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Interview with Marc Nieson on Writing his New Memoir


Associate Professor Marc Nieson teaches fiction and creative nonfiction in Chatham’s MFA Creative Writing program. He recently published Schoolhouse: Lessons on Love & Landscape—a memoir twenty years in the making about his time living in a rural one-room schoolhouse while attending the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and the changes he was experiencing at that time. 

In one of the interviews I read about your book, you called it a coming of age tale—except you’re in your thirties when this story takes place.  That’s a little untraditional.  What do you make of that—just a matter of us all aging and maturing differently?

Well, I took longer than most people!  I move slowly; and I do think that’s the truth.  But, it’s a tale of the end of innocence—I think all memoirs are coming of age tales, no matter the duration.  They take you through a movement from where you were then to where you are now.  They’re coming to understanding, and allowing someone to ride shotgun to pick something up with you along the way.

You often talk about how long it took you to write this—twenty years in all.  How does that passage of time affect your writing of it?  How do you go back to write from the perspective of someone you no longer are?  And where does ‘truth’ enter the equation when you’re writing a memoir, but your memory has so long to shift about?

Well, I had early drafts of this book done 15 to 20 years ago.  But it’s been in the past three or four years that I’ve been able to go back and be more forthcoming about emotional kinds of things.  One main character in the book, I couldn’t even name for the longest time—I could only address them by a letter.  That distance of years has helped for that.  And the landscape I’m writing about is so specific that it’s made re-entering that place possible—that’s another kind of interest behind this book: those woodlands were a great kind of treasure to me, and now I get to share them a bit.

As far as the truth, I’m not so worried about fact-checking but representing people well, doing that truthfully.  Some of that you can only do the best you can.  You just make sure there’s no attempt to be malicious, you fact-check against your own personal compass.

What made this story something you had to tell?

On my side, it was an old heartthrob that needed to be put to rest.  I think I’ve carried misgivings over how I carried myself at that time, when I simply didn’t know better.  And some things need to be better put to rest, or owned up to.  I write in the prologue it’s not a recounting, but an accounting.

To go to a place you could escape to and be out of contact had become strangely exotic—and making this sort of escape was getting harder and harder, especially over the last ten years. It was the sense that this kind of place was going to be lost, like I discovered while staying there that the schoolhouse was going to be sold, and has since been demolished. That sense of loss connected to the narrative. That made sharing it more vital.

You currently have a novel in the works—Houdini’s Heirs.  You had to write Schoolhouse to account for something in your past; what is it that inspires you to write a novel? How is the writing of fiction and nonfiction different for you?

They both come from internal places.  The circus and sideshow, which this novel is built around, lets me break from the realist writing I’ve been doing so much of recently. Everyone says, why does the world need another novel?  There is dialogue going on right now about things in our society that I’d like to contribute something to: the blur between what’s real and what’s virtual, which I approach in the context of sideshow and illusion.  And, race.  This has given me the stage where I could talk about these things.

Getting done with this memoir, where it’s all a matter of structuring something that already happened, felt really freeing.  But then a month in I was like oh god I have to make something up again!  Oh god, again!  Fiction is a different sort of challenge.

The twenty years you took to publish this book must be a hard sell to your students, especially with the rapid world we live in.  How does wrestling with your own writing become something teachable to them?

I let them know that I wrestle, first and foremost.  Just that I’ve done one thing doesn’t mean the next isn’t just as difficult. I try to help my students get past the presumption that this should be an easy thing.  When you’re a visual artist, you know you’re going to have to do 8,000 sketches.  Somehow in writing that idea isn’t so present; people think they can just jump in and do it.  It’s all about building your facility and taking on the next challenge.  It’s an apprenticeship; you create your next challenge for yourself.

 Marc’s book is available online via Ice Cube Press

The Bonner Program Spreads Its Roots at Chatham

group tree digging planting
In  2014, the Corella & Bertram Bonner Foundation arrived at Chatham, with the mission of financially supporting undergraduate students–known as Bonner Leaders–who do volunteer work with local nonprofits. The program enables students to stay with the same nonprofit throughout their college tenure, giving them extended mentorship as they grow into assets of their organization. Many nonprofits in the area were eager to work with Chatham students again, having had them as successful volunteers in the past.

Sarah Barbeau ’20 is a first-year student and Bonner Leader studying sustainability. She works with Off the Floor Pittsburgh, a furniture bank in the North Side. They help disadvantaged families get furniture that otherwise would’ve been thrown away.  “All the furniture is donated; some surplus stuff is given by Levin’s. For the most part we do deliveries, and it’s usually volunteer-run by churches or students. Most people are super appreciative. I interact with them the most when they’re picking stuff up,” she says.

