Visionaries in Higher Education

  • By:  Susan Cunningham

Women are becoming more prominent in many career fields. It is no longer surprising to find female engineers, auto mechanics, biologists, college presidents, philosophers, religious leaders, and military officers. But it takes more than a declared discipline to be college educated. Colleges now seek to graduate more well-rounded students equipped with 21st-century skills. Three local women in higher education are making it happen.

Stephanie Adams, Lori Underwood, and Edna Baehre-Kolovani recently shared their visions for how new technologies and ideas are melding with classical methods of education to produce a new kind of all-encompassing student. They are setting the standard for the future of education, and they are not finished yet!

As a little girl, Stephanie Adams loved working with saws and scrap pieces of wood. She remembers being fascinated as she watched her dad build her a dollhouse. When Stephanie was 13, she even built her own skateboard. “All the ball bearings fell out, but that was ok,” she recalled with a grin. “I just started over because I loved to tinker with stuff.” She’s been making things work ever since.

Today Stephanie is dean of Old Dominion University’s Frank Batten College of Engineering and Technology and the university’s first female and minority dean. She has engineering degrees from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, University of Virginia, and Texas A&M. “But actually I’m pretty bad at balancing my checkbook,” she chuckled.

As a child, Stephanie envisioned going into medicine. “I have no idea why!” she said, laughing. But after attending a camp for budding engineers, Stephanie decided bio-engineering might be a better choice. At age 14 she injured her knee and started thinking “how cool it would be” to develop an artificial knee.

Working for 3M Corporation as a college freshman studying engineering, she actually did work on artificial hips. Part of that job involved development, quality control, and manufacturing. This led her into the interdisciplinary engineering world that included not only engineering but also management and education. In turn this laid the foundation for her PhD interdisciplinary program at Texas A&M, an emphasis that allowed her “…to live at the intersection of several different disciplines,” she explained.

One of Stephanie’s goals as dean of engineering is to graduate more well-rounded engineers from ODU. With the help of her assistant dean, Carol Considine, she’s working to attract more students through community outreach. They are inviting high school students to campus, letting them engage with engineering professors, and showing how the department functions. This is a more effective way to build interest than “just listening in a classroom where [students] can’t actually see what’s going on,” Stephanie explained. ODU is also reaching out to Girl Scouts and other organizations to connect with students at an earlier age. 

Currently, the U.S. graduates about half of the engineers that China and India graduate, Stephanie notes. In addition, out of 27,000 engineering professors in the U.S., only 151 of them are black females, she adds. Stephanie feels some changes in education are needed to help increase these numbers. “We have to find other ways to learn,” she said. “The world is changing, and there are new challenges, such as solar engineering and virtual reality.” There are no answers in the back of the book to address these challenges, she says.

Educating the whole student is essential, Stephanie believes, in order to develop the students’ talents and produce more well-rounded graduates. She encourages her engineering students to study abroad, as well as discover other skills and talents such as art, law, painting, languages, dance, and music. “We need more people who are trained across their discipline so they have more understanding of how other people feel,” Stephanie explained. This will in turn make them better engineers, she says.

When she’s not in the classroom or dealing with the myriad duties she has as a dean overseeing 3,249 engineering and technology students, Stephanie pursues her interest in languages and photography. “If you see me around town, I always have a camera around my neck,” she said.

Stephanie suggests parents encourage their kids to discover how things work. “Let kids break an appropriate toy to see how it goes back together, encourage them to question, look for their potential, let them imagine, and don’t stifle their creativity,” she said. These activities are what lead bright minds to create the next great invention.

Lori Underwood has a secret. On the campus of Christopher Newport University, where she’s dean of the college of arts and humanities, everyone calls her Dr. Underwood. But to the kids in her neighborhood, she’s the “den mother” of Newport News. “I love to teach others how amazing learning is,” she explained. So when the kids on her street are stuck on an academic problem, they ask Lori for a tutoring session.

Soft spoken and wearing a tailored suit, Lori, 46, sits in her office on the third floor overlooking CNU’s Grand Lawn in the center of CNU and shares the story of her journey into academia.

Born in the small town of Cleveland, Tennessee, Lori was the first in her family to attend university. She enrolled in the University of Memphis and initially decided to study law. While taking law courses, she figured a few classes in philosophy would complement the legal skills she was learning.

What Lori did not expect was to fall in love with philosophy. An internship with a law firm convinced her further that law was not for her. Around the same time, one of her professors encouraged Lori to pursue philosophy. “I loved it and it’s so much fun,” she said. So philosophy it was!

Today Lori is sharing her love of philosophy with CNU students. As dean, she’s on a mission to encourage students in all disciplines to include philosophy and other liberal arts classes in their studies. Lori believes philosophy provides the tools to lead us to a better understanding of our values. It helps us understand “…what values are, what you think they ought to be, and what good reasons there are for having one set of values over another,” she explained. Modern philosophical thinking teaches reasoning that is “fact based versus emotion based,” she continued. Learning to reason well and support your reasons with facts has applications from the college classroom to the world at large.

