Wells faculty members are champions in—and out—of the classroom.
It’s no secret that natural science majors and pre-med students from colleges and universities across the country constantly bemoan Organic Chemistry’s menacing reputation. Fortunately, Wells students can approach the subject with Assistant Professor of Chemistry Dr. Lauren O’Neil, a professor whose dedication, flexibility, and sense of humor earned her the Wells College Award for Excellence in Teaching in the spring of 2013.
“If you teach people the fundamentals,” says O’Neil of her educational philosophy, “then you’ve given them the opportunity to apply them to whatever situation they come upon.” And whether she is helping students find summer research programs or designing a lab experiment to fit the interests of a given class, O’Neil works tirelessly to present those opportunities. Each year, she tasks members of her Organic Chemistry class with completing an in-depth laboratory project that serves as an introduction to more independent research. After instructing her first class at Wells to synthesize aspirin, she has now tailored the project to reflect the students’ growing interest in environmental issues by challenging students to create ethanol from waste materials, such as newspaper.
After earning her undergraduate degree from St. John Fisher College and her doctorate from the University of Notre Dame, the organic chemist began teaching at Wells in the fall of 2011. The move was somewhat of a homecoming for O’Neil, who grew up in Weedsport, N.Y.—located about 25 miles north of Aurora. But at the same time, O’Neil has noticed how greatly Wells differs from other institutions she has studied at and worked for. “Because we’re so small, we can be so unique,” she says, “and we can have big discussions about educational policy that we can’t have at other schools.”
Part of this educational policy that O’Neil feels strongly about is the opportunity Wells students have to receive an intimate and well-rounded liberal arts education by taking courses in a variety of disciplines. Even within her own discipline, O’Neil and her fellow science faculty encourage exploration into the historical and cultural contexts of scientific discoveries. But a Wells education, as O’Neil points out, is not just an effort by faculty members. “I think one of the best things here is how supportive students are of each other,” she says. Where other institutions can have a competitive atmosphere, O’Neil said she has been blown away by how encouraging and helpful students are to one another. “I had never seen that before. That was amazing to me. Everybody’s in it for Wells.”
Though a dedicated Circulation and Reserves Librarian who has worked at Wells College for nearly 50 years, Elsie Torres breaks one librarian stereotype wide open. Rather than shushing students from behind a desk, Torres has a reputation for going out into the campus community and actively encouraging students to talk. “Whoever doesn’t get along with the other—it’s an instinct of mine to try to make them friendly,” says Torres, who came to Wells from Havana, Cuba, in 1964.
The staff advisor of the student group POWER (Praising Our Work, Ethnicity, and Race) and of the Student Committee for Inclusion and Intercultural Excellence (SCIIE), Torres is a champion of diversity and inclusion at Wells and beyond. Her interest in inclusion was piqued in some ways as soon as she arrived in America and began working as a statistician at the University of Minnesota and then as a cataloguer at Wells. “In those days,” Torres laughs, “my accent too was—somehow—diversity.”
Considering herself “a little bit of a variety” because of her accent and Cuban nationality, Torres enthusiastically accepted an invitation to attend the meetings of the newly formed Black and Latin Society organized by some of the first racial and ethnic minority students to attend Wells. Throughout the years, this group has gone through several different names and expanded its mission to become POWER—and Torres has been there to advise and inspire involved students from the very start. Torres has also served on various advisory committees and has seen Wells’ institutional commitment to supporting diversity on campus continue to grow.
To honor her personal commitment to fulfilling the promise of a quality education for Wells students and community members of all identities and backgrounds, students voted in the spring of 2013 to christen a new meeting and learning space “The Elsie Torres Diversity Lounge.” Torres considers the acknowledgement “so adorable,” but students who have had the fortunate experience of working with the devoted staff member know it is certainly well-deserved.