Sarah helps schedule deliveries and file new referrals. Due to high staff turnover this fall, having Sarah as a consistent member of the team has helped them immensely. And she finds the work rewarding:

“We have the statistics on the race, the age, and why the people need the furniture—but it comes down to: you have a need, we’re going to provide you with what you need.”

The Bonner program accepts first-years and sophomores, who go on a “speed date” with participating nonprofits at the beginning of their first year in the program. After talking with each representative for five minutes or so, students rank their favorites while nonprofits do the same for the students. It’s been a great system so far, as everyone has been matched up with his or her first or second choice. This year, there are 13 Bonner Leaders at Chatham.

Skylar Benjamin ’16 joined the program in its pilot year as a junior. This is her second year of working with Steel City Squash—a nonprofit that offers an after-school academic program to students in the Hill District, motivating and rewarding the kids by teaching them the sport of squash. She’s a senior now, but wishes the program had been around since she was a first-year.

“It would’ve been great to have that experience as a first-year student, to come in and work with whomever, and connect to Pittsburgh. When I left for summer vacation last year, the kids handed me this card that they wrote thanking me and it was so cute—I cried when I read it. They didn’t realize I would be coming back this year! When you’re working with people who may lack stability in their own lives, being able to provide that in some small way is really important.”

As an exercise science major and a student athlete, Skylar tries to impart what she’s learned about health and nutrition in a way that 10-to-13-year-olds can use in their lives. Her work has given her perspective on health and wellness in a more general sense within the context of social economics. “I’m really surprised how fulfilling and rewarding this experience has been—I’ve changed the kids’ lives, but they’ve changed mine too. It’s helped me check my privilege, look at things a little differently, and recognize all these things I’ve taken for granted,” she says.

In addition to their on-site work, the Bonner Leaders meet every two weeks to volunteer at other locations or speak with professionals in the field. Sometimes professors are brought in to talk about issues involved in their volunteer experience. These meetings enrich the students’ understanding of the complex difficulties that their target populations face. Sarah notes, “When we get together as a group, we don’t just talk about our sites, we talk about all different kinds of things—the larger issues, professional settings, about voting—it’s service oriented, with perspective on issues that affect all of us. After each, we realize we all have more to give back.”

The Bonner Program offers a unique and enriching opportunity to work with a single nonprofit for four years. There are 13 nonprofits offering a variety of services to very different populations, with the hope to pull in even more as the program grows. If you’re interested,
apply here or contact Emily Fidago for more information.




disaster relief in nepal

This story originally appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of the Recorder.

It  can be hard to access healthcare in Nepal, says Chatham nursing student, Devin Corboy ‘18. “It’s one of the poorest countries in the world. It’s mostly rural, so access is limited by time and terrain. And if it’s not free or almost free, clients just don’t have the resources to pay.” Devin also points to a shortage of providers (“Doctors aren’t well paid—it’s not as prestigious there as it is here. They work around the clock and it’s often necessary for them to hold several positions”) and—literally—energy (“With rolling blackouts, they spend long periods of time without electricity—often 12-14 hours per day.”)

That’s in the best of times.

But on April 25, 2015, Devin woke to news of a 7.8 magnitude earthquake in Nepal. Approximately 9,000 people were killed and more than 21,000 injured.  Devin and his wife had spent time there the previous fall, made friends, and fallen in love with the region. Devin—a student in Chatham’s Bachelor of Science in Nursing program and a nurse in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC—knew that he had to help. Just over two weeks later, a second earthquake killed at least 153 people and injured more than 3,200.  That was the day Devin arrived in Nepal.

“In third-world trauma environments, scope of practice is directly proportional to your knowledge and level of comfort.”

His Nepali friends had told him the only way to reliably bring in supplies was to carry them in himself, so he showed up with over 100 pounds of medical supplies. “The airstrip was lined with cargo containers with food and other resources from countries who wanted to help,” he recalls. “But the government couldn’t release the supplies because of their regulation requirements. They had to register it. So much food sent over there never made it to anyone because it went bad.”

“When I arrived, my friend drove me to a community health clinic, where I saw people lined up out the door. Suturing and setting broken bones and dislocated limbs aren’t typical nursing practices in the US, but in third-world trauma environments, your scope of practice is directly proportional to your knowledge and level of comfort,” Devin says. “We worked with the highest degree of sterility possible using the supplies I carried from the US. We worked in the street, day and night, through heat and rain, under temporary tarps and in tents because damage to the hospital made it unsafe. Patients arrived on overcrowded buses. Three people per seat wasn’t infrequent, and you’d see men, women, and children hanging off the roofs.” It wasn’t uncommon for patients to arrive in need of critical treatment due to accidents caused by this method of travel that was both unsafe and unavoidable.


