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Fontanella Ebstein Reflects on 30 Years at Wesleyan

(By Ann Bertini)

Gemma Fontanella Ebstein is leaving her role as Wesleyan’s Associate Vice President for Advancement at the end of December, following a 30-year career at the University.

During her tenure, Fontanella Ebstein has helped the Office of Advancement expand and foster lifelong alumni and parent loyalty and support for Wesleyan. An important part of this work has come through facilitating local and global events, and overseeing the merging of Reunion and Commencement weekends (2000) and Homecoming with Family Weekend (1995). Fontanella Ebstein also led University Communications and the Gordon Career Center through leadership transitions, and has helped cultivate a culture of Wesleyan pride among her teams and anywhere her work has taken her.

“My entire time at Wesleyan has been spent under Gemma’s leadership and tutelage,” said Director of Special Events Deana Hutson, whom Fontanella Ebstein hired 21 years ago to help centralize Reunion and Commencement. “I have learned so much from her—from her innate ability to problem-solve through collaboration to the importance of empowering her team in a way that is genuine, nurturing, and respectful. I am so appreciative of how much she has contributed to my experience at Wesleyan and for the friendship that resulted from this journey.”

Parker ’48, First Theater Major, Mentor to Hamilton Creators, Dies at 92

Gilbert Parker ’48, a retired literary agent who represented many of the country’s most influential playwrights over the span of nearly half a century, died Oct. 29, 2019. He was 92 and had served in the US Navy during World War II.

The first theater major at Wesleyan, he earned his degree with honors and distinction. Beginning his career at Liebling-Wood, Inc., as the assistant to Audrey Wood, the renowned agent who represented Tennessee Williams and other significant playwrights, Parker later joined the William Morris Agency, retiring in 2000.

Parker was noted as an adviser and mentor to many young and aspiring Wesleyan theater majors, and in his honor, Thomas Kail ’99 and Claire Labine (a former client of Parker’s and creator/head writer of Ryan’s Hope) created a Wesleyan scholarship in Parker’s name in 2012. In a note to those gathered in New York City to celebrate the Gilbert Parker Endowed Scholarship, President Michael S. Roth ’78 had observed, “During your sparkling 50-year career as an agent, the Wesleyan community took pride in your reflected glory. You made this relationship with our alma mater deeper and more personal, then and following your retirement, by closely mentoring Wesleyan graduates in the theater world like Thomas Kail ’99, Lin-Manuel Miranda ’02, John Buffalo Mailer ’00, and Bill Sherman ’02, among others. It’s wonderful that a group of your friends and protégés initiated this scholarship fund (and typical of your generosity, Gilbert, that you have contributed to it).”

A memorial service is planned for Parker on Feb. 3, 2020, in New York City. Those who would like more information, or would like to make a gift to the Gilbert Parker Endowed Scholarship Fund at Wesleyan University in celebration of his life, please contact Marcy Herlihy at mherlihy@wesleyan.edu; 860/685-2523; Wesleyan University Office of Advancement, 291 Main Street, Middletown, CT 06457.

Meislahn Reflects on Challenges of Her Career as Dean of Admission

"As my team knows, my mantra is, ‘If we are going to work this hard, we better be having fun!’ I certainly have," Meislahn said. (Photos by Olivia Drake)

Student success “is what has recharged my batteries over the years and kept me doing this wonderful work,”  Meislahn said. (Photos by Olivia Drake)

Nancy Hargrave Meislahn, vice president and dean of admission and financial aid, will retire in September following the arrival of the Class of 2023, the 20th class she admitted to Wesleyan. In this Q&A, she reflects on the main challenges, changes, and highlights of her accomplished Wesleyan career. (Read her retirement announcement in this past News @ Wesleyan article.)

Q: You are the longest-serving dean of admission in Wesleyan’s history. How are you feeling ahead of your impending retirement?

A: Definitely a bittersweet moment, but I’m ready. I’ve admitted 20 classes to Wesleyan and that should be enough—for me and for the institution. Time for new leadership! I firmly believe we are all replaceable and that change is good.

