Inaugural Speech of Dr. Anne Prisco

Dr. Anne Prisco at Commencement

Dr. Anne Prisco at Commencement

Thank you, Sister Clarette and Sister Aquinas, and my deepest thanks to you all for gathering here today to share in celebrating Felician College’s rich legacy and the promise of a vibrant and exciting future.

I also want to thank Dr. Barbara Gordon and the Felician College Choir for their beautiful Ode to Joy.  Their joyful music is so fitting for this occasion.

I accept this honor with humility – knowing that serving as your fifth president comes with great responsibility.  And great joy.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the well-known 20th Century priest, philosopher and paleontologist once wrote, “Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God.”

Since arriving at Felician last summer, I have felt the joy that comes from being part of a community dedicated to promoting a love for learning, a desire for God, self-knowledge, service to others and respect for all.

Where collaboration and the lively exchange of ideas across departments and disciplines are encouraged …so that we all may play a role in inspiring each other on our quest for truth.

But to be honest, I expected nothing less from a school founded 70 years ago by the Felician Sisters with “In Veritate Felicitas,”“In Truth is Happiness,” as its motto. . .with its commitment to fostering the joy of learning…developing informed minds and understanding hearts…and bringing students to their highest potential, so that they are better prepared to participate in today’s world — a world filled not just with joy and happiness but also suffering, poverty, hunger and sorrow.

A commitment not only to maintaining the highest educational standards but also to making that quality value-driven education affordable and accessible to all who wish to be part of our community.

By formally assuming the role of president of Felician College today, I pledge to uphold those commitments. To champion Felician College’s unique role as a Franciscan college, grounded in the Catholic intellectual tradition.

I pledge to ensure that the Felician’s Franciscan charism thrives as they lived reality of the Felician College community.

As the fifth president to serve this college, I follow in footsteps much to be admired…

Sister Mary Virginette, Sister Mary Justitia, Sister Mary Hiltrude, and Sister Theresa Mary.

Having served the college for 28 years, Sister Theresa Mary Martin has left a remarkable legacy of growth, achievement and continuous improvement. She has provided leadership that reflects vision coupled with institutional nimbleness. The College’s academic offerings reflect a dynamism that recognizes and addresses the needs of the local, national, and global communities.

On behalf of all of us here today, I want to thank Sister Theresa Mary Martin.

One of the most striking examples of her bold leadership was the decision to transform the college by purchasing our Rutherford campus, located three miles from where we gather today.

Indeed, many of you may recall the campus as it was formerly the founding location for Farleigh Dickinson University. Now, as part of Felician College, the campus is a residential model, with academic buildings, a gymnasium, residence halls, and our recently restored and historic Iviswold Castle.

What new president can literally say “I have keys to the Castle”?!

The Rutherford campus is also my new home. As a native of Brooklyn, like all true Brooklynites, I must confess that I once harbored a New Yorker’s parochial view of New Jersey.  But after my first few months here, I am humbled to admit that this really is a fabulous place to live and work.

I am proud to build on the Felician Sisters’ legacy by continuing to expand our student body, continuing to make Felician College an inclusive community that represents a wonderful “diversity of diversities” — attracting students of all ages, interests and backgrounds, delivering courses in all of the many ways now available to us.

WE will build on the Felician Sisters’ legacy by continuing to expand our curricula to include a more interdisciplinary approach to the teaching and learning of courses in the arts and sciences, business, education, healthcare, and nursing.

And by continuing to support and expand our student life, athletic, fine arts, and performing arts programs that contribute so much to strengthening our community spirit.

Institutions like Felician play an important role in today’s educational landscape. We are small enough to be able to offer an academic environment where faculty, students and staff experience the joy that comes from being able to engage each other.  And we are large enough to offer a curriculum that includes 55 academic programs.

Our value for the individual obligates us to create an environment where each person is honored, where the exchange of ideas occurs in dialogue in small classes, where our staff know students by name, and yes, where people say hello and smile at each other.

I pledge to continue that legacy as we update our campuses and our classrooms so that we truly meet the needs of those we serve.

We will refurbish the science labs this summer, and we will complete renovation of Milton Hall in June. Included in my vision for Felician College is creation of the Education Commons– adjacent to the Iviswold Castle. The Education Commons will serve as a hub for our community by housing a digital library, study spaces, state of the art classrooms, a Nursing Skills Lab, and of course that all important cafe.

Think of it as a grand and glorious space for all of us to work together, to be together.

In just the early years of the 21st Century, we have already seen how rapidly the needs of those who serve have changed.

Advances in technology have eliminated borders and boundaries in ways we never imagined, so that we are now all citizens of a wider world.

Thus, we must recognize the increased demand for global initiatives that will provide our students with opportunities to study abroad, to participate in international learning exchanges and to continue to benefit from our highly acclaimed United Nations Fellows Program.

As citizens of the world, and in the Franciscan tradition, we have a responsibility to be wise stewards of our resources. We can reflect that in our daily lives at Felician College by educating our students to embrace the value of peace and justice through the goal of creating sustainable lifestyles and communities.

And as citizens of the world, if we are to meet the needs of those we serve, we must recognize the increased demand to offer opportunities for lifelong learning.

A true liberal arts college is now a place where people can return at any time, to take courses for the sheer pleasure of studying a subject that’s caught their interest. Or classes they need to advance in their jobs or change careers. I myself returned to pursue my doctoral studies at the age of 38 with two young sons. And while I am not anywhere close to retiring, I do believe that a true liberal arts college has become a place where people return in their retirement to once again experience the joy of learning.

Our new opportunities are enormous and so are our challenges.

Nationally, higher education is under great scrutiny.

As tuition costs rise, students and parents are increasingly questioning the value of higher education. Colleges and universities are being called on to be more accountable.

