Last winter, Victoria Kissell, MPAS ’18, was able to added a facet to her education that not many physician assistants are able to claim.
“We don’t learn how to deal with death in school,” she says. “Because we’re focused on making people better, we tend to push it aside, even though it’s inevitable. Through the Jewish Healthcare Foundation’s Fellowship in Death and Dying, I was able to talk to people who handle it every day, so that if I do have a patient who is terminally ill, I’m more comfortable talking about it.”
Participants meet as a group weekly to discuss readings and perform role plays, and then visit hospitals and other sites where death and dying are not infrequent occurrences, including a hospice and the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit of Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC. They meet with members of teams who work with patients and families in terminal situations, including hospice and palliative care; social work; and religious support.
“It was interesting to see aspects of death that come into play when it’s a child as opposed to an adult,” says Victoria, “such as who has the right to make decisions about prolonging care. A lot of times, patients—including kids—better understand what’s going on, or have an easier time accepting it than the families, who are the ones pushing for more treatment, and feeling resistance to palliative care and hospice teams stepping in.”
“When people hear hospice and palliative care, they think death,” she continues. “But we learned to push hospice and palliative care as more about improving quality of life than sentencing to death.
We’re not telling families their loved ones are going to die; we’re telling them that we’re going to do everything we can to make them comfortable and live the rest of their days happy, and the way that they want to.”
Victoria feels that the Fellowship has helped her communicate in non-terminal scenarios, too. “Some diseases such as diabetes, depression, or hypertension are difficult for patients to handle,” she says. “They may feel like a death sentence. Patients don’t want to be labeled, or burden their families. I think this training has helped me communicate with patients about these conditions. There’s no reason these patients can’t live long and prosperous lives, as long as their condition is well managed.”
The Fellowship paid off sooner than Victoria might have expected. “On my very first rotation, I had my first patient pass away,” she says. “It was like I was watching the program come to life. Once his cancer was discovered, his family couldn’t understand why we weren’t treating him with chemotherapy and radiation, but he understood that his body wouldn’t be able to handle the treatment. The palliative care team was on board, after a lot of work convincing the family, but not the hospice team because the time went too quickly. The family didn’t want to ‘give up’, but to see the transition care go from aggressive to supportive was amazing.”
“One of the most moving things I learned from the program was something a hospice nurse coordinator said at Children’s,” says Victoria. “She said ‘If you’re going to work with death every day, you better remember to live’. I think that’s important in medicine in general.”
Jewish Healthcare Fellowships are open to all graduate students in Chatham’s School of Health Sciences. Learn more.
The Master of Physician Assistant Studies (MPAS) program at Chatham University provides academic and clinical training that will prepare its graduates to be certified and licensed to practice as extenders to the practicing physician, especially the primary care physician, in a competent and reliable manner.
Dr. Sowmya Narayanan has been busy. She’s just finished an MD/PhD program at the University of Virginia, and about to start her general surgical residency at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Still, she made time in her schedule to come back to her alma mater to be the keynote speaker at Chatham’s first annual Department of Science Student Research Day.
Narayanan majored in biochemistry, but during her second year, she picked up a second major, too.
“During my first semester, I took a mandatory first-year English seminar with Dr. Lynne Bruckner that introduced me to a completely new set of literature,” she says. Narayanan took another English class, then another—then added an English major. “I liked that we had a mix of traditional ‘English literature’ texts like a Tale of Two Cities and Huckleberry Finn, and then also novels like Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood,” she says, also mentioning a class with with Dr. Anissa Wardi that changed her understanding of what “World Literature” means.
Narayanan took biology and immunology classes with Dr. Pierette Appasamy. “Dr. Appasamy introduced me to some of her colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh and helped me get involved in large-scale academic research. I developed an interest in that, and decided to continue.” At Pitt, Narayanan worked in the Finn Lab, studying tumor immunology. “We looked at how you can use the immune response to fight off cancer or stop it from developing. It’s really blown up in recent years as one of the mainstream modes of treatment for quite a few cancers, and they’re trying it out in a number of other ones as well.” Double-major aside, she still had time to play tennis for a couple of seasons, sing with Chatham’s choir, and serve as a Resident Assistant during her senior year.
“I think the professors here are the biggest asset of the institution. They go above and beyond for you if you are willing to put in the work. So if you’re motivated and interested, let them know and they will get you the rest of the way there.”
Narayanan says that she wasn’t aware of the existence of dual MD/PhD programs until she met someone who was doing one at Pitt. “There aren’t many people in those programs, so they don’t get talked about a lot,” she says, but she found that it aligned closely with her interests. She worked with Chatham’s Health Professions Advising Committee who advised her at various stages of the process of applying, put together her letters of recommendation, and conducted a mock interview.
Narayanan tries to travel to a different country each year. This year, she visited Thailand and Cambodia, and in years past, Belize, France, and Canada. She plans to go to Romania and Namibia next.
What did she think of Student Research Day? “It’s far more than what we had when I was a student,” she says. “There were maybe three or four of us, but today, six students presented and 20 more did posters. It was really good to see that expansion. And the variety of subjects that they’re presenting on are really pretty diverse.”
Being back on campus back seems to be its own reward, too. “I love coming back to visit,” she says. “Almost every time I’m in town, I make an effort to stop by and take a picture and send it to my old roommate like ‘Guess where I am!’ She gets quite jealous when I send her those photos!”