Q: During your tenure, applications to Wesleyan (including international student applications) have nearly doubled. To what do you attribute this impressive growth?

A: It was a clearly articulated strategic goal to double the international student population, and create a bigger “global footprint” on campus. So, we set out to work! We increased Wesleyan’s on-the-ground presence, expanding recruitment especially in India, Europe, Latin America, and Southeast Asia, building on the very strong reputation of the Freeman Scholars program. We invited overseas counselors to campus and increased our engagement with international professional associations. It has been a team effort and extremely rewarding to see how we’ve been able to bring more students from all over the world to Wes.

Thornton Leaving Legacy of Student of Color Recruitment at Wesleyan

Since joining Wesleyan in 1985, Thornton has been instrumental in establishing and leading the University’s historic commitment to a diverse and academically elite student body, a defining feature of the Wesleyan experience. As he wraps up his final fall semester, Thornton took time to sit down in his office across Foss Hill and reflect on his accomplishments, Wesleyan’s future, and some of his fondest memories.

Since joining Wesleyan in 1985, Cliff Thornton, associate dean of admission at Wesleyan has been instrumental in establishing and leading the University’s historic commitment to a diverse and academically elite student body, a defining feature of the Wesleyan experience. Having served Wesleyan—now for more than 30 years, Thornton recently announced that he will retire at the end of the Spring 2019 semester. (Photos by Olivia Drake)

To listen to Cliff Thornton speak with prospective students and parents is to feel included, even if you’re eavesdropping.

Thornton is associate dean of admission at Wesleyan, covering a wide geographic and socioeconomic range: the South Central U.S. from Kentucky to Louisiana, Manhattan, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Caribbean. Having served these communities—and Wesleyan—now for more than 30 years, it makes sense that he would demonstrate an ease and fluency in his relations with so many different people from such different backgrounds. He’s had a lot of practice.

But something unique about Thornton, which by many accounts has been true from the beginning of his time at Wesleyan, is how his holistic approach impacts students. To hear him tell it:

“Alumni will often start out by saying to me, ‘You probably don’t remember me, but I graduated from Wesleyan in 1995….’ And I always remember them. That’s why I’ve continued to do this work. I’ve had the privilege to witness their growth and success,” Thornton said.

“Working in admission is good in two ways. First, it’s great to be in an educational environment and to believe in the mission. Second, if practiced correctly, it’s a lot like teaching. It might surprise some to hear this, but at the end of the day I don’t consider it my job to make sure a student comes to Wesleyan. My job is to help them make an informed decision. Particularly with underrepresented populations, this is a big challenge. As Dr. Cornel West has said of the African American community: What we often suffer from is a poverty of information. That’s a driving force for me—making sure students have the right information to make such a crucial decision.”

This approach bears itself out in Thornton’s work on a daily basis. In a recent information session with a large group of prospective students and parents, he was clear that the session should be a conversation. Hearing and helping the group talk through their questions and concerns was as important as presenting to them. Fifteen minutes in, students and parents alike were openly talking about their college search experiences (good and bad), and were responding to and assisting one another. Thornton and senior interviewer Shana Laski ’19 served more as facilitators than lecturers. By the session’s end, the prospective group left informed and enthused—well-educated on what Wesleyan had to offer, and clearer about what they wanted and had to offer in turn.

Thornton’s unique understanding and approach at least partially derives from his own educational background. Prior to joining Wesleyan in 1985, he was an adjunct professor and actively considering a PhD. While dating someone who was already enrolled in a doctorate program, he was exposed to the “torturous path” of attaining that terminal degree, and was bumped from his adjunct role by another professor with a PhD.

“I lost my taste for wanting to be a professor,” he said.