Like many other professors at Wells, Professor Daniel Renfrow has tapped into one of the best resources on campus for stimulating intellectual discussion and scholarly partnership—his students. “It’s a small place,” the sociology professor says of the college where he has been teaching since 2008. “Working with students allows me to create a community to share ideas.”
Renfrow’s community of young sociologists includes enthusiastic students in his popular, discussion-based courses, his undergraduate teaching assistants and students who have worked with him on sociological research. Alissa Toner ’15—who came to Wells from Dover-Foxcroft, Maine—enjoys fulfilling all three of these roles. Read more about Alissa Toner here.
When it comes to learning business, it’s important to have the right balance of experience, expertise, and vision—a fact that few have been involved with as directly as Dr. Gehan Shanmuganathan, Assistant Professor of Business. Gehan, or “Dr. G” as he’s known to his students, has led teams in product management, marketing and sales management, and strategic planning with companies in the U.S. and Sri Lanka; spent time training and interacting with multinational organizations in Austria, Germany, and Italy; and managed his own management consultancy company in New York City. These roles have contributed to a practical understanding of business and management that grounds Gehan’s teaching style in real-world business techniques and cross-cultural organizations.
Before turning to academia, Gehan spent many years in business, gaining valuable experience in marketing, product management, and strategic planning with a variety of companies including Nestle, TVS, FT Holding Company, and Clipsal. At the same time, he was building his credentials by earning his B.Sc. from the University of Colombo, MBA from the University of Cardiff-UK, and DBA from Jones International University-USA; in addition to putting in time teaching courses in business at Metropolitan College of New York, the European School of Economics, the College of Staten Island, the University of Colombo, and the Sri Lanka Institute of Marketing.
“From my childhood, my parents said that I’m very good at talking. They wanted me to become either a lawyer or a marketer,” Gehan said. “So I became a marketer convincing people to buy things, but then I thought I could apply this same philosophy convincing students to acquire knowledge. I find it a very comfortable as well as a prestigious thing to share knowledge and to see how the next generation is contributing to economic development.”
This desire is apparent in Gehan’s course offerings: in his first semester at Wells, Gehan is teaching courses in management, marketing, corporate finance, entrepreneurship, and small business management. “My personal perspective is, in a liberal arts college, to focus on leveraging the application of business principles,” he said. “So whether a student learns how to write a book, learn a language, put on a stage show or create a nice piece of sculpture—that has to be connected with the external market opportunities. My responsibility is to strengthen the relationship between the skill that the student has and market opportunities.”
With Wells’ recent addition of a minor in business and the continued growth of the new Susan Wray Sullivan ’51 and Pike H. Sullivan Center for Business and Entrepreneurship, Gehan will have many opportunities to help Wells students get their bearings before graduating.
“Business can be a force that influences or helps students to practically apply what they learn in the class room to market their products,” he notes. “Let’s capitalize on that.”
Theater Professor Siouxsie Easter seems to do it all—direct, produce, act, and even orchestrate art exhibits. But her most important role is one of coach. “I sit down with each student in the department and ask ‘what do you want to do with your time here?’” she says. “Then we give them the tools to make it happen, and we push them to make it happen. That’s what’s different here. Students produce their own projects—they see their ideas through to fruition in ways you don’t see at other theater programs. We don’t make projects fit into prescribed classes.”
When Alex Riad ’12 told Professor Easter that he wanted to be a playwright, she made sure that he was able to get to work immediately on productions of his own plays. With her help, he has staged four of his plays in three years, and this year he is working with a professional director and professional actors to develop and produce another work.
Beyond performance works on stage, Professor Easter fosters a range of projects. She works with the visual arts department each spring, for example, to produce a performance installation that combines two-dimensional and three-dimensional art, including photography, music, dance, and other art forms, for an exhibition in the Wells String Room Art Gallery. The first year of the installation the theme was “Lost and Found,” featuring live performances and artful depictions of items found over the course of the year on the Wells campus. Last year’s installation, “Sub Rosa: Secrets Under the Roses,” featured rose photography, confessional booths, and performances and artwork illustrating aspects of the “secret” theme.