Like many, Hal B. Klein set out to become an actor. Like fewer, he did. After earning a BA in theatre in California, he headed to New York (to work) and to London (to pursue a post-graduate certificate in classical acting). Roles followed in a few independent films, in commercials, and at Shakespeare festivals around the country (“I usually got comic roles,” he says. “Played a bunch of clowns.”). In 2005, after seven years in New York, he moved to L.A. for a role on a PBS children’s TV show called “Lily’s Lighthouse”.
But the ship did not quite come in. “Lily’s Lighthouse had a message; it was well produced; everything about it was wonderful, and then I learned the hard lesson of L.A., which is that there are a lot of well-intentioned promises, but things fall through for all sorts of reasons,” Klein says. Then the economy crashed, roles dried up, and he started thinking about what else he might like to do, a train of thought remarkably birthed by a piece of fruit he had eaten five years earlier.
While stationed in Santa Cruz for a Shakespeare festival, Klein had stopped by a farmers’ market. “I remember very vividly eating a strawberry and going oh, whoa, that’s why people like strawberries,” he says. “And that ended up forming in a long-term way my path to Chatham, in that it sparked a realization that the stuff we get in the grocery store, in the conventional system, isn’t very tasty.”
Growing up in the 1980’s in New York and California, Klein had been a picky and unadventurous eater, eschewing vegetables in favor of pizza and hamburgers. “The 80’s were the worst time for food in a lot of ways,” he says. “What you found in grocery stores was terrible, in terms of quality and selection.” As an undergraduate in San Diego, Klein was open to the concept of good food—adding his own herbs to Prego spaghetti sauce cooked on his dorm stove, for example—but lack of familiarity (and, one presumes, funds) hampered his ability to really delve into it.
Still, he was getting more and more into it. “I realized that at least part of the reason that I was so picky was that I didn’t understand how flavors were put together, and also that I was relying on the conventional food system,” he says. “So I thought Oh, if I cook, I’ll understand this more, and I started going to farmers’ markets more frequently. In New York, I was buying stuff at the Union Square Green Market, but it was really in California, going to the Hollywood and Santa Monica farmers’ markets that it was like holy cow, there’s all this…”
Thus it was that food made the short list of new career directions for Klein. “At that point,” he says, “I was thinking I would probably do cooking, culinary instruction, maybe cookbook writing, with the idea that there are probably thousands of people like me who grew up in the suburbs and weren’t really in touch with what you might call food systems, how to navigate farmers’ markets, how to go to the grocery stores and find things that are inexpensive but maybe better grown or more delicious–it’s such a vast world. I started thinking about how I could get an education, looking around, and thought: Food studies? What a strange and esoteric thing this is.”
Intrigued, he applied to Boston University, New York University, and when a Google search turned up Chatham’s brand-new Master of Arts in Food Studies program, he figured he might as well apply there, too. Klein came out and met with Alice Julier, Ph.D., MAFS program director. “She was great,” he says. “Very up front about how it was the first year of the program and about the opportunities and risks that went along with that.” It sounded good to Klein: “I knew it was a big risk to jump into the program, but I had a good sense of who I was, what I needed, and what I wanted to do, so I figured why not? Plus, I was sick of living in these big cities and Pittsburgh seemed really interesting.” Klein moved to Pittsburgh in 2010. He says it was the best decision of his life.
Being in that first cohort was “at first really like the Wild West,” Klein laughs. “I talk to people in the program now, and it’s very structured and there are a lot of choices. For us it was a lot more limited, but in a way that gave rise to flexibility. I was like, I want to be a better writer; can I take a nature writing class in the MFA in Creative Writing program? and Alice was like Sure, go for it. I wanted to do an independent study on Italian-American foodways in Pittsburgh, and I got to do that too. My thesis was a short film that I did in conjunction with a student in the film program at Chatham.”
If Klein’s interest in cookbook writing was beginning to drift toward journalism, it was cemented through a Food Writing course he took with Sherrie Flick. “I don’t think it’s possible to give Sherrie enough credit for mentorship and influence. Of all the people that I met at Chatham, she’s the person who I really think helped change my life. You meet people during your career who are so generous with their knowledge and connections and so confident in the work that they do that they can be that generous – to think oh, you’d be great for that and make that connection.”
Which is what happened: Klein was visiting friends in L.A. when he got an e-mail from Flick saying that Pittsburgh City Paper was looking for a new “drinks” writer. “She sent it to three of us and said she thought we’d be a good fit and to let her know if we were interested. And so immediately I was like Sorry friends, I know we were going out but I gotta write this pitch.” He wrote the column for three years.
Klein graduated and started freelancing for local and national media, drawing on what he had learned and researched at Chatham, including stories on whole-animal butchery at restaurants and Italian immigrants who bury their fig trees in the winter for National Public Radio. A story about permaculture that he wrote for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette won a national award from the Association of Food Journalists.
Klein was approached to become the restaurant critic for Pittsburgh Magazine, and was later brought on full-time and took over the food section. He’s currently the associate editor and restaurant critic. “I just wrote a story on people who are in recovery from addiction or were previously incarcerated – it’s hard to find jobs and build a new life when you’re doing that. And the restaurant industry is one of those places that doesn’t really ask a lot of questions, but it’s also fraught with peril, because if you’re working nights, there’s a lot of partying,” he says. “But I also did a big feature on hamburgers last year because I thought it would be fun, which it sort of was, but also it wasn’t after a while,” he laughs. “Writing for a magazine is about finding that balance, between features and hamburgers.”