Fowler Uses Facebook Data to Analyze Role of Social Media in Elections

Erika Franklin Fowler is examining different sponsors of political advertising and the messaging strategy and targeting differences between Facebook and television. (Photo by Olivia Drake)

In this Q&A, we speak to Erika Franklin Fowler, associate professor of government. Fowler is an expert in political communication, particularly local media and campaign advertising.

Q: With the midterm elections around the corner, what’s caught your interest this election cycle?

A: The Trump era has brought many challenges for political communication broadly and journalism specifically to the forefront of public attention, so there are too many things to discuss, but I’ll mention two in particular. First, the politicization of news media is problematic as it erodes common understanding among the public, which makes for very interesting conversations in my Media and Politics class, but is certainly concerning for democracy. Second, with respect to elections, I am very interested to see the strategic choices of how campaigns communicate on the big policy developments in health care and tax reform in particular.

Q: You were recently invited to serve on an independent research commission, Social Science One, which will use Facebook data to analyze the role of social media in elections and democracy. Why is this a unique opportunity?

A: Unlike the comprehensive data we have for television, data on Facebook advertising has not been previously available to outside researchers. Social Science One sets up a new model for industry partnership with academics to increase responsible data access and foster research on some of the most pressing questions regarding the effect of social media on democracy and elections.

Eudice Chong ’18, Coach Mike Fried: A Scholar-Athlete Program for Champions

Eudice Chong ’18 Coach Mike Fried, and Victoria Yu ’19 relax after a match last October at the Division I Fall Nationals. “Eudice and Vicky had just beaten the top team from the University of Kentucky (the defending champions) to advance to the doubles quarterfinals,” says Fried. “The photo was taken by Dr. Tim Russell, CEO of the ITA (Intercollegiate Tennis Association), who later told me that it was his most popular tweet ever.”

On May 26 Eudice Chong ’18, a member of the Wesleyan tennis team, did something that no other collegiate tennis player—in any division—had done before: She won her fourth consecutive National Collegiate Athletic Association Singles Championship. And to add a twist to that already thrilling game, Chong, ranked number one on Wesleyan’s team, played the final match against her teammate, doubles partner, and friend, Victoria Yu ’19, ranked second on the team.

Back on campus following the victory, Coach Mike Fried reflected on the program and the experience. As an undergrad at Brown he had played on their tennis team and then enjoyed a stint as a professional player. Most recently, Fried had spent 10-plus years as a stock trader and asset manager in New York City before signing on as head tennis coach of Wesleyan’s men’s and women’s program in 2013 (“Wall Street allowed me to figure out how I wanted to be spending my time”). 

At Wesleyan, he was determined to create a team that drew on his experience at Brown—and built beyond it: “Most important was to create an environment that would allow us to be among the best teams in the country—and to do that in a way that was never at the expense of academics.”

And what was that environment? “Commitment; unwavering support for each other; and camaraderie, friendship.”

Fried recalls that, when recruiting for the team he imagined, Chong was “an incredibly good tennis player—but I’d be lying if I said I saw the full depth of her character or how invaluable a leader she’d be—let alone that she’d win four NCAA singles titles! We were lucky enough to convince her to join the program that we were creating, that Wesleyan was where she wanted to spend her college years—both for academics and tennis. We got very lucky.”

After Commencement, Chong, who majored in psychology with a minor in the College of East Asian Studies, headed home to China. There, she’ll play tennis at the professional level. The Wesleyan Connection caught up with her for a Q&A in New York City, where she was spending a few days before her flight.

Q: Will you talk about the experience of winning that fourth NCAA singles championship? What was it like to compete against your teammate, friend, and doubles partner Victoria Yu?

Watson Directs the Jewett Center for Community Partnerships

Director of the Jewett Center for Community Partnerships Clifton Watson notes that Wesleyan students have a reputation for high civic engagement and looks forward to further engagement with the Middletown community. (Photo by Olivia Drake MALS ’08)

In this Q&A, we speak to Clifton Watson, who joined Wesleyan as director of the Jewett Center for Community Partnerships (JCCP) in February. A New Haven, Conn., native, Watson holds a BA from the University of Connecticut in African American studies, an MA from North Carolina Central in history, and a doctorate from Fordham in history. His dissertation explores the northern migration of African Americans who settled in the Newhallville area of New Haven—which is where he grew up.