“A lot of theater and dance students have interests in other areas of the arts,” says Easter. “Part of the value of learning from an interdisciplinary perspective is being able to see the connections between different media. Students then get a holistic view of art and art making.”
Professor Easter’s students also learn the value of working well in teams, on and off stage. In fact, they have been consistently honored for their ensemble acting, including the Theatre Association of New York State awards for “outstanding ensemble.” They are also there for each other on a day-to-day basis. “Students here do so much for each other. And that’s critical in the theater because this is not a solo art form,” says Easter. “You have to work together to make it happen. We’re not out there being the stars and the divas alone. I teach the students how to be competitive in this market; but in order to be competitive and get hired, you have to know how to work in an ensemble.”
Post graduation, Wells theater and dance students pursue a wide range of opportunities. “That’s the beauty of the liberal arts,” says Easter, who cites graduates working regional theaters and dance companies, pursuing graduate degrees, working as arts educators, and “hitting the streets” auditioning in New York City.
Whatever their goals, Easter is confident they’ll get there. “Our students know how to call in the resources they need to make a project happen. They don’t sit back and wait for someone to call them—they’ll make the first call,” she says. They’re also versatile, according to Easter. “Our actors know how to use power tools. Our technicians know how to give a monologue. Our stage managers know how to dance. That’s what you’re going to get here.”
One thing Professor Jackie Schnurr’s students don’t expect at the beginning of each semester is that they’ll become parents—of the green and leafy variety of children. “These plants are their babies,” says Schnurr, associate professor of biology and environmental studies.
Not only do her students take care of the plants they study, but they also take ownership of the studies themselves. “I ask them, ‘what would you like to learn about?’ and they shape their educational experience,” says Schnurr. “If you don’t want to take an active part in your education, you shouldn’t come to Wells,” she advises prospective students. “It’s such an important part of the experience here.”
Because the students “own” each project—whether its evaluating seedling growth or soil composition—the students care more about it, according to Schnurr. The experiential nature of her courses also engages students. “We’re outside as much as possible, doing hands-on projects and research,” she says. Her students are in the field testing hypotheses that address issues such as why trees don’t grow in certain areas, what light conditions encourage plant growth, and why deer are attracted to some plants more than others.
Kassandra Stepniak ’11 recently worked with Professor Schnurr on a research project comparing Australia and New York State in terms of the rate of wood decay and its relationship to global warming. She presented that work at the National Council for Undergraduate Research and received the Distinguished Student Researcher Award by the School for Field Studies, where Stepniak spent a semester in Australia.
Professor Schnurr’s students go on to medical school, pharmacy school, and veterinary school, as well as a range of other graduate programs and professions. Some change course after taking a class with Schnurr, arriving as aspiring doctors, but leaving as aspiring ecologists and botanists.
“I was shocked when I first got here because I’d start the semester thinking that all the students want is to get into medical school, but at the end of the semester they’re often asking me about a potential senior thesis topic in plant biology or courses in ecology they can take at Cornell,” she says. “When students here learn about something, they take it and run with it.”
“Facts themselves are boring,” says Professor Michael Groth. “What makes history exciting is the interpretation of facts—finding meaning in the facts.”
In Professor Groth’s popular history courses, each assignment and discussion goes well beyond the stories of past events.
At the end of the spring 2011 semester, his American history students wrote letters to their future children or grandchildren explaining what it was like in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. “They had fun remembering their own personal experiences and tying that in to course material,” says Groth. In the final class meeting, he asked the students to consider if people in the U.S. are better off today than 150 years ago. They had very different opinions, making for a memorable discussion to cap off the year.
In all of his courses, Groth invites students to think of themselves as historians, asking them to develop their own answers based on critical analysis of primary and secondary source material. Did slavery cause the Civil War? Did the market revolution of the 1800s lead to more or less opportunity for Americans? Such scholarly debates have evidence on each side. Groth’s students interpret the evidence and develop and substantiate their own positions.
