May 13, 2011

Bonaventure community members motivate students

ST. BONAVENTURE (May 10) – Andrea Michnik is an honors Bonaventure journalism and mass communication major with a minor in marketing alumna. January 2006, the last semester of her senior year:

I looked at the sealed white envelope in my shaking hands. I’d been guessing what word would be printed on the index card inside for an entire year now, and felt no need to open it. I knew what the word was. After seven other semesters of professor Denny Wilkins handing me words, I had to know by now.

But even so, I wanted to open it.

So after a few minutes of staring at the last sealed envelope I’d ever receive from Wilkins, I opened it.

I pulled out the index card and the word “pride” – the word I’d guessed  -- stared at me in bold letters. Everything led up to pride. No matter what words I’d received before, I was always meant to move onwards and upwards with pride.

I wiped away my tears and taped “pride” to my desk. Time to live with the word and see what happens.

Sometimes a word can be a compass, a lodestone, a guide to someone’s future. That’s what one professor believes.
On the first Friday of every semester, Denny Wilkins, a journalism and mass communication professor, holds court over pizza with a group of select students.

“In the 1960s, my generation set out to save the world,” Wilkins said. “It failed. Sometimes I think people are like tuning forks – when a student says or does something to resonate that memory, they get words.”

Wilkins hands a sealed envelope to each student, each containing a word printed in blue or red marker.

“The first word for freshman is usually ‘means,’ ‘balance,’ ‘focus’ or ‘purpose,’” said Wilkins. “But by their sophomore year I know them better, and it just depends on who they are. If they’re having confidence issues, I give them ‘composure,’ and if they’re playing it too safe, I give them ‘risk.’”

Wilkins gives these instructions: “Go live with your word for a semester, then come talk to me about it.”

“It’s a test with no right or wrong answers, and no marks,” he said. “The words are can openers; they lead to introspection, analysis and imagining, which is what I think students should do – not all of it comes out of coursework.”

Picking up a dozen pies from the Perkins Family Restaurant and Bakery, math professor Chris Hill sets up Pi Day in the math lounge every March 14 – the third month and 14th day, 3.14.

Yes, pi, not pie.

Students, math and non-math majors alike, gather in De La Roche Hall’s math lounge for activities, and, of course, pie.

“Most people come for the pie,” said Hill, “but, for those interested, I also find your birthday digits within the first 2 million decimals of pi using a website.”

Hill calls it “your personal piece of pi.”

“Pi Day allows me to celebrate math with other students and to quietly send the message that math can be fun,” said Hill.

            Hill organizes the Faculty Forum in the Doyle Hall trustees room every year, an exhibit for arts and science students to display their work.

“In any discipline of work I think you should want to go above your job description because it interests you,” Hill said. “I take pride in making students interested in what I do, it makes my job enjoyable.”
            May 2006, Michnik’s graduation day.
Michnik stepped to the lectern. Excitement rushed through her nerves as she adjusted the microphone with sweaty hands.
Michnik addressed classmates and guests at the 2006 Bonaventure graduation.

            “I auditioned against 16 others for that honor and won because my speech wasn't a speech,” Michnik said. “It was a story.”

“I told my story about Denny [Wilkins], his words and what they meant to me,” she said. “I shared my last word, pride, with everyone in my class because I felt that word wasn't just meant for me. It was for all of us, every single Bonnie that walked across that stage then and every commencement after. We were meant to take pride in our work, school and community.” 
Phillip Winger, Bonaventure’s maintenance director, does more than fix, clean and repair. Winger teaches.

            Winger taught Clare College section 401, the last Clare College requirement at Bonaventure, and University 101, a required course for all Bonaventure freshmen.

            Before Bonaventure, Winger taught mechanical engineering at the University of Pittsburgh.

 “One year while working at Bonaventure, Clare 401’s topic was energy policy,” Winger said, “so I volunteered to be a guest lecturer on the nuclear industry – I’d worked at a nuclear power plant for a while. But then the Clare College dean asked me to teach the entire section.”

“Most students are engaged and engaging,” said Winger.  “The idea of synthesizing a liberal arts education in a capstone course relating to real-world issues has a good deal of merit.”

The Clare College dean asked Winger to teach University 101 to a section of freshmen science majors. 

“They were a good group,” said Winger. “They didn’t need a whole lot of remedial studying help.  I think instructors try to tailor University 101 to their students. Having ‘learning communities’ of students in similar majors helps.”

Also a member of the Bonaventure Sustainability Commission Committee, Winger partakes in go-green practices for the university and educates students about sustainable development.

“I enjoy helping students learn,” said Winger. “I like watching them grow and value being a part of that.”
Madelyn Fitzpatrick, a journalism and mass communication alumna, works as a marketing project manager for Deuce Creative in Houston, Texas.

            Fitzpatrick brushed her teeth while staring at the word “risk” taped to her mirror. 

“Denny [Wilkins] told me to make the words a part of my morning and nightly routine, and I did,” she said. “The word mesmerized and frightened me. But I’ve realized those are two feelings we need in life – they’re feelings that make us feel alive.”