As a restaurant critic, Klein is more than capable of producing nuanced statements on the fly (they use a little bit of crunchy salt along the outside which pulls out the bitterness of the char but also enhances the creaminess of the cheese is a sentence he uttered in the course of describing Japanese pizza). But he is far from shy about considering food from a systemic perspective.
“I just wrote a review of a restaurant downtown that’s amazing but also really expensive, at least in part because more than any restaurant in Pittsburgh right now, they’re walking the walk with sourcing ingredients. We say all the time that you should pay more for beef and pork when it’s being sourced in a more environmentally friendly, sustainable way, but what does that do as far as price structure; who is this restaurant space for now? Suddenly when you have a $125 steak, you’re excluding a lot of people from the conversation.”
It’s a drizzly morning in Shreveport, LA, but big band jazz pours from the loudspeakers inside the Greenwood Acres Full Gospel Baptist Church, and look—a giant mascot dressed as a nurse in a white uniform with a huge afro and long felt lashes is dancing up the aisle. Bodies in puffy coats and sweatshirts twist on the pews to get a good look—hundreds of them, girls and boys in third, fourth, and fifth grades, chanting NO-LA! NO-LA! NO-LA!
Waving to the crowd, Nola the Nurse® reaches the front of the church, and starts to dance with her creator, Dr. Scharmaine Lawson-Baker, DNP ’08. They sway, bump hips, clap. Soon the music settles down and so do the kids, which is good, because Nola and Baker are up from New Orleans to do some educating.
“Have any of you heard of a nurse practitioner?” Baker demands of the crowd.
“NO,” says a little boy in the front row.
“NO?” says Baker, feigning outrage. “Well, see, that’s what I’m here to change.”
Baker was born in New Orleans, where she was raised by her grandmother. She discovered nursing in high school, and quickly recognized how closely it fit her interests and abilities. Baker earned her BSN from Dillard University and soon moved to Washington DC, where she worked up and down the east coast as a travel nurse. After her grandmother passed away, Baker moved to Nashville, where she earned her MSN on a full scholarship from Tennessee State University and became a family nurse practitioner. Short stints followed as a missionary nurse in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, but missing New Orleans, she soon moved back home.
In 2004, she took over a physician’s house call practice, and liked it. The following year she incorporated her own house call practice, Advanced Clinical Consultants. That spring, ACC had about 15 patients. When Hurricane Katrina hit in late August, her practice had grown to 100. Baker evacuated, returning in October. By January, her patient roster had quintupled.
“It was just unbelievable,” she says. “I was seeing 20, 25 patients a day. A normal house call schedule is around 10 to 12. But after the hurricane, the community that I was serving just didn’t have anyone else to provide primary care, so I kept going.”
Outraged by the slow and paltry government response, Baker became something of a spokesperson for the state of healthcare in New Orleans after Katrina. “I felt as if we were being ignored down here. My friend and I began calling media outlets. Katie Couric was coming to do a kind of whereare-they-now on New Orleans post-Katrina for CBS Evening News, and the producer said to me ‘Not only does she want to meet you, she wants to do some house calls with you.’” Coverage by other national and local media followed, including The Washington Post and Forbes.
And still she saw patients. Being a primary care provider post-catastrophe was a crash course in environmental, social, and psychological factors that can affect physical health. “I had a patient in his 70’s who was living above a garage because his home had been devastated in the storm,” Baker says. “I was seeing him for months, and his blood pressure was just uncontrollable. He was on like five medications for it.”
“I was thinking about whether I should refer him to cardiology, but there essentially was no cardiology—so few specialists had returned to the city. So I was like ‘You know what, I’m it. I have to figure this out.’”
“Once I started digging into it, I found out that he was panicked that he didn’t have the keys to his FEMA trailer (temporary housing provided to residents whose homes were lost in the storm). He had finally gotten this trailer, but it was useless. Somehow I was able to get that key from FEMA delivered to him, and his blood pressure stabilized. That was a profound experience for me.”
Back in Shreveport, groups of kids file into a large room to sit on the floor in front of a projector. Baker is up there perched on a chair, and she reads to them from the first Nola the Nurse® book while illustrations from the book display on the screen behind her: Nola chasing her dog Gumbo in an attempt to put a bandage on him. Watching her mom examining a patient at the hospital. Seated at a dining room table with her friend’s family, the mother resplendent in a traditional Kenyan dress.
It’s an interactive reading, which means Baker peppers it with questions for the audience. One that doesn’t always go the way she wants is the question of what Nola “stands for” (the answer is New Orleans, LA).
“Caring!” says a little boy in a puffy black jacket.
“That’s a good answer, but not the one I’m looking for,” says Baker. “Someone else.” A girl with a big white bow in her hair suggests that Nola stands for helping people get better.
Nola the Nurse is the 7-year-old star of a series of children’s books that Baker writes. “I could not find any books that would give my daughter an idea of what her mommy does,” she says, also noting the dearth of books featuring African American advanced healthcare practitioners. “And again, coming from my DNP at Chatham—I see a problem; I need to fix it.”