Q: Please tell us a bit about your background . . . what drew you to Wesleyan? How did you know this was the place for you?

A: I credit my career to an experience I had during the summer before my freshman year in college. I responded to an ad to be a summer camp counselor in New Haven (which is where I grew up). My primary interest was in earning some money to offset some of my college expenses. I envisioned facilitating recreational activities and leading field trips. However—unbeknownst to me—I had applied to become a staff member of LEAP (Leadership, Education, and Athletics in Partnership). The organization, which was in its inaugural year—was committed to supporting the academic and leadership development of young people from some of the city’s most impoverished neighborhoods. This was not your typical summer camp—in fact it was a program, with a summer component. The organizers had been very thoughtful and strategic in the development of its program design and the stakeholders recruited to support their work.

The program was the brainchild of a Yale undergrad and law student—and supported by Dwight Hall (the JCCP’s institutional counterpart at Yale). This program created a “community” of diverse stakeholders united by their interest in improving outcomes for youth and city residents. This jumpstarted my interest in leadership development and civic engagement and remains a shining example of a university-led—but cocreated with the community and mutually beneficial—project.

I was drawn to Wesleyan’s Jewett Center for Community Partnerships because each one of its projects has the same transformative potential I saw in the LEAP experience.

Q: What are you most excited about?

A: I am most excited about further harnessing student enthusiasm and willingness to engage with the greater Middletown community—while ensuring that the center continues to be supportive of student leaders (in both their professional and leadership development) and that the JCCP projects are effectively responsive to community needs. As I have recently moved to the area (Meriden), I am super excited about contributing to the civic fauna of my own community.

Q: What has been the biggest surprise in your time with Wesleyan?

A: Wesleyan students have a reputation (which stretches far) for being enthusiastically committed to civic engagement. This was on full display as soon as I arrived on campus. I was struck by the number of students who emailed, called, and dropped by to greet me and ask questions about my plans for the Jewett Center or discuss an idea for a program or event. In fact, the week before I officially started, I came to campus to briefly meet with Marc Eisner [Dean of Social Sciences and Henry Merritt Wriston Chair of Public Policy]. When Marc walked me over to Allbritton Hall to show me my office space, I was met by a student reporter from the Argus, who somehow learned I was on campus! She wanted to interview me and discuss my vision for the JCCP. Overall, I’ve been surprised by the pure number of projects being led by Wesleyan students and thoughtfulness with which they approach their work.

Q: And what are your hobbies? What do you do in your time off?

A: Over the past three years, I’ve really gotten into gardening. I can’t say that I have a green thumb—but I’ve had a ball learning through trial and error. I’m committed to having a solid sweet potato crop! Gardening is one of those things my grandparents and parents were into and encouraged me to learn about, but I just couldn’t get into when I was younger. Years later, I’m begging for advice! In some ways, I am “late to the party,” but glad I finally decided to take an interest.

Q.: What is your favorite book?

A: My favorite book is All God’s Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw, by Theodore Rosengarten. All God’s Dangers is the autobiography of a black tenant farmer from east-central Alabama, who came of age in a society of former slaves and slaveholders. This is the narrative of a common man moved to confront the injustices that limited his economic and political freedoms. Through the book, he recounts dealings with landlords, bankers, fertilizer agents, mule traders, gin operators, sheriffs, and judges—detailing stories of the social relations of the cotton system, while offering his rationale for joining a tenant farmers union in the early 1930s. I’ve found this to be a compelling narrative about an “everyday person” who first developed an analysis of a pretty complicated economic and political system, then moved into action to confront it—despite the certainty that his efforts would be met with brutal violence. This has always been a favorite of mine because it recognizes the enduring and complex—though infrequently highlighted—resistance culture and organizing tradition which undergirds the black experience in America.