A member of the Wells faculty since 1994, Groth rarely gives lectures, preferring instead class discussions and small group exercises. And every year is different. “Even if the material is the same, the skills, interests and dynamic among the students are different,” he says. It’s the people that make his classes fascinating—those in the classroom and those in the history books.
“History is about people, and there’s nothing more interesting than people,” says Groth.
Perhaps that’s why Groth is so committed to his work with undergraduates. “I know many high powered faculty members—distinguished writers with national reputations—who are not great in the classroom. I like to research; I like to write; but I really love to teach,” he says.
Shortly before civil war broke out in Liberia in 1989, Tukumbi Lumumba-Kasongo was forced out of the country, as a result, he says, of “the dysfunction of presidential and legislative elections.” He migrated to the United States, leaving the University of Liberia, where he was chair of the political science department. He found opportunities teaching at Wellesley College, Vassar College, and Cornell University before making his home at Wells. But he never left Africa entirely.
Whether traveling throughout Africa to advise delegates from the United Nations and other regional and international agencies, attending conferences and workshops, or serving as co-editor of the African Journal of International Affairs, Professor Lumumba-Kasongo remains actively involved in African politics. He creates knowledge and informs policy makers not only about Africa, but also other regions around the world.
“Because I am heavily involved in world politics, I can bring those experiences into the classroom,” he says. “I combine teaching and research so that I can excite young minds while producing knowledge that can effect policies worldwide.”
When class is not in session, Professor Lumumba-Kasongo travels extensively as an active member of the International Political Science Association, American Political Science Association, and Council of Social Science Research in Africa. He is also former vice president of the African Association of Political Science.
His courses at Wells reflect wide-ranging interests and expertise, including political science theory, comparative politics, international relations, international political economy, and global political issues, including the environment. “Everything I teach is in the context of global systems, he says. “So when we study Japan, for example, we don’t just learn about the policies of Japan but how those policies affect the whole world.”
A prolific researcher, Lumumba-Kasongo has served as editor of the Journal of African and Asian Studies, associate editor of the Journal of Comparative Education and International Relations in Africa, and member of several editorial boards of journals. He has published more than 100 articles and many books, the most recent of which focuses on Japan-Africa relations. He recently served as a Visiting Research Fellow at the Center for the Study of International Cooperation in Education (CICE), Hiroshima University, Japan. These experiences help him involve his teaching assistants and students in the business of developing and testing hypotheses.
“I love this work because I can influence the minds of young people, he says. “And to me, that is vital—to have a hand in creating and sharing knowledge—not just any kind of knowledge, but critical, historical, comparative information.” Lumumba-Kasongo says that he particularly enjoys teaching at Wells because of its small class size, its philosophical foundation of social justice, and its commitment to the liberal arts. “When you put these elements together, you have something wonderful, and that is why I am here,” he says.
As a public intellectual, Professor Lumumba-Kasongo sees his work as his way of having a positive impact on the world. “In order to make the world better, you have to understand it,” he says. “I help students understand the world by giving them the opportunity to gain critical thinking skills and knowledge, as well as the ability to see the connections between knowledge and the world out there. It’s a responsibility and a challenge, but I love it.”
You might not naturally peg a professor of psychology as an expert in environmental sustainability. But since 1999, Professor Milene Morfei has been teaching a popular course on the topic—and her passion for it is contagious, affecting the entire Wells campus.
As a result of a project in her Psychology of Environmental Sustainability course, trays are no longer used in the dining room. “With entire trays to fill, students took more than they could eat, resulting in a lot of waste,” says Morfei. Now, using only individual plates and bowls, students waste significantly less food. The secret to motivating the policy change? Economic incentive. “Some people may not care about sustainability, but they care about saving money,” she says.