Nola wants to be a nurse practitioner like her mom, and she cares for sick baby dolls in her neighborhood. In each book, she discovers a new culture through traditional foods. There are Nola the Nurse workbooks and activity books, and Baker is working on an animated series. The first book has been translated into French and Spanish, with sales of the Spanish translation on track to surpass sales of the original English version. There’s also a Nola the Nurse doll, complete with dress, head gear and a nurse practitioner bag.
“I started thinking about getting my DNP after Katrina,” says Baker “I knew I needed to have more knowledge about systems and how to effect widespread change. A DNP would allow me to make a bigger impact in the healthcare arena.” “Chatham was the best fit for me because I couldn’t leave my area – we were still dealing with the ground zero catastrophe. I could take classes and still be able to meet the needs of my family and my community post-Katrina.”
At Chatham, her capstone project was on the efficacy of group visits for patients with diabetes. “The outcomes were amazing,” she ways. “Group visits can work really well. People feel good when there are others around them who are going through the same thing, and are often more likely to speak up.”
Baker was fast amassing expertise in house calls, and the requests for consults from other practitioners became overwhelming. In 2008, the year she earned her DNP, she created “The Housecall Course,” a two-day experience encompassing theory and practice (it has been since trimmed down to one day) for nurse practitioners interested in starting their own house call practices in mostly rural areas. Baker has trained over 500 nurses from across America. In 2008, she received the Entrepreneur of the Year by ADVANCE for Nurse Practitioners magazine, which featured her on the cover. Baker has also been elected a fellow of the American Academy of Nursing (2017) and a fellow of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners (2012).
Baker speaks at conferences across the country, often to groups of nurse practitioners, and often about nurse entrepreneurship. But another topic close to her heart is health information technology (HIT). During Katrina, the office space that she had moved her house call practice into was flooded with water up to the ceiling.
“The miracle is that because I didn’t want to drag my patients’ charts into their homes, I’d been using my Palm Pilot to keep track of simple stuff, like their medicines, emergency contacts, whether they’d had a mammogram. It blew my mind that I had all that data and it solidified my belief in HIT. Hospitals couldn’t start because they’d lost their patients’ data, but I had it all right there.”
While Baker still makes some house calls, her primary job today is chief medical officer at Common Ground Health Clinic, a federally qualified healthcare clinic. “Most of our patients are low-income residents who may or may not have insurance or be able to pay,” she says. “I’m still serving my community, but now I have funding and structure. I have other leaders around me and we put our heads together. It’s nice to have that collaboration to effect greater change in this impoverished community.”
You might say that Celeste Smith’s take on the arts is supported by two pillars. One is discoverable the minute you ask her about “the arts”—dollars to donuts, her answer begins by requesting that the conversation be about “arts and culture” (she counts watching her mom bake and choose home décor among her earliest experiences of “the arts”). Art blossomed in Smith’s family: Not only is she herself a writer, artist, photographer, filmmaker, fashion blogger, and stylist, her grandmother was a writer, and her sister is a novelist, as yet unpublished. “If we don’t receive support or encouragement, we’re still artists,” she says, “just not ones that have been strongly supported.” That’s the other pillar. And as program officer for Arts and Culture at the Pittsburgh Foundation, she’s well-positioned to use both pillars to elevate the experience of art for creators and audiences across the region.
Smith grew up in Chicago. She started working as a shampoo girl at the age of 12, worked in an ice cream store in high school, and ended up taking the civil service exam. “I was raised Jehovah’s Witness and we thought the world was going to end, so I figured I would just learn to type,” she says. Smith spent several years rising through the ranks in several government agencies. Then her partner, artist and activist Jasiri X, proposed and they moved to Pittsburgh, where X grew up.
In Pittsburgh, Smith continued working in government while X worked in Pittsburgh Public Schools and got more into both activism and performing hip hop. “One day Justin Laing, who was a program officer at the Heinz Endowments, called Jasiri and said ‘You know you can get funding for the type of music you do, right?’,” she says. “So Jasiri came home one day with a grant application and said ‘Hey, you think you can write one of these?’ I was like ‘I don’t know; I’ll try!’ And we started getting them.”
In 2008, Smith decided to leave her day job to focus on managing her partner’s ascendant career and on being CEO of 1Hood Media, which grew out of an organization that X had co-founded in 2006. That was the year that a group of men, including X, came together to address violence within and against their community. The scope expanded quickly. “It’s an intergenerational arts/activism/social justice/entrepreneurial hub with all these different facets and I’m so proud of it and all the people we work with,” says Smith.
After a few years of managing X and leading 1Hood Media, “I was like ‘Yo!” Smith laughs. “I took German for eight years in grammar school; how does he get to go to Germany! I grew up reading about all these Biblical lands, and he finds himself in Israel and Palestine! Then I heard this voice—you could say it was God or whatever, but I say it was my baby I was pregnant with—whispering to me, ‘You can live your life and support others, too.’”
Smith realized that she was one class short of completing her Associate of Arts degree at Community College of Allegheny County. She did that, then turned to Chatham’s Gateway program for adult students for her bachelor’s. “Chatham had the dopest teachers ever,” she says. “(Adjunct Professor) Deborah Prise was super helpful and looked at me with eyes that I did not look at myself with. She had me write prior learning assessments for life experience that I myself did not celebrate. (Adjunct Professor) Deborah Hosking used to let me bring my baby to her media literacy class, and that was how I got through Chatham.”