After a couple of weeks, Devin and a guide loaded up five yaks with life-saving provisions and set forth to Thame, a village in the Everest mountain region that had been all but wiped out. They made what was normally a five-day trek to the village in two days, hiking 12-hour days carrying 50-60 pounds of supplies.

loading up yaks

When they arrived, they saw that one building was left standing, the medical clinic was gone, and people were living openly on the streets. “It was the monsoon season, cold and rainy,” says Devin. “No one had tents. We spent much of our time passing out temporary shelters and tarps.”

Nepal, Take 2

Devin returned home after just over three weeks, but in November, he and his wife returned to contribute through the All Hands disaster response effort. They were there for almost two months. “I had to delay my entry into the BSN program,” said Devin, “but Chatham said no problem, we’ll contact all your instructors, and we’ll figure it out.”

Much of the work in Devin’s second trip focused on demolition and rebuilding efforts, but it wasn’t long before his medical skills were called into action. The Project Director created the position of First Aid and Medical Curriculum Coordinator for him, and among his initiatives was to bring in anti-venom medicine. In the eight months since the earthquake, snakes—most of which were poisonous—had made their homes in all the debris. “There was a high probability that someone would get bitten and die,” Devin said. He coordinated with project partners in the UK to get the anti-venom. “It took about two and a half weeks for it to get here,” he says. “Meanwhile, we were seeing about six baby snakes each day, and thinking ‘oh boy, where’s Mama?’”

Eventually, Devin wants to open a community health clinic in West Africa. He envisions a solar-powered clinic focused on sustainable community health and education that can also provide emergency medical capabilities. He views his experiences in Nepal as simultaneously good training and a valuable expansion of perspective.

“I saw how spoiled we are,” he says. “I was able to bring over pre-sterilized gauze pads and Nepali healthcare providers couldn’t believe how easy they were to use. The way they’d do it is to cut a piece of gauze, heat it to a temperature that kills bacteria, maybe rest it on dirty pants to fold it, tape it to the wound, if they even had tape. In the U.S., we have all these supplies that don’t even exist in Nepal, and we toss them into the garbage when they fall on the floor or the package doesn’t look right. We treated at least 300 people with supplies equivalent to two days worth of what we throw away here. And the mentality of receiving healthcare here is so different,” Devin continues. “They were so appreciative of every single thing we were able to do. In their eyes, it’s not our duty, and it’s not their right.”

Eye care in the Pediatric emergency room



Top 8 things you need to know about informatics

Master of Healthcare Informatics

Chatham’s Master of Healthcare Informatics (MHI) is a fully online, 10-course program. The program is designed to support the needs of working adults and includes small classes taught by an engaged faculty and subject matter experts. Employees of many organizations are eligible for an automatic 20 percent discount on tuition. 

When people say “informatics” they mean “healthcare informatics.”
The U.S. National Library of Medicine defines it as the interdisciplinary study of the design, development, adoption, and application of IT-based innovations in healthcare services delivery, management, and planning.

You’re glad it exists.
“Combining technology, data and the wisdom of health professionals helps us make much better decisions,” says Healthcare Informatics Coordinator Debra M. Wolf, PhD, MSN, BSN, RN.

It’s big and getting bigger.
One of the primary goals of the Affordable Care Act is to improve healthcare through technology. And regardless of what happens with a new administration, that isn’t likely to change anytime soon.

Which means: $$$$$.
As of 2015, the overall average salary for health IT professionals was $111,387.52, according to an annual compensation survey by the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society. The average salary for IT professionals across all industries was much lower, at $85,460 according to cited health information managers as number 10 in its list of 50 Top Paying Healthcare Careers.

And: jobs.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of medical and health services managers is projected to grow 17 percent from 2014 to 2024, much faster than the average for all occupations.

There are a ton of places where you can work.
“Informatics plays a critical role within every healthcare organization, facility and profession,” says Wolf. Here’s just a sample of the types of places that hire informatics specialists: hospitals, rehab centers, private healthcare practices, software companies, healthcare consulting companies, biopharmaceutical companies, medical device/technology companies, healthcare associations, insurance companies and research laboratories.