Wesleyan Makes Efforts to Hire Underrepresented Employees

Wesleyan is making determined efforts to hire individuals from historically underrepresented groups, which have resulted in significant advances lately.

In 2017, 45 percent of staff hired (not including faculty) were of color — a dramatic increase from 26.4 percent the year before and the previous five-year high of 30.6 percent in 2014. Overall, 22.8 percent of staff identify themselves as of color.

Julia Hicks, chief human resources officer, points out that increasing diversity in the workplace has been shown to improve organizational performance. Diversity fosters inclusive cultures where individual differences are respected, teamwork is promoted, and intercultural competence and respect increase.

“We’ve made progress in part by changing our internal approach,” she says. “When hiring, we don’t take the easy way out. We partner with hiring managers to slow down their searches, to think harder about the pool than they might have in the past, to probe more and consider if candidates whose skills aren’t an exact match might be able to transfer those skills successfully to a different environment.”

Staff Spotlight: Borman Planting Trees for Wesleyan’s Next Century

Grounds Manager Rob Borman notes that the trees he and his team plant will shape the campus for decades to come.

In this Q&A, we speak with Rob Borman, grounds manager for Physical Plant.

“The trees we are planting this year are creating the face of Wesleyan 100 years from now,” Borman says. Offering a guided tour of the central campus, he noted recent plantings, the decision process behind those choices, and the history of what felled any previous trees on those spots.

He also focused on present details, taking note of the health of the foliage—color and thickness—as well as any recent stressors, like extreme weather or insect-related events, which may be affecting these future giants of Wesleyan.

Q: When did you become the grounds manager?

A: I became the grounds manager in October 2014. Prior to this, I was in facilities maintenance, focusing solely on athletics, including event preparation and set-up. However, I’d been forming my impressions of the entire campus, even then.

Q: What was first on your list?

Williams Named 2017 Berkshire Region Coach of the Year

Kim Williams

Wesleyan University women’s lacrosse head coach Kim Williams was honored by the Intercollegiate Women’s Lacrosse Association (IWLCA), as she was named the 2017 Berkshire Region Coach of the Year following a historic season.

The regional coach of the year award is the second postseason accolade for Williams, who was also named the 2017 NESCAC Coach of the Year during the spring.

In just her second year at the helm of the program, Williams led Wesleyan to its best season in program history. The Cardinals finished 11-6 overall and 7-3 in the ultra-competitive NESCAC, setting program records for overall wins and conference victories. Wesleyan qualified for the conference tournament for the first time since 2009, and earned its first-ever at-large bid to the NCAA Championships.

The Cardinals ranked within the top-20 for the majority of the season, and finished the year ranked No. 19 in the final IWLCA Division III Coaches Poll. Wesleyan went 4-6 against teams ranked in the top-20, and won its first Little Three Championship outright since 1982 .

Williams will be honored at the IWLCA Honors Banquet held on Nov. 15 during the IWLCA Annual Meetings at Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort in Florida.

Faculty Spotlight: Michelle Personick

Michelle Personick joined the faculty this fall, and is teaching courses in Chemistry of Materials and Nanomaterials and an Integrated Chemistry Lab. (Photo by Olivia Drake)

Michelle Personick, assistant professor of chemistry, assistant professor of integrative sciences, is an advocate for Wesleyan Women in Science (WesWIS). “The more women (and underrepresented minorities) who pursue careers in the sciences, the more younger female and underrepresented students will be able to imagine themselves in those roles, and the sciences will begin to diversify,” she said. (Photo by Olivia Drake)

In this Q&A, we speak with Michelle Personick, assistant professor of chemistry, assistant professor of integrative sciences. Personick, who joined the faculty at Wesleyan in 2015, is interested in developing tailored metal nanomaterials that improve the clean production of energy and enable the efficient use of energy resources. Her work has recently been published in the journals Particle and Particle Systems Characterization and American Chemical Society Catalysis.