Smith had been pursuing a degree in Film and Digital Technology, but, she says, “one day I went to a job fair at CMU and saw an arts management booth, and I was like ‘There’s a title for this thing I’ve been doing all along?’ So I shifted my major, because I had been doing the videos to help my husband with his videos, but if God forbid something should happen to my marriage, I’m not making videos.” With prior learning assessments and testing out of courses, Smith was able to earn her B.A. in about a year and a half, with, she says, “three kids, a business, a husband who travels, and a 3.6 GPA.”
Smith graduated in 2013 and started “running 1Hood not in the shadows, but really up front.” She handled marketing, fundraising, staff management, budget management, public relations, and program development while continuing to involve herself in Pittsburgh’s artistic and philanthropic communities. “Just by being in spaces and taking opportunities, I ended up on the radar,” she says, noting a consulting job at the August Wilson Center she did in 2017. “Then the Heinz Endowments invited Jasiri to speak at an event around moral leadership, but he was going to be out of town. So they asked if I would speak, and I did. I got so much love from that speaking engagement. I’m still getting emails about it.” Maxwell King, the president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Foundation was in the audience that day. When he interviewed Smith for her current position, he told her how impressed he was.
So what is it like to be a program officer for Arts and Culture? “People think that program officers can just write checks but it doesn’t work like that,” Smith explains. “My job is to make sure artists have what they need to apply for grants, then review their proposals, and advocate for them. When I was a grantee, I had support from program officers, and a big part of my job is to pay that forward. And mentoring young women–that’s part of not only my work with the Pittsburgh Foundation but also my life’s mission, to share what I know.”
As for her goals for her new role, “I want to see more equity in Pittsburgh’s arts and culture landscape,” Smith says. “So many reports show that funds are distributed in an unequitable way, and I see part of my role as bringing attention to that. We support smaller arts organizations, but also ask people in large arts organizations to look at their programs and see if they align with racial equity and equality of voice, and holding them accountable if they are not. I can’t make anyone do anything, but I can ask what they’re doing to help advance our initiatives.”
“We need to listen to the field, because the field talks all the time. Whether it’s a Facebook post or a sigh. The field is always telling us what we need to do.”
While Smith has devoted her professional life to helping others get the recognition they deserve, the pendulum is swinging the other way. She was a Walker’s Legacy Power 50 honoree in 2016, an Artist in Residency at The Art Institute of Chicago in 2016, a Coro Individual Leadership Nominee in 2017 and 2018, a Coro Organization Leadership Nominee in 2018, and a SXSW Community Service Awards honoree in 2018.
Smith maintains ties with Chatham, both as an alumna and as a program officer. She spoke at Hosking’s Media Arts class (“Deborah said to me, remember that presentation you gave? Can you update it and come back?”), has a meeting scheduled with the MFA in Creative Writing’s Word Without Walls program, and plans to meet with some others, too. “If I’m going to be there, I try to reach out to the professors who have helped me, because there might be other ‘me’s’ there. There might be a sister who needs encouragement.”
We asked Smith to tell us about five underrated Pittsburgh arts and culture organizations. Here’s what she said:
Kente Arts Alliance “They are a husband and wife team on the North Side, doing jazz, on the ground work, mentoring, that we need to pay attention to.”
Staycee Pearl Dance Project
“They really do great work, traveling all over the place. So innovative, so on point, so in touch with the younger generation.”
The Flower House
“They are doing so much in terms of opening space for artists. What with the entire city being gentrified, affordable places for artists to present are so scarce. Very socially conscious, very open.”
Yoga Roots on Location “I think the work that Felicia is doing is incredible in terms of putting people in touch with their own bodies and their own minds…I think a lot of the stress management that she offers is absolutely essential in our field.”
The Legacy Arts Project “If you’re an artist but you don’t have a 501c3, you can’t accept grant money directly, you need a conduit. That’s what Legacy Arts did for 1Hood before we got our own non-profit. They host Dance Africa each year, which is so dope and incorporates an intergenerational approach to the arts.”
Chatham Head Women’s Volleyball Coach Dylan Lasher has always been a cat. In elementary school, he was a Tiger. In high school, a Bobcat. At Thiel College, he was a Tomcat. He played for their volleyball team, but it was as assistant student coach for Thiel’s women’s team that he saw the Chatham Cougars in action.
“Every time I saw them play, they were always having fun,” Dylan said. “They had a clear passion for the game and for each other. At the time, the program was struggling a little bit, and I remember thinking that I’d love to jump in and see if I could help out with things.”
He got his chance. Dylan saw an advertisement for an assistant coach position at Chatham, and sent in his application. When he didn’t hear back in a few days, he came down to the Athletic and Fitness Center to hand in his resume in person. If it was his initiative that got him the job, his sterling volleyball pedigree (he’s been playing competitively since 9th grade and comes from a family of competitive players) and coaching experience (five years plus an academic minor in coaching at Thiel) didn’t hurt.
In 2015, the year Dylan came on as assistant coach, Chatham’s women’s volleyball team won one game and lost 30. In February 2016, he was promoted to head coach, and was determined to improve the team’s record. One strategy, of course, is recruitment. And there is one player whose game he knows very, very well.
Justyne Lasher ’20 remembers her first season of playing competitive volleyball. She was in 7th grade. “I served out of bounds long-ways, which was really exciting, because at that age, you’re just trying to get it over the net,” she says. “It was very exciting to feel that power.”
