscaper who has a wealth of knowledge about plants. I love when he is able to chat because I always learn something new from Mark. I know that he and many other landscapers, like Angel Copenhaver, breathe life into the scenery on our campus. It can be easy to take the landscaping for granted, but there are talented people behind the 10,000 tulips that bloom here each spring. Like many, many of our dedicated staff, often they do all the work behind the scenes.
When our future students and their families come to visit, they are greeted by admissions staff members like Cindy Welch, who has been praised by parents facing the bittersweet moment of dropping their children off at college. A mom from out of state came to me during the registration to let me know that “my son would not have been here had it not been for Cindy.” I stopped by her office to let her know.
We all feel safe at any hour on campus knowing that Chief Doug Roberts and the University Police are available 24/7 to ensure safety, from patrolling campus to organizing COVID-19 vaccine clinics with Phelps Health.
Brandon Palmberg, a custodian at the Havener Center, is an inspiration to others because he is taking classes toward his bachelor’s degree while working full-time.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the two people in Parker Hall who hold me accountable: Lanette Epstein and Connie Goodridge. Connie, in case you didn’t know, has worked at S&T for nearly 40 years and is deservedly an Honorary Knight.
As we enter this season of Thanksgiving, to our distinguished staff colleagues, to all of our Agneses and Barbaras, I say thank you. Thank you for doing all the heavy lifting, for taking all the soft and kind approaches when they are needed, for doing more with less, and for understanding that our roles are so much more than jobs — they are positions of public trust.
P.S.: I invite all staff, faculty and students to join me for a holiday brunch 9 a.m.-noon Thursday, Dec. 2, at Hasselmann Alumni House. If you’re able, I encourage you to bring an unwrapped toy and canned food donation for local charities.
P.P.S.: Many people ask me who gets my Friday emails. This message goes to tens of thousands of recipients, including current and future S&T students, all S&T staff and faculty, alumni, and many community members and friends of the university.
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