Q: Professor Personick, how would you describe your main research interests?

A: The main research areas in my group are controlling the shape and composition of noble metal nanocrystals, and exploring the use of these nanoparticles as catalysts to improve the efficiency and selectivity of reactions that are important in chemical industry and in energy production.

When she's not teaching or working in the lab, Michelle Personick, at right, rows crew with the Riverfront Recapture masters racing team in Hartford.

When she’s not teaching or working in the lab, Michelle Personick, at right, rows with the Riverfront Recapture masters racing team in Hartford, Conn.

Q: When did you develop an interest in chemistry?

A: I’ve always been interested in science in general, but it was more a broader interest than a specific focus on chemistry. There was actually a period of time in high school when I wanted to be a particle physicist. I chose chemistry after writing an essay about a cool new light-controlled nanoparticle cancer treatment for a class my senior year in high school.

Q: What attracted you to Wesleyan and how has your experience been here over the last couple years?

A: I had a really positive small liberal arts college experience at Middlebury, where most of my professors knew who I was and cared about how I was doing in their class. Once I decided I wanted to be a professor, I knew that was the type of environment I wanted. In the different courses I’ve taught in my first two years, I’ve found the atmosphere at Wesleyan to be well-matched to pursuing that kind of teaching philosophy. What attracted me to Wesleyan specifically are the unique research opportunities that come out of having a small, but strong, graduate program in addition to being a top-tier undergraduate institution. The advanced research instrumentation here at Wesleyan, such as the electron microscopy facility, is also crucial to our ability to successfully carry out our research. I’d always wanted to work primarily with undergraduates once I set up my own research lab, but having even just two graduate students in that lab as well makes an enormous difference in the level of research I’m able to carry out. In turn, that creates an environment in which the very talented undergraduates I’ve had in my group so far have the opportunity to work on independent projects that get published in peer-reviewed journals and that are well-received by other scientists at major conferences. It’s been very rewarding over the last two years to get our lab up and running and to begin to see the results of the hard work put in by all of my research students, undergraduate and graduate.

When the Stars Align: Stanley’s Most Challenging Quilt

Tracey Stanley completed her most challenging project so far, “Amazon Star,” a quilt pattern by Judy Neimeyer and made for her cousin in the colors of the Barbados flag. It also became a memorial to her son, who would have turned 30 this year.

What might be most obvious about Tracey Stanley, an administrative assistant in the registrar’s office for 10 years (out of a 20-year total at Wesleyan), is that she is the on-campus go-to “mom” for many students—those she supervises in her office, those who appear at the registrar’s window looking lost, and those she mentors through AFCA, the Administrators and Faculty of Color Association, for which she has served as co-chair.

Warm, outspoken, determined and with a strong protective instinct, Stanley also is a union steward.

What colleagues might not know is that Stanley is an avid quilter. She began teaching herself the craft the year that her eldest son, Andre, would have turned 16. He was just 8 when he was diagnosed with brain cancer and died only nine months after that. While Stanley is grateful that Andre’s friends have remained in touch, each milestone they share is also a reminder of her own family’s loss.

It was 2003, and as Andre’s friends were celebrating learner’s permits and driver’s licenses—Stanley recalls, “I felt an awful, awful void. I asked myself, what could I do to fill the void? And it was quilting.” With a pattern and yards of brightly colored fabric, Stanley immersed herself in stitching together small pieces to create a design called “Broken Bricks for Broken Hearts.”

That one still sits in her living room. “I wrote on the label on the back that many tears went into this—but this is what I get to look at, to celebrate making it through.”  And her takeaway: “I haven’t stopped since that first quilt,” she says. The other 20 or so have become well-used, well-loved cozy coverings on cold nights for family and friends, including the quilt she made for her daughter, Reba (now a teacher in New Jersey), and the one for her son, Trey (living in Hartford; working in Rocky Hill). Stanley’s sewing room remains her haven, a place to lose herself in her art.

Until last spring, though, she’d made only one quilt on commission,