And President Obama has challenged all of us to improve our college completion rates so that we as a nation are once again the world leader in the number of adults who hold postsecondary credentials.

Felician College is meeting those challenges by reimagining our curriculum and how we teach it.

Our strategic plan is in keeping with national standards.  But it is our own measurement of achievement that has been and always will be what guides us.  Our commitment to the success of our faculty and our students has never been stronger.

Theodore Roosevelt, whose life was filled with so many impressive awards and honors, both personal and political, once said,   “Far and away the best prize life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.”

For me, it is not a prize I’ve won, but instead a great gift I’ve been given.

For someone who is passionate about the transformative power of education, what could be better than the opportunity to be part of Felician College, the opportunity to do work that is very much worth doing.

My own life has been transformed because of education.  My father came to the United States from Italy at the age of 34.  He worked in construction and my mother was a homemaker.  I am the first in my family to graduate from college. Financial aid made it possible not only for me to go to college, but also made it possible for me to attend the University of my Choice. Those experiences have made all the difference.

But even with financial aid, I could never have come so far without the loving support of my family.  My parents, Lou and Grace Prisco, who have both passed, expected me to be strong and taught me, by example, to work hard. My father believed in the American dream, that education was the passport to a good life, telling my brother and I, go to school, use your brains not your back… and of course there were my uncles and aunts and cousins who provided the extended family structure of loving support, guidance, and criticism if I should happen to step out of line…like maybe wearing too short a skirt!

And to my Sergi guys, my husband Steve — the love of my life — and my sons Zachary and Louis, they are my pillars and my strength, and a constant source of joy in reminding me of what is important in life.

I am delighted so many of our extended family, friends, and colleagues could be here today, some traveling from Italy, others from various parts of the country, to share in this celebration. I thank you all, specialmente Antonio and Stefania.

So as a first in my family to graduate, and as an economist, I rail against those who suggest that college is not for everyone. While for a small population that may hold true, I would like to ask…so is it your son or daughter or niece or nephew that should not attend college? Or perhaps someone else’s child? Or parent? Or sibling?

As a Catholic who has served in a number of Catholic institutions, I am equally passionate about the role that religion should play in the academic experience.

For centuries, poets, philosophers and scholars have recognized that religion or spirituality is an important dimension of what it means to be human. Still, sometimes, the modern world forgets what St. Francis and the Sufi poet Rumi understood in the 13th Century, that we are all branches of the same tree.

Our humanity is both unique and universal. It transcends all barriers and informs all experience. 

Recently, the American Psychological Association advised its members to be more aware of the powerful influence that religion and spirituality have on human behavior. Noting that research is scarce on how faith affects our daily lives.

At the same time, the current issue of Trusteeship, a journal for college and university Trustees, draws our attention to education as formation in an article that says. . .

“The new visibility of religion on college and university campuses is re-energizing this more reflective, less immediately practical side of higher learning, and as a bonus it also contributes to students’ job skills.

Employers are looking for graduates with global awareness, cultural competence, communication skills, and integrity – traits that are honed by engagement with personal, public, and historic religion.”

The article goes on to say…

“Religion is no longer a purely private affair, and careful nuanced attention to religion will be a necessary dimension of any truly excellent college or university education in the 21st century.”

I’m glad to see the rest of the academic world catching up to us.

Since its founding, Felician College has provided its students with a campus life rich in opportunities for engagement and development of the whole person: mind, spirit, and body.

But Felician College is at a tipping point. Our continued growth, our own transformation, must come from our ability to see our role in ever-evolving ways. It must come from our ability to innovate.

We are fortunate that Felician College has its roots in the teachings of two great innovators– Saint Francis and Blessed Mother Angela.

Not content to lead the lives of privilege to which they were born, each of them heeded the call to serve those in need in ways that broke with tradition. Both were considered revolutionary in their times. Yet today, we see in them the embodiment of what it means to lead a life of contemplation in action.

When I first read the story of Blessed Mother Angela, I was struck by her strength and her courage. As a young woman in Poland in the mid-1800s, she knew she could not answer her calling by leading the cloistered life prescribed for women.  Instead, she followed the vision of St Francis and St Vincent — who believed in getting out among the people, compelling their followers to view the whole world as their cloister.

Sister Angela founded a new religious congregation.

She established new way for Polish women to lead a life in service to God by serving others. And like her patron, St. Francis, who, despite shipwrecks, illnesses and six years of setbacks that would have stopped someone less determined, he traveled beyond Italy to spread the Gospel to Spain and then Egypt…

Blessed Mother Angela was also visionary in her quest to move beyond national, cultural, and religious boundaries.

Her congregation expanded from Poland to Austria and survived the Russian suppression; just 17 years after the congregation was formed, they bravely sent their first group of five sisters to join a Polish priest in Wisconsin— knowing full well that they would likely never see each other again.

Those five sisters planted the seeds of the Felician order that spread across the United States…and brought us here today.

The strength and courage of Blessed Mother Angela, her vision, are at the very foundation of Felician College.

Now we must all find the strength and courage to continue growing, adapting, and innovating, to meet the needs of those we serve . . .so that Felician College can continue to grow and change while holding true to its values. Let’s live the vision “to be a pre-eminent Catholic institution where scholarship and the practice of teaching and learning place students first in the enduring quest for truth and persistent pursuit of competence, character, and compassion.”

Let me turn again to the words of Teilhard de Chardin who wrote “The future belongs to those who give the next generation reason for hope.”

I look forward to working with all of you as we shape that future…as we realize the vision of Felician College as a vital community of teachers, scholars, artists, staff, and students who bring hope to the next generations.

May we meet these responsibilities entrusted to us with hearts filled with joy.

Thank you, thank you very much.