Justyne tamed her serve while retaining her power: in high school, she was a two-time first-team All-WPIAL outside hitter. She drew the attention of college recruiters, including her older brother. Justyne was drawn to Chatham for a number of reasons, including the chance to play volleyball, but felt some trepidation.
“At first I was nervous coming here,” she says. “My mom was my coach in high school, so I had to deal with that whole ‘you’re only playing because your mom’s the coach’. Then me and my sister (Kenzie, 17) played on the same team, and we proved that we do deserve to play—we ended up winning WPIALs that year. But people at Chatham didn’t know how I play, so I was worried that the whole thing would happen again. Personally, I feel like Dylan would bench me before he would want to play me!”
Today, Justyne is a second-year student at Chatham. She lives in Fickes Residence Hall and is pursuing a criminology major while also taking classes toward an associate in science degree in aviation technology at Community College of Allegheny College. Her dream is to become an airline pilot. She hopes to work for Delta, and eventually for FedEx or UPS, flying international routes. In addition to playing volleyball, she runs track in the spring, and is the DJ for the women’s ice hockey team.
With Justyne on board, the Cougars’ game picked up in 2016. Their record was 8 and 23, and they beat Thiel and St. Vincent for the first time in Chatham’s history. But it was in 2017 that things got crazy. “We were struggling a little bit at the beginning of the season”, says Dylan. “We had a good opening tournament but dropped our first four conference matches. But our Geneva match—beating them 3-2 on their home court—turned everything around.” Sophomore outside hitter Justyne Lasher exploded for a match-high 22 kills and provided 19 digs, three total blocks and two aces, is what the Chatham Athletics website had to say about that game. Justyne was named Cougar of the Week.
“They were a team that didn’t know their potential. They knew how to play volleyball, but they didn’t know how good they are. They still don’t.” – Coach Dylan Lasher
“The team connected; they were feeling good; they were finally looking like a team that wasn’t a young team anymore,” says Dylan. “They were looking powerful, quick, smart, and it hit there and just continued from there.” After Geneva, the Cougars went on to win their next six games. On October 21, they beat Grove City, clinching their spot in the playoffs. Justyne lead the attack with 16 kills.
On Halloween, the Cougars played Bethany College for the PAC quarterfinals. “That match was the craziest thing they could have experienced,” says Dylan. “I’m so glad they got to experience what it is to be in playoffs. You get butterflies. it’s do or die. You’re three matches away from taking the conference championship and it gives you a bid into the NCAA tournament. Playoffs is why you play the game—seeing how far you can go and how hard you can work. It’s a completely different game.”
The Cougars lost that game, and their season was over. They ended it 17-11. They had beaten Geneva, Bethany, and Grove City for the first time in Chatham history. Dylan won PAC Coach of the Year.
“That playoff game lit a fire under them,” says Dylan. “Now they’re hyped up; they want to compete for that conference championship; they know that they have the talent. It’s all confidence. As soon as these wins started happening, it started changing their mentality. We’re the new faces for Chatham volleyball. We want to keep going and keep building on this.”
And coach and one of his star players being brother and sister? They’d both tell you, in the common parlance, that it’s not a thing.
“Everyone says it must be so weird, but it’s really not,” says Dylan. “Me and Jus have had a solid brother-sister bond since (pause) ever, and we’re both super passionate about volleyball. She respects me and respects my play, and same to her. She’s killed it in the past two years here.”
“At the time I don’t look at him and think ‘yeah, that’s my bro’”, agrees Justyne. “We’re there to learn volleyball and get better at it, so we just don’t think about it. The team itself says that for the most part they forget we’re related.”
“The class is rewarding enough that you don’t want to skip it. I got my wisdom teeth out and two days later, I was there, with ice packed onto my face,” says first-year student Elena Boyle.
It’s called Intergroup Dialogues (IGD), and this was the first year it was offered at Chatham. There’s a fall term component and a spring term component, and they’re different but complementary. Students—both undergraduate and graduate—can sign up for either, or, perhaps, both.
The goal is to allow students to examine an aspect of their own identity (such as race, gender, ability, etc), how they’ve been socialized around it, and how to have productive dialogues about it. Sound easy? It’s not. Sound worthwhile? Read on.
Fall course In the fall course–co-taught by Associate Professor of Counseling Psychology Jennifer Morse and Director of Multicultural Affairs Randi Congleton, PhD.–students discussed theories of social identities and social identity construction in the United States, as well as their own experiences of their own social identities. They also learned how to facilitate a dialogue among their peers. Not a discussion, not a debate—a dialogue. Here’s how Congleton explains the difference: “A debate is about making a point. In a discussion, we might say ‘Let’s agree to disagree’. A dialogue is something else. It’s about listening with a sincere desire to learn more.”
By the end of the term, students had developed not only a deeper understanding of social identities in America and advanced dialogue skills, they were also prepared to facilitate the spring course, and to provide custom-designed 1.5-3-hour workshops around dialogue and social identity to classes, student groups, and other organizations on campus. (And off-campus, too: course participants Diarra Clarke ’18 and Patricia Donohue, MSCP ’18 had a proposal accepted and presented at Pittsburgh’s 20th Annual Summit Against Racism.)
Spring course “Spring is really when the magic happens,” says Congleton. “Because students commit to spending 14 weeks parsing out one aspect of their identity.” This spring, the focus was on race/ethnicity, facilitated by Hali Santiago, MAP ’18 and Johnnie Tonsor, MSCP ’18, and overseen by Congleton. The spring course fulfills a general education requirement.