Applying psychological concepts to change environmentally destructive behavior has long been a passion of Professor Morfei’s. “I’m committed to make change in the world, using my discipline,” she says.
By turning assignments into service learning projects on the Wells campus, Morfei empowers students to identify problems, understand the barriers, and implement solutions. She encourages them to draw on their knowledge of psychology to answer the question, “what’s the best way I can get people to listen to me and make change?” By understanding what motivates others, her students explore a wide range of environmental issues that touch on many disciplines, including sociology, political science, and economics. As a result, her course draws students from a number of different majors.
While also studying environmental issues worldwide, Morfei’s students take action closer to home. Issues on deck include the use of two refrigerators in each dorm room, using disposable instead of reusable cups, and keeping lights on in campus rooms that are unused. Wells President Emerita Lisa Marsh Ryerson '81 signed a commitment to reduce the College’s carbon footprint, giving Morfei’s students even greater leverage for tackling environmentally destructive behavior on campus.
Morfei, who also teaches courses in organizational behavior, adult development and aging, social psychology, and forensic psychology, works on sustainability issues in concert with her colleague Niamh O’ Leary, professor of environmental science.
“Today on campus I’m seeing a lot more awareness about sustainability than I did just a few years ago,” says Morfei, who cites the Campus Greens student group as an example. She is committed to expanding that awareness and translating it into action. “I don’t think we can, in good conscience, graduate students who lack a firm understanding of the enormous environmental challenges we face.”
Olson and McClusky
How’s this for an itinerary? Sample incredible cuisine, explore ancient ruins, visit museums, hear first-hand about indigenous cultures, soak up the tropical sun, and learn the hula…while gaining college credit. These are a few of the activities during Wells’ off-campus programs in Belize and Hawaii.
The programs, however, are the antithesis of leisurely vacations. Led by anthropology professors Ernie Olson and Laura McClusky, each program encourages students to develop ethnographic skills—the ability to develop a meaningful understanding of a culture through active participation and observation.
Students also learn to think critically about issues such as social justice, sustainable development, the role of tourism, the pressures of environmental movements, and the influence of a global economy.
“We introduce students to non-indulgent tourism,” says Olson. “That is, not exerting any negative influence, but in some way learning, growing personally, and making contributions when possible.”
The off-campus programs connect with Professor Olson and McClusky’s on-campus courses as well as their own fieldwork and research interests.
Each year, Professor Olson leads his three-credit January program in Hawaii after offering his fall course, Hawaii: Colonialism, Tourism, and Religion. A group of students from the course go on to complete the off-campus program, which takes place on three Hawaiian islands: Oahu, Maui, and the Big Island. During the program students develop a nuanced understanding of the history, religion and culture of the people of Hawaii, including native Hawaiians, Japanese, Chinese, Koreans, and Philippians. Their journey includes working in a taro patch, service learning at ethnobotanical gardens, touring archeological sites and natural wonders, and exploring Chinatown in Honolulu. “Our immersion in Hawaii is a fascinating study of East meets West,” says Olson.
In Belize, Professor McClusky leads groups of students each year on a one-week orientation program prior to their semester abroad at Belize’s Galen University. This preparation gives them a rich perspective on the country where they’ll be studying. The program begins at a local market, where the students sample a wide range of exotic foods, and it continues with a caravan across the country. As they visit Mayan ruins, meet with indigenous “Garifuna” coastal people, explore a jaguar reserve, boat through mangroves, and visit plantations and villages, the group learns about the culture and history of Belize as well as the complexities that exist at the intersection of development and preservation.
“We’re helping students understand cultural difference and global issues on a personal level,” says McClusky. “And our students can apply the perspective they gain on these trips to see the broader picture wherever they are. If they see a housing development in Belize, outside of Honolulu, or in downtown Rochester, they can recognize the influences of the global economy, global resource flows, racism, inequalities, and power.” These lessons have staying power, McClusky explains—“We’re bringing important issues to life through experience, so students are engaged and actively involved in their learning.”