Saint Joseph's University

Professor Perspective: Building Bridges of Opportunity

This past week, as I crossed City Avenue for a meeting in Barbelin Hall, I overheard a conversation about recent renovations of the bridge that connects the two sides of campus. I found myself thinking about Fr. Nicholas Rashford, SJ, former President of SJU, who often used that bridge as a metaphor for the various “efforts at connecting” that have been necessary to make our University the best place that it could be.

As Professor and Chair of the Teacher Education Department, and as Interim Associate Dean, I have been helping to build a bridge between the Health Services Department in Post Hall and the three Education-related departments in Merion Hall.  These four departments will comprise the new School of Health Studies and Education that is launching in Fall 2019.  Some might find themselves wondering “why a school that combines both?” Most universities have one of each—a School of Education and a School of Health Studies. Hmm.

The Faculty Senate and Senior Administration here at St. Joe’s asked this question (and many others!) as they explored and debated a new school during the 2017-2018 academic year.  In May 2018, after much exploration and deliberation, the Faculty Senate voted by an overwhelming majority to go ahead with the “new school.” I then became deeply involved in the logistical and practical steps necessary to add a School of Health Studies and Education to the existing College of Arts and Sciences and Haub School of Business.  From changes in the catalog and new representation in faculty governance to shifts in advising and student services and operations, and on and on: the task is Herculean, but the undertaking is well worth it.  This school represents an innovative “bridging” of education- and health-related disciplines.  And doesn’t that make sense?  I’ve always had a suspicion that really good teachers are also really good healers, and vice versa; the two vocations, in best cases, go hand in glove.

A look at the faculty who will make up the School of Health Studies and Education leaves me excited by the possibilities of this discipline-bridging.  In the Special Education Department, Dr. Cheryl George studies the positive impact of exercise on emotional health and academic performance among individuals with autism.  Dr. Molly Sheppard works to educate pediatricians about effective ways to work with schools to keep students with special needs healthy.  In the Health Services Department, Dr. Sally Kuykendall is a nationally recognized expert on bullying in both school and community contexts. Dr. Anita Heeren is an internationally recognized expert in AIDS education and prevention. As you look around to find experts in peace education, moral education, mental health, pharmaceutical research, applied behavioral analysis, education of the deaf and hard of hearing—the list goes on and on—you realize that we are already “primed” as professors and scholars in those spaces of human reality where teaching and healing come together; they are not at all separate endeavors.

Just this past week, at a “brown bag” seminar attended by many of the faculty from the four departments making up the new school, Dr. Tom Martin from the Health Services spoke about his research in health care informatics, drawing direct parallels to similar issues in the field of education; then Dr. Molly Sheppard from the Special Education Department talked about her work described earlier.  Both talks brought to life the myriad connections between education and health, as closely linked efforts aimed at care for the whole person—embodying the Jesuit ideal of cura personalis.

There are other bridges being built beside this one.  Teacher Education is working closely with History, Biology, English, and Modern Languages to train secondary teachers; Special Education is working closely with Health Services and the Kinney Center to improve and expand programs related to Autism Studies.  Faculty in all four departments are involved in “mental health first aid” and efforts to support students at all levels suffering from anxiety, depression, addiction, and disaffection.  Dean Menon continues to emphasize the importance of developing interdisciplinary perspectives and efforts in our growing life as a community of learners, and the new school offers an opportunity to clarify and articulate the bridges that will enhance such interdisciplinary connections in our effort to “help and to serve.”

And, of course, it is an exciting time for students to be “building their own bridges” between Hawk Hill and the Philadelphia community.  Many of our students, after completing internships and student-teaching experiences in the Delaware Valley, are offered jobs in nearby schools or attend graduate school at the many universities and graduate health programs in the area.  I have lived in the city of Philadelphia for 40 years (I’ve taught at St. Joe’s for 30 of those!), and it always does my heart good to run into former students in restaurants or stores and to learn about their successes after being undergraduates here.  Doctors, nurses, teachers, physical therapists, counselors, coaches—all teachers and healers.

Of course, first, we need to connect all the pieces of machinery to get the new school running. But we are starting to talk and dream about where that machine will take us once it’s ready to go a few months from now.  And the journey will involve crossing many bridges and making great connections.

Dr. Frank Bernt, Professor and Chair, Teacher Education; Interim Associate Dean, School of Health Studies and Education