by Claire Curry
Alvernia University has been evolving since its earliest beginnings as a small liberal arts college for the Bernardine Franciscan Sisters. In recent years, under the leadership of President John R. Loyack, the university has been growing at an accelerated pace. The Reading CollegeTowne initiative is fusing academia with business and breathing new life into the city. The O'Pake Institute, Alvernia's business incubator and think tank, and the new engineering program have broadened the university's offerings with industry-informed curricula, field experiences and direct pathways to rewarding careers.
This summer, Alvernia's administration and faculty announced another critical step in the university's journey toward the future: its restructuring from two colleges and graduate programs to a four-college model.
According to Provost Glynis Fitzgerald, Ph.D., the plan will bring departments, campuses, faculty and students together to foster inter-departmental dialogue, enhance scholarship and forge partnerships that deepen the university's ties within the Reading community and beyond.
“We wanted to enhance the sense of community among the members of the same department and have that engagement where everyone in the department, across campuses, across graduate and undergraduate [programs] — all are part of the same thing,” said Fitzgerald.
Department groupings under each of the four college pillars also make it possible for students to explore multiple career paths. “Students don't all come into college knowing exactly what they want to do,” Fitzgerald said. “We have a lot of first-generation college students who know they want to be in the health profession, but what happens if they get exposed to athletic training, or other different paths? They'll be able to explore. This allows us to help them find the pathway that meets their needs, and ultimately, their happiness.”
A Collaborative, Team Effort
Alvernia's new model is the result of a rigorous, yearlong process and thoughtful discussions between the administration, chairs and faculty. During their deliberations, all of the pros and cons were considered, sometimes in Zoom meetings with more than 100 individuals attending. Former Faculty Council President and Associate Professor of Business Mary Ellen Wells, J.D., oversaw the undertaking, saying it was “extremely collaborative.”
“We came together and completed an academic structure in one year,” she said. “It's a credit to the administration for putting parameters in place and being willing to be flexible.” Landing on four colleges, she explained, was based on “a synergy of disciplines” that made the most sense.
The new College of Business, Communication and Leadership, which also includes the MBA and Mater’s and Ph.D. in Leadership programs, will be housed in the heart of Reading at Alvernia's downtown campus at 401 Penn Street, in the very same building as BCTV, La Mega Radio, Community First Fund and the Mother Veronica Resource Center. Longtime Alvernia business and leadership faculty member Dr. Travis Berger will lead the College.
The College of Health Sciences, representing the university's long history of health care education, is home to Alvernia's nationally recognized Nursing program, as well as Athletic Training, Occupational Therapy, Physical Therapy and a new Physician's Assistant program. Fitzgerald said changes on the horizon include alterations to the health care curricula and new, state-of-the-art space. In addition, Thomas E. Beeman, Ph.D., longtime president and CEO of Lancaster General Health (LGH) and chief operating officer of University of Pennsylvania Health System, was named interim dean of the College of Health Sciences.
Exploring Enduring Questions
Alvernia's College of Humanities, Education and Social Sciences (CHESS) brings together the Humanities, Addictions and Mental Health, Psychology, Education, Criminal Justice and Social Work programs. Dean Elizabeth Matteo, Ph.D., believes that the inclusion of the humanities will help students discern their calling and also equip them to think critically about “enduring questions of humanity” that will be essential not only in their careers, but throughout their lives.
“Students who pursue majors in CHESS are hopefully interested in understanding and questioning broader systems, institutions and organizations,” she said. “By examining enduring human questions, not only will students begin to define their values, beliefs and passions, they will gain vital life skills that enrich their personal and emotional lives.”
This departmental grouping will also open new doors for experiential training opportunities, such as classroom simulation, field placements and internships, to improve the behavioral health workforce. “The critical thinking students develop in the classroom combined with the array of practical experiences they gain through internships in Berks County and the region work together to prepare them for becoming change agents and leaders when they graduate,” Matteo said.
Putting the “A” in STEAM
Another key outcome of the new academic structure is the inclusion of the arts with sciences, creating Alvernia's new College of Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics (STEAM), headed by Interim Dean Rodney Ridley, Ph.D. The consensus is that the intersection of disciplines will result in greater innovation among students in all of these disciplines.
“Engineers, by definition, are creators, and innovation in art has a lot to do with creative expression,” Ridley said. Nathan Thomas, Ph.D., professor of theater and chair of the Department of Fine and Performing Arts, agreed, adding that in light of all of the critical challenges facing the world today, the need for creative thinkers is greater than ever before.
“Think about the mountains and mountains of trash that we produce in our modern culture every single day,” he said. “Think about materials. It is artistic in terms of how we package things so that they look attractive and they jump off the shelf into your basket, but then how do we deal with the waste? What we need to do is to see where we can intersect with engineering, technology and the sciences in a way that we can be more creative in finding answers and solutions, and asking better questions.”
With engineering partners like East Penn Manufacturing and Enersys already being tapped to develop projects for engineering students starting in the spring 2022 semester, both Thomas and Ridley look forward to the limitless possibilities to cultivate interprofessional projects—in areas like sports gaming, digital media, virtual reality, motion capture performance and more—as well as the opportunities to raise up the community in new and exciting ways.
“There's a very vibrant art scene in this region,” Ridley said, noting the rich cultural diversity not only in downtown Reading but in its surrounding communities. To that end, the college is exploring partnerships with local organizations, such as the Reading Film Festival, Reading Arts Collective, Berks Arts Council, Reading Musical Foundation and Goggleworks, an interactive arts education center and studio with more than 35 artists in residence working in an array of different media.
Levi Landis, its president and executive director, said that the STEAM concept is “brilliant” and looks forward to the ways that a partnership between Goggleworks and Alvernia can drive positive change in Reading.
“We're determined to make sure that arts can not only help change our perspectives and our narratives about the city, but that it can be a vehicle for social change,” he said, emphasizing that the students themselves will be the change makers. “They get to be the leaders. I think they can really lead the charge for what we're going to see in terms of thinking about equity—how we serve the people in the city in terms of wealth—but also in terms of design and beauty. I'm filled with hope and this kind of move for the university is one that supports and gives life to that hope."
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2022 issue of the Alvernia Magazine.