You can change the world.
In addition to opportunities in corporate and clinical settings, you can also improve healthcare on a wider scale, such as through developing or managing public health information or surveillance programs, and helping to monitor, control, and prevent the occurrence of diseases across the globe in public health organizations, government and non-governmental agencies.

It’s a remarkably accessible field to enter.
One great thing about informatics is that it’s a field that’s approachable from both healthcare and business sides—so a background in either is a big help. Here’s a short list of the types of professionals who might find it an asset:

  • respiratory therapists
  • social workers
  • physicians
  • occupational therapists
  • physical therapists
  • physician assistants
  • nutritionists
  • business personnel
  • human resources staff
  • administrative managers
  • laboratory staff
  • radiology technicians/staff
  • accounting/financial managers
  • IT analysts, managers, software developers, etc.
  • nurses of all specialties


what two million college students want you to know


Over the summer, we showed you how Chatham addresses what Money Magazine called 8 Things College Students Should Do Now That Will Pay Off Big Later. Now, they’re sharing five key findings from over 2 million college students’ experiences across more than 100 college experiences. We can weigh in on that, too:

  1. It’s time to ignore your score. Your SAT or ACT score might be less important than you think it is (in fact, if you’re a first-year undergraduate applicant, you can apply to Chatham without even submitting standardized test scores—learn more here). At Chatham, we look at the whole applicant—and this is reflected in the range of scholarships we offer. Whether you’re into academics, music, community service, or the visual arts, your interests can translate to a superb education at a great value. To take just one example, our Rachel Carson Healthy Planet Award and Scholarship offers (among other perks) a $5,000 Chatham University scholarship to one high school student from every high school across the U.S. who has demonstrated leadership in environmental or community sustainability awareness. (Top recipients are eligible for a full-tuition scholarship, too.)

  2. Success (or failure) isn’t just about academics.  Having a lot going on is the mark of many college students, but that doesn’t mean it’s always easy. At Chatham, we make sure that you know that we know this. We’ll help you find a sense of community through over 60 student-run organizations, and we have designated staff members looking out for particular interests and concerns of commuter students, transfer students, international students, and athletes. Among our offerings is R.I.S.E. (Retain. Involve. Strengthen. Excel.)—a program designed to increase the success, professionalism and leadership skills of students of color at Chatham University. R.I.S.E. provides incoming students of color with a mentor, institutional support, and a series of co-curricular programming.

  3. Writing skills matter, no matter what you major in. That said, the type of writing skills should depend on what you major in. That’s why Chatham has redesigned its undergraduate general education requirements so that you fine-tune your writing skills in a way that’s appropriate for your field of study. That means fewer biochemistry majors writing research papers on Jane Austen, and more of them learning how to write killer lab reports.

  4. The best students ask for help. At Chatham, we make it easy to get help. The PACE (Programs for Academic Access, Confidence, and Excellence) Center‘s academic support offerings include peer tutoring and supplemental instruction, academic coaching, academic skills workshops, and a course designed to assist at-risk first year Chatham students with the transition from high school to college. We also have a robust mentorship program, with Chatham alumni and local professionals. Our Office of Career Development prides itself on being so much more than “help for your resume,” and we offer counseling services, too.

  5. Planning clears the path to success. We couldn’t agree more! That’s why we launched the Chatham Plan—a systematic approach to making sure that when you leave Chatham, you’re ready for whatever comes next. From assessing your strengths and interests to making sure that you’re prepared for overseas opportunities, the Chatham Plan is a blueprint for getting the absolute most out of your time here, and setting you up your future successes.

Campus Message from President Finegold

Last night’s election results came as a surprise to many individuals from across the political spectrum, and this morning the country has awakened to a changed political landscape, where the results, reasons and the way forward are just now beginning to be fully processed.

Regardless of what happens in our daily politics, I hope that here at Chatham we can continue to focus on our core values: gender equality, inclusiveness and acceptance, dialogue and civic engagement, and the pursuit of a more just and sustainable world. That is the community we want to create and the values we seek to foster in the classroom, on campus, and that we hope our students carry with them after graduation. Over Chatham’s nearly 150 years, we have persevered through many profound political transitions and societal changes, and I’m hopeful that we and the country will weather this one too.

We will have a number of opportunities for students, faculty and staff who wish to discuss the election results over the next couple of days:

  • The Diversity Dialogue session scheduled for 11:30 am today in the Carriage House will be postponed and we will focus on a discussion of the election results and their implications.
  • The 24 hour lounge in the Carriage House will be available as a quiet space; electronic / media free zone.
  • Opportunities for dialogue will take place throughout the day in main Carriage lounge. All faculty staff & students are invited to join.
  • Tomorrow night at 5:30 pm the Center for Women and Politics will be hosting a post-election analysis in Mellon to kickoff the “Thinking Bigger” series of events that runs from tonight through Saturday.