“You know a lot less than you think you do,” says Boyle. “Coming into this class, I think that everybody, especially—I guess I can’t speak for all the people of color, but I think in general the people of color were thinking ‘oh, we know this, we understand this.’ And that’s not how it is. With any topic that has a lot of intersectionality or that’s multi-faceted, you know so much less than you think you do. There’s so much you can learn, and you need to be open.”
Students completed readings that included social and political constructions of race in the United States as well as first-person accounts. In class, they engaged in dialogue and in activities that furthered their understanding, though not always in the most comfortable way. That’s because IGD is based on a model that sets forth three zones of learning, says Tonsor.
“When you’re in your comfort zone, things are familiar, so you’re not really that engaged. The next zone is what’s called the learning edge—that’s when there’s some conflict and some discomfort, and you’re attuned to your environment and to others. Then there’s the danger zone, which is too stressful, so you’re out of the space of being able to learn and process.”
“As facilitators, our job is to encourage and challenge them to stay on their learning edge, stay with discomfort, be self-critical, which is difficult,” Tonsor continues. “It involves asking people to do things where their gut reaction is ‘no, I don’t want to do that; that doesn’t feel good.’”
But the class came up with agreements to help them feel more safe. “We had a rule that instead of calling out you call in,” says Maria Positanka ’19. “You say ‘Hey, I heard you say this; I interpreted it this way; is this what you meant?’ And you ask them about their personal experience, and how they came to that opinion.”
“It’s called ‘listening to understand,’” says Boyle. “A lot of times, somebody will be telling you something, and from the first five words of what they say, you already have your response ready to go. That’s one I took to a lot of my relationships – like I would tell my friends, ‘You’re listening to respond!’”
“’Never assume negative intentions’ is another one,” adds Positanka. “At first, there was a lot of jumping to conclusions, or people responding in ways that did not represent what had actually been said. Or automatically assuming that someone is speaking from a position of being willing to be ignorant, or wanting to offend you. But it might just be confusion or miscommunication.”
Boyle cites the “Privilege Walk” as an activity that many of them found meaningful. “Everybody lines up horizontally, and then a number of statements were read out loud,” she says. “Like: ‘If your parents have college degrees, take a step forward. If you cannot easily find hair products for your hair type in a store, take a step backward.’ It was a bunch of statements like that and the statements spread everybody out. At the end, they said ‘Take a look at where you are,’ and it was very polarizing. You had all the white people at the front and all the black people in the back, and most of the multi-racial people in the middle. To see it laid out like that was kind of difficult for everybody and very eye-opening. I cried.”
“I would tell anyone to take the class,” says Justine Barry ’19. “It is one of the most rewarding feelings to go through so much with people –I feel like the people in this class are more than just my classmates. I feel like if I ever needed anything, or I needed someone to go with me to a function, we talk about standing in solidarity with one another, and I know that if that were ever asked of me, or if I ever asked that of anyone else in the class, we would do it. And not just like “oh, I’ll do this to be a good person.” – they’d do it because we’ve been through an experience with one another.”
“This class, even though sometimes you might leave really annoyed, you want to come back,” says Boyle, “because of the change that you see in yourself and in people and in the interactions you have in class. It’s one of those things that you forget that it’s a curriculum. You’re just here to learn.”
Intergroup Dialogues is based on a model developed by the University of Michigan in the late 1980s. At Chatham, it’s run as a joint partnership between Academic Affairs and Student Affairs. Future versions of the course may focus on gender, religion, sexual orientation, citizenship, ability, or other aspects of identity.
Alumna Carol Mason, PhD, ’67 was elected to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) on May 1, in recognition of her distinguished and continuing achievements in original research. She was one of 84 new members and 21 foreign associates to receive the honor.
The NAS acts as an advisory body to the federal government and other organizations. Membership is considered among the highest honors in science.
Dr. Mason, who majored in biology at Chatham, is one of the world’s leading authorities on the development of the visual system and cerebellum in mammals. She is Professor of the Departments of Pathology and Cell Biology, Neuroscience, and Ophthalmology at Columbia University. Her research has helped to reveal the processes that guide the growth and trajectory of the visual system’s neurons—opening up the possibility of repairing damage to the visual system caused by injury or disease.
Dr. Mason has served as a co-director of the Doctoral Program in Neurobiology and Behavior, and the Vision Sciences Training Program. She was president of the Society for Neuroscience from 2013 to 2014 and is currently a member of the NIH National Eye Institute’s Advisory Council and the NIH BRAIN Initiative’s Multi-Council Working Group. She is also currently a principal investigator and chair of Interschool Planning in Columbia’s Zuckerman Institute.
Dr. Mason is a member of the National Academy of Medicine, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and a Simons Foundation Senior Fellow. She has received numerous awards during her career, including the Mika Salpeter Lifetime Achievement Award (2017) from the Society for Neuroscience; the Champalimaud Vision Award (2016) from the António Champalimaud Foundation; and the Stevens Triennial Prize (2013) from the Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons.
April was a big month for Eden Hall Campus in terms of external recognition: The Anne Mallinson ’61 Café and field lab were granted official LEED Platinum ratings, and the campus was recognized nationwide with a 2018 Education Facility Design Award of Excellence from the American Institute of Architects. We spoke with president David Goldberg and principal Sandy Mendler of Mithūn, the architecture firm behind Eden Hall’s transformation.