After living with “risk” for a semester, Fitzpatrick emailed Wilkins:

“I thought that in writing there was no confrontation, no risk. The past few months, while taking your course, I've realized that notion is wrong. There are more risks in this business than there are swimming with sharks.

Marine biology leads people to two places: the library or the sea. In writing, I can be led anywhere.

I like the sound of that.”
Ten to 15 Bonaventure students interested in science helped a group of young children build a miniature volcano, learn about molecules and create invisible ink. All thanks to Simone Bernstein.

Bernstein, a pre-medical major, works with the Bona Buddies program at Bonaventure. She started a science program within Bona Buddies, teaching children basic chemistry and biology in De La Roche Hall using experiments and games.

            “You can start anything you want to even if it’s not available,” she said. “You can’t be scared or lazy, you just need to get up and do it. You‘ll really make a difference for others and yourself.” 

Frustrated with the lack of volunteering opportunities available in St. Louis, Mo., Bernstein founded a website for teenagers at age 17, enabling them to find volunteer opportunities in St. Louis.

At age 12, Bernstein volunteered at the St. Louis Crisis Nursery for underprivileged children and at the St. Louis Magic House, a museum for children.

“Organizations have a hard time creating programs for kids and teens to volunteer,” the freshman said. “But so many teens have different skills that could be so useful not only for the organization, but for them as well.”

Bernstein said students could further develop skills they study in school by volunteering.

“There’s always time to help others, even if it’s just an hour a week,” Bernstein said. “And if you volunteer doing something you’re passionate about, helping others becomes enjoyable.”
Wilkins has given words to 58 graduated students and 37 current students. Each student usually gets at least six words.

Wilkins gave his first word in 2002 to Carri Prue, a journalism and mass communication alumna. Today, she’s a Hellinger Award winner, an award recognizing the accomplishments of St. Bonaventure University's most promising young communicator.

“I believe Denny gave me each word based on something I needed to learn at a critical time in my academic career,” said Prue, a public relations account supervisor at Eric Mower and Associates, a full-service marketing communications firm in Syracuse, N.Y.

            “I consider Carri the best student among the top three or four students since 1990,” Wilkins said. “But I knew that sooner or later, she would fail, and she never had before.”

            Wilkins gave Prue “failure,” telling her to live with the word for a semester.

“From failure, I learned it’s okay if you gave something your absolute best effort,” said Prue. “If that's the case, the result was probably out of your control, and you shouldn't feel bad about it.”

Except for Prue, Wilkins keeps a record of every word he’s given each student.

“These words are simply the most satisfying thing about being a college professor,” said Wilkins. “Sitting there, having students tell you what living with a word was like.”

Emily Ciraolo, a 2008 journalism and mass communication major with a marketing minor alumna, now works at National Fuel in the corporate communications department.
Ciraolo sat at her desk muttering, “Omit needless words. Omit needless words,” as she wrote an email. She looked up at the word Wilkins had given her this semester. Three years after graduation and Ciraolo still asks Wilkins for words.

The words are a reminder of his advice, encouragement and friendship,” said Ciraolo. “It's a little treasure and no one else knows what the heck it means, or why it's posted on my wall.”

“When I swam competitively I kept goal times on my mirror, somewhere I could see them every day,” said Ciraolo. “Denny's words are a lot like those goal times. They push me when I need a little extra push and are a constant reminder to be the best I can be.”
Wilkins said handing out words gives teaching greater meaning.
“Today’s generation has been left with an even bigger mess,” Wilkins said. “And there are certain people that could save the world. What’s the point of being a college professor if you can’t actively prepare them for that responsibility?”

            Stephanie Nikolaou, a journalism and mass communication and theater minor alumna, teaches high school drama. Nikolaou said Wilkins is dedicated to his work and students.

“As a teacher, I know how much time teaching takes and that you take your work home with you,” said Nikolaou. “And Denny puts so much more into his job then it already takes from him. It’s incredible.”

“I was indirectly given a purpose through my words,” said Michnik, who works as the director of public relations for International Studies Abroad in Austin, Texas, “they made me realize that someday, I wanted to be what Denny was for me; an adviser, an educator, a mentor and a friend.”

Michnik is working to create a career coach and mentoring business for college students.

“I feel this will be able to fulfill my aspirations of helping students through their challenging college years like Denny [Wilkins] helped me.”  
Nominated by Nikolaou, Wilkins won the Leo. E. Keenan Jr. Faculty Appreciation Award, part of the Fr. Joe Doino Awards that recognizes students, faculty and organizations at Bonaventure each April.

Nikolaou wrote for the nomination essay:

“My word this semester is pride. Out of all the words I’ve received, this one means the most. It reminds me of points of pride at St. Bonaventure, specifically the people who allow me and others like me to be confident about my place on this campus and in an ever-changing world. I am proud of Dr. Wilkins because he reaches out to his students outside the classroom. His door is always open, and many students huddle in the hallway of the journalism school, waiting to talk to their professor, mentor and friend.”

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