David Finegold

Kathryn Polaski ’17 wins business simulation competition

kp-IMG_2063Don’t be fooled by the relative youth of Chatham’s B.A. in Management Information Systems (pdf) program. They’re churning out winners already.

Take Kathryn Polaski ’17.  In 2015, Polaski was alerted by her advisor, Professor and Business Programs Director Rachel Chung, to the Forté College to Business Leadership Conference hosted by PNC at the end of October. Founded in 2001, the Forté Foundation aims to increase the participation of women in undergraduate and graduate business programs and encourage them to work in the business community. Polaski applied to the conference and was accepted, the only Chatham student to attend.

Open to 100 women undergraduate students from around the country, the conference combines a morning of presentations and networking with an afternoon computer simulation business competition. Students were grouped into “companies”, assigned roles, and made all the decisions associated with running a business, right from their table.

“Our product was cars,” says Polaski, who notes that the product didn’t matter much. “We had to choose whether to be a generic, midrange, or luxury brand. That determined the price range we set, which determined the quality of raw materials we were going to put into our product.”

Polaski was given the role of Head of Sales, Staff, and Technology. “I decided where we’d put our offices, how many people we’d employ, and how much we’d pay them,” she says. Every decision was met with real-time data on a panel on the side of the screen, including revenue, but also other indicators such as employee satisfaction.  When that started to decline, Polaski decided to increase wages. “We talked decisions over together,” she says. “It was definitely a teamwork thing.”

“At certain points it was a rush,” she continues, “because periods would end and we’d have to stop. We’d see where we were at, and where we needed to improve. When the next period started, we might open an office, close an office, or market in a different region.”

“More than anything, I was surprised at how much I knew. We learned a lot from each other. We probably learned as much from each other as we did from everyone else who spoke to us that day.”

Judges were able to see each team’s data, and circulated among the teams to offer suggestions. At one point in the afternoon, they announced the three leading teams (based on profitability and efficiency), each of which was then tasked with putting together a PowerPoint presentation. “We put together an overview—what sort of business decisions we made, number of offices, number of employees, gross domestic product,” says Polaski.

Polaski’s team won the competition.

Team members were awarded informal mentorships with PNC executives. “We had phone calls with them, and we could send them our resumes for feedback,” says Polaski. “It was great to have that access.” As it happens, Polaski secured a technology internship with PNC for summer 2017, but thinks it’s coincidental. “They saw that I won the Forté competition, but I don’t think they realized the PNC connection,” she laughs.

She is applying to Chatham’s MBA program and to Carnegie Mellon University’s Masters in Information Systems Management program, but also considering taking some time to work before starting graduate school.  The technology internship at PNC has a great track record of leading to jobs after graduation, she says. “There’s a full-year rotational program so that you can test out all these different areas of technology and figure out where you want to be.”

Polaski is a member of the Chatham Marketing Association, in the Music Club (she’s also pursuing a minor in music), and a co-organizer for tech meet-up group ACM (Association for Computing Machinery) Pittsburgh. She also played basketball during her first year

“Chatham is such a great place to learn how to be a leader and learn from people who are higher up from you. That is a lot of what has helped me in real life situations.”

Advice for a student thinking about participating in the Forté College to Business Leadership Conference? “Don’t go into it thinking you know less than everyone else—everyone’s probably in the same boat as you,” Polaski says. “Listen to what everyone has to say. There’s time to ask questions- make sure you do that. Don’t be afraid to say something during the simulation if you think it should be something else. That’s important.”

Update, 12/17:  Polaski writes: “I recently accepted a position with PNC in their Technology & Innovation department. My job title is ‘Technology Development Program Associate.’

The program lasts 12 months, during the first six of which, associates rotate through three positions:  Business Systems Analyst, Application Developer, and Infrastructure Analyst.

During months 6-12, associates will be placed in one position to gain a deeper understanding of the role. Upon completion of the program, associates are placed into one of the listed positions, based on preference, performance, and business need.”

The MIS major prepares students to become critical thinkers and innovative designers of contemporary information systems in organizational settings. They learn to recognize opportunities to improve business processes or areas, communicate with stakeholders to elicit requirements for the best solution, and effectively implement and manage information systems projects. Learn more about undergraduate business programs at Chatham University.

This story was first reported on Chatham’s Department of Business and Entrepreneurship’s blog