The Anne Mallinson ’61 Café and Field Lab have the official LEED Platinum rating. What’s the significance of that?
“The Platinum rating is meant to recognize the highest level of achievement in terms of addressing sustainability in the real world,” says Mendler. “The LEED rating system is meant to evolve as the industry evolves, so over the years, it has become increasingly challenging for a building to be certified Platinum. Chatham should feel great about this third party validation.”
“This undertaking would have been a stretch for much larger institutions,” adds Goldberg. “For Chatham to do this at such a high level of quality really speaks to the leadership team as well as to the commitment from the whole Chatham community. The results are huge, and really have an impact not just within our community, but nationally.”
What are some cool things that only the architects might know, or that someone taking a tour of the campus might not realize?
1) “EHC operates with five ‘flavors’ of water,” says Mendler, ticking them off:
Potable water from the city
Rainwater captured from the roofs of the buildings
Stormwater that flows across parking lots, plazas and landscaped areas
TSE (treated sewage effluent) is water from showers, toilets, kitchens etc. that has gone through the waste treatment system and come out clean – it is used for flushing toilets and irrigation
Water from the aquaculture system that includes fish waste – which can be a useful nutrient in agriculture! (“fish poop water”)
“The system balances and integrates these five streams, and it’s a great opportunity to explore interactions between them,” Mendler says.
2) “There’s a space used for storage in the basement of the Esther Barazzone Center,” says Goldberg. “It’s not heated or cooled, and the floor is right there in the dirt. It’s a gesture at the history of the farm, and it also teaches some of those old, common-sense farm practices of storing dry goods in an unconditioned space.”
“It’s fun to think of the future being nature-based. It’s not all about computing and mechanization… what we usually think about when we think about technology,” says Mendler. “And that’s an optimistic vision. What does the future look like? It might look kind of like Eden Hall Campus.”
3) “The wood you see inside the Anne Mallinson ’61 Café is from the dairy barn that it once was. If you look at down, you‘ll see the shadows of cows etched onto the floors. That’s where the cows used to stand, looking towards the south, toward the gorgeous view. That’s our way of acknowledging and honoring the prior use of the building,” says Mendler.
4) “I think it’s the only campus anywhere where the first thing you do as you enter is cross the wastewater treatment system,” says Goldberg. “As soon as you enter, the first thing you do is walk across a constructed wetland that treats wastewater through a biological process. It’s an innovative statement, to have wastewater treatment be the first thing visitors interact with, and it’s actually beautiful.”
5) Windows over two toilets in the Field Lab buildings look out over the constructed wetland, so you can literally see the waste treatment system. “In so many built environments, the underlying systems are intentionally hidden from view,” says Goldberg. “But this being an educational campus, making them visible was one of our goals.”
6) “The amphitheater space hosts music and other events, but it’s also an intentional design that controls rainwater through what’s known as a raingarden design,” says Goldberg. “Rainwater pools at the base of the amphitheater, where the stage floats on it—you can see this on a rainy day. The water slowly percolates and drains, undergoing a natural filtering process.”
How long have you been at Chatham, and what brought you here? I have been at Chatham for almost two years, having come from Carnegie Mellon University, where I provided leadership and organizational development for staff members. I really enjoyed it, but working with students is a much better fit and more vibrant space for me.
What services do you offer Falk School students? My job is to provide a full-service professional development experience, from traditional services (e.g., resume and cover letter writing, interviewing strategies, job search resources) to opportunities such as workshops, student employment, and internships. I also work with our Employer Relations Manager to develop partnerships and host networking and other events.
Perhaps my favorite part of our approach is helping students explore and define their professional identities and the ways in which our careers can be an extension of ourselves and the values we hold.
What’s most exciting about your job? There are many things I love about my job, and all of them relate in some way to its evolving nature. The position is new to the Falk School, so I get to help create and define it. But in addition to that, the professional landscape is changing rapidly–our alums will have a direct impact on what jobs in sustainability and food studies will look like, and how they will create lasting change for our local and global communities.
I take so much pride in each job or internship students embark on, not because of any involvement I may have had– our students truly do the work of landing these opportunities – but because the potential for impact in these positions is so significant, and to know that I am even the smallest blip in the unfolding professional journeys of this population of students is easily the most gratifying and inspiring part of my job.
Is job-hunting for sustainability professionals in any way unique? The biggest challenge is that it is still evolving, and jobs fit such a wide range of skills and experience. Sustainability professionals need to demonstrate not only technical knowledge but also what are sometimes referred to as “21st century skills”: interdisciplinary problem solving, the ability to integrate a range of perspectives, engage systems thinking, and work in truly collaborative spaces.
Students need to have an entrepreneurial spirit, be assertive and able to manage ambiguity in positions that might not be clearly defined, and develop large networks to advance professional opportunities. There is a lot of groundwork involved in job searching within these fields–I encourage students to attend as many industry events as possible, volunteer for every opportunity they can, and conduct as many informational interviews as possible to get insight into jobs and organizations, and also grow their networks.
What is a misconception that people tend to have about landing a job or an internship? That they will find them in traditional ways–seeing a position on a job board, blindly submitting an application, and getting a call. Certainly this does happen, but tapping into our networks, reaching out to organizations and individuals whose work inspires you, and attending events to meet professionals in your field are all important practices in finding that next opportunity, especially when it comes to internships, and particularly within fields related to food studies and sustainability.