A Woman of Mission

The passing of Sister Joel Read OSF ’48 at age 91 in May 2017 brought an outpouring of tributes and memories from those whose lives she touched as an educator, colleague, mentor and friend. One of the nation’s longest-serving college presidents, Sister Joel not only led but transformed Alverno College. Sister Joel’s influence on higher education extended nationally and internationally, but she was equally effective on a personal level, with a gift for energizing and inspiring most everyone she met.

As a student dining in the Alverno cafeteria with only her books for company, Peg Rauschenberger ’85 looked up to see the College’s president pulling up a chair.

At many colleges, this would be unusual, but it was Sister Joel’s way. “If she saw you sitting alone, she would come sit with you,” Rauschenberger says. “She seemed to remember everybody’s name. She would say, ‘What are you doing? What are you learning?’ She would press you: ‘How is it changing you? What is it doing for you?’”

During her conversation with Sister Joel, Rauschenberger confessed to struggling with an assignment. “She said, ‘Well, then you better go to the library and look it up!’” Rauschenberger recalls. “And then she looked at me like: ‘Now!’” After a beat, Rauschenberger took the hint. Off she went, lunch unfinished.

Sister Joel “was a force to be reckoned with,” says Rauschenberger, who returned to Alverno 11 years after graduating to teach future nurses. “When I came back, she still had that same charisma and energy. It hadn’t faded one iota.”

Education was Sister Joel’s life’s work, and those who had her for a teacher recall how she challenged them to grow.

“It was the first time someone said to me, ‘Don’t say such general things. Write what you’re really thinking,’” says Elizabeth Barnhill ’67, who took Sister Joel’s history of Western civilization course. “It was my first experience of someone pushing me.”

Sister Joel’s advocacy for women extended far beyond the classroom, compelling her, in 1966, to become one of 49 founding members of the National Organization for Women (NOW). In a visit last April to Alverno philosophy professor Amy Shapiro’s feminist theory class, Sister Joel shared a vivid story about a NOW-related gathering in Chicago: Late one night, a woman in the group fell ill. Sister Joel and another nun volunteered to fetch medicine, reasoning that walking the city streets in habits might protect them. “It was a point, I thought, about both the precariousness of women’s lives and constant threat they experience as well as the significance of being in habit and the contribution they could make, as nuns, to the movement,” Shapiro says.

Sister Joel was appointed as Alverno’s president in 1968, when societal changes challenged many colleges to adapt to attract and serve a changing student population. She collaborated with faculty to design a new vision for education that became reality in 1973, when Alverno debuted a unique curriculum designed to foster in students eight key abilities and leverage assessment as learning. The approach continues to distinguish Alverno and its graduates.

Michael Winston, the former provost of Howard University who worked with Sister Joel for many years in his later role as president of the Alfred Harcourt Foundation, calls her “one of the most remarkable leaders in higher education” and “a very fine adaptive educator who steered Alverno toward some important changes that it needed to make not only to survive, but to thrive.”

Sister Joel championed innovative programs at Alverno that extended educational opportunities to more women. Delores Parr ’97 attended Alverno’s Weekend College and was struck by how Sister Joel supported students in a personalized way.

“Whenever I was having a bad moment or going through a really anxious stage, Sister Joel popped up,” Parr says. “She was there with a smile and a hug, asking how are you doing, how are things going. She would give you a hug or squeeze your hand — it was that kind of encouragement and support. She was the embodiment of all that she wanted Alverno to be.”

Sister Joel’s vision included helping each student find her unique voice and place in the world. Gail Kordus ’91 ’99 says Sister Joel’s example and positive reinforcement were great motivators for her and others pursuing their education while working and raising children. “Her words and her actions said to us, ‘You can do this,’” Kordus says. “She was so instrumental in building a program that built women. It was about helping us look at who we were and what [the Sisters on the faculty] could do to help us become the women we were meant to be.”

Kordus found her calling as an educator, and says she is proud to carry on Sister Joel’s legacy. “My classroom has always been the mini-Alverno,” she says. “Success for all, and changing the mindset from ‘I can’t do it’ to ‘I can do it.’”

When Sister Joel passed away, many alumnae took to email and Facebook to express their grief and gratitude, as well as to share how she influenced the women they are today.

Laurie Letson Lenten ’84 remembered Sister Joel telling the freshman class, “We are not going to teach you everything you need to know in four years, but we are going to give you the ability to access everything you need to know.” Added Lenten, “She was absolutely correct.”

Iran Jennings ’07 ’17 wrote simply, “Once you met her, your life was never the same.”

Sister Joel retired from Alverno in 2003 after 35 years as president but remained a vital part of campus life. Rauschenberger, dean of the JoAnn McGrath School of Nursing and Health Professions and Health Professions, says that she received frequent calls from Sister Joel with medical questions on behalf of others.

Very soon before she died, Sister Joel called to ask if a World War I-era medical procedure she saw in an episode of Downton Abbey was true to the time period.

“I didn’t know,” Rauschenberger says. “It took me right back to when I was a student when she said, ‘You better go to the library!’ And so I said, ‘I will research it and get back to you!’ It had come full circle. I had this whole life of experience with her, and wound up in the same place: with her motivating me to keep learning.”

This article originally appeared in the fall 2017 issue of Alverno Magazine.

To learn more about Sister Joel’s legacy, please click here

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