While a skilled, educated workforce is a must, that’s only part of the equation, according to Lori. Today’s educational institutions need to be graduating students who know more than their discipline only, she says. Students need to be fully engaged so they aren’t simply conforming to the world but instead transforming the world, she continued. Studying philosophy, history, and literature, for example, will help ensure students will become productive world citizens.

A tall order? Yes, but “…it has to start somewhere and with someone,” Lori said. “Nothing changes unless we engage in change.” Two important questions she always asks her students are “If not us, who?” and “If not now, when?”

The first place to meet these kinds of changes is in school. So Lori has developed the “digital humanities classroom.” Beginning next fall, CNU will begin “…teaching our students what they have forgotten how to do, such as how to collaborate with others.” Lori emphasized collaboration is not as simple as “…how I do my part, how you do your part, and we’ll stick it together.” Instead, students will use their laptops to put their thoughts up on the screen at the front of the class so the class as a whole can discuss their thoughts collectively.

“For the first time perhaps in their college careers, the students will be in conversations that are synchronized, using technology to bring people together,” she explained. Lori wants students in this class not to “…let technology be a barrier between people but to be a way to bring people together.” This digital humanities class is “allowing us to [teach] humanities as we never could before.”

“I would love to see society value the humanities and social sciences in both creating excellent workers and good citizens,” said Lori, who’s spreading her vision for the future one class at a time.

The view from the president’s sixth floor office at Tidewater Community College in Norfolk is as open and inviting as the woman herself. Dr. Edna Baehre-Kolovani, 68, fills her large office with enthusiasm and intelligence. She has a fervent passion for helping today’s students become productive, skilled citizens. Let’s look at her journey to becoming the president of Tidewater Community College.

You can hear just the tiniest hint of an accent as Edna tells how she was born in a small village in southwest Germany to a mother who was an interpreter and a father who was an architect. They owned homes that they rented to Americans living in Germany, so Edna grew up playing with American children. “That exposure shaped my awareness of the global community,” she explained.

Edna’s parents exposed her to people from different walks of life, helping expand her horizons beyond Germany. Today she considers herself a global citizen as she guides students who come from many backgrounds to reach their education goals.

Edna married an American soldier and settled in Buffalo, New York. Her first job in the states was in a call center for Sears. “This was a completely new experience and learning environment,” Edna said. However, she was used to tackling out-of-the-box jobs. In her younger days, Edna worked as a college bartender, a house cleaner, a tutor, and at one time even a sauerkraut factory worker.

While working at these various jobs, Edna pursued an education. Before leaving Germany, she graduated with a degree from Padagogische Hochschule in Heidelberg. She earned her Master’s at the State University in New York at Buffalo, where she also graduated with a PhD in Medieval German Language and Literature. She smiled as she remembered receiving her doctorate on a Friday and starting a job in the parts department of a large manufacturing company the following Monday morning. Yes, the parts department.

“There were no jobs available at that time in my field, so the men with whom I worked were determined to help me be the best parts clerk because they never had a PhD in their department!” Edna said. “I was learning about jet engines, turbines, impellers, [and] inventory control.” Edna says this experience helped her understand how challenging it can be for students to balance their studies with work and personal life.

Edna rose through the ranks of various colleges and then in 2012 accepted her current position at TCC, which currently serves 37,000 students. As president, she works hard to ensure that TCC students obtain the career and life skills they need to be successful. She also reaches out to corporations and businesses in the community to develop workforce programs that propel TCC graduates toward fulfilling careers with these companies.

So what’s on the horizon for TCC’s president? “This is my last career stop,” she says. “Retirement is next.” But before she thinks about retiring, she and her board members and staff are working to “…profoundly change how we deal with the preparation for our graduates in automotive, diesel marine, visual arts, the culinary arts [and others],” she explained. Before retiring Edna wants to make sure TCC meets the needs of the community.

Upon retirement, she plans to translate and publish her father’s wartime diary, which he kept during World War II. She said he wrote it so that his children would never have to experience what he did during the war. It is important to her that “…it is not just another book,” she explained, so she wants to do extensive research.

Edna divorced in 2001, and in 2011 she married her real estate agent husband, Bill, whom she calls a “social butterfly.” She’s looking forward to a happy, fun-filled future and says she has “a lot of life” left in her.

Edna is helping change the world through education. “[I’m] passionate about all people having equal opportunities, and I’m willing to stand for those principles,” she said. “I want people to not be judgmental. You don’t know what the other person has been through.”

Susan Cunningham is a retired Certified Senior Advisor and Aging in Place Specialist. She is author of the book Unwrapping The Sandwich Generation and has been a national speaker and television host. 

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