Adam Interviews Dr. Deana Porterfield

Adam Interviews

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — Drive onto the campus of Roberts Wesleyan College and you’ll spot construction. Going up is as much an idea as a building… A center designed to better link education to jobs. The facility will also provide a generous amount of space for students.

Speaking of, students will arrive to campus this weekend, welcoming them will beDr. Deana Porterfield, president of Roberts Wesleyan College and Northeastern Seminary. She and Adam talked earlier this week about the all that’s happening at the school including adjusting to a pandemic.

So students arrive this weekend with orientation on Friday. How are you feeling about everything?

I’m excited. So last year we had students on campus, but we didn’t gather in groups the same that we had historically so community was really different. We were in smaller groups based on New York State parameters, but this year we are going to welcome students in a new way. Masks, of course, inside, but together. So we have events planned with the student body. Convocation, kick-off for faculty and staff.

Tomorrow, I’m going to meet the student leaders that have been here since this weekend in preparing for the semester. Being together will be different in a sense because we weren’t able to do that in the same way we always have.

What has it been like to lead a college through a pandemic?

Challenging.

The phrase that I’ve used is leading in a pandemic… is all about judgment calls and you’re always looking as a leader for the right answer or the best decision at that time… Really judgment calls is what it’s been about.

Things are changing all the time, there’s the New York State regulations that have come out, Monroe County, the CDC, you’re always adjusting to little parts of that. I think as a leader, how you bring those rules and mandates to your community, to a group of faculty, staff and students, who want to be together, probably the most challenging. No one is really happy in this season with the decisions you make but you have to make the best decisions you can and use the best judgment you can in those moments, so it’s challenging.

You’re relatively new to Rochester and Roberts Wesleyan. What’s been your impression so far?

4:10 I love Rochester. I came from California. When I arrived in Rochester I was so excited about the history about the work that’s been done over the years here. Every weekend my husband and I made a decision to go do an activity that was just Rochester so whether that was High Falls or we went to the Eastman Museum or the Museum of Play or we walked around Letchworth, we just did something different to understand. One of the things I love is the history, that Frederick Douglass walked these roads and fought for equal rights for people, that Susan B. Anthony cast her first vote here, those align with the founding of our college. Our founder B.E. Roberts, who actually was an abolitionist, who believed women should be ordained, which is still controversial today in some places, and that was at the same time that Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony were fighting the way they were only we were doing it on the west side of Rochester in a different way. And so I think that part of the city has been really inspiring for me. I know we have challenges, clearly we have challenges, but I think if we continue to look back at our roots and the advocacy that we’ve had for people in our community, I think we can move forward in a way to advance our work here. The work is great. The philanthropic work is unbelievable, the way in which the community believes in education, the way in which people believe in and care for each other is really inspirational. And then, of course, you have the Jell-O museum, you have Ragu spaghetti sauce and Kodak and these things that I had no idea were from our area, which are just fun factual pieces to get to know. Abbott’s…

Roberts Wesleyan is know for his criminal justice, it’s law enforcement training. How has that changed in the past year to five years?

One of the things we’re focused on now is how do we use the model of the institution which is education for character, which goes beyond how you do work, but goes into how you see community in each other.

So, restorative justice is one of the things we’re starting to really lean into in our criminal justice programs, but that goes beyond criminal justice. That looks at social work, it looks at psychology. Even in our new Golisano Community Engagement Center we have an institute called intellectual and spiritual humility and it looks at what does it mean to bring a community together this polarized:

“How do I listen, how do I hear, how do I come to a conversation,” to learn and even figure out how I might have some things wrong because of how I approach somebody and that goes back to our founding 256 year ago. It is about how we engage in the community and take, for us, a spiritual community and see what that looks like with education and put that into practice.

You initially studied to be a composer, a pianist, a percussionist in the orchestra in hopes of becoming a music teacher and now your the president of Roberts Wesleyan. How did that happen?

Maybe I’m kind of conducting still, but conducting the institution. I graduated from my undergraduate program and I was approached and asked if I’d be interested in being an admissions counselor at my alma mater and the amazing thing about that is I loved it, I loved the opportunity to talk about how education transformed my life.

I was a first generation college student, my father only made it 10th grade. Education was not in our family’s vocabulary at all. I was fortunate that my father remarried and my stepmother had worked as a secretary at an institute of higher learning and she came into the family and said of course you’re going to college and it really changed everything. I selected a 4-year university much like Roberts Wesleyan in California and it changed everything.

I had no idea what it meant one to integrate your faith into your education, what it meant to have faculty that took time to get to know you, those that really walked alongside me to say: “OK, Deana, you may not have this figured out, but here’s some things you need to learn about yourself, if you’re going to be successful in this world.” And so I was able to share that as an admissions counselor.

I was fairly successful at it and so I had opportunity, and I stayed in Christian higher education until today. And so I spent 26 years working in California at my alma mater and then I came to Roberts and Northeastern and the reason I came – people ask why would you leave California, why would you leave your alma mater – because I really saw an opportunity to make a difference in this community and fulfill what I believing is my call which is to bring hope and vision and clarity to communities on how to move forward and make a difference in the world around them.

How does school like Roberts commingle religion and academia?

I like to say we graduate students who know how to connect their head to their heart, their spiritual formation and their hands for service to others. And it’s all three of those that really matter. So students who come here they may or may not have a faith, but our goal is to help them understand that we are all created in a space that there is a spiritual component of who we are.

To us that faith component is really important because you can have all the education in the world, but if you don’t have the heart that can be a servant heart on how to reach out to others it’s hard to make a difference.

So for us that’s unique and we have students from all backgrounds that attend Roberts, but our commitment is that we’re going to talk about what it means to find your identity in Christ and what they might look like.

One of the more exciting aspects that’s happening right now is the Golisano Community Engagement Center…

other half is a training area where we are launching the community institutes at Roberts Wesleyan College. We have a justice and security institute, a business solutions institute, intellectual and spiritual humility, west side psychological services and English Language Institute. And the idea came when I asked 10 business leaders from Rochester to meet me and give a day and tell me what their companies needed and what Roberts might be able to provide for them.

What they said is we need for our small to mid-sized companies is some training and we need someone come in and bring expertise and so being an educational institution, we knew we had some expertise to offer and we knew that we were able to coordinate this in a way that could meet the needs of the companies. So that expanded and we said in this building let’s put both of those.

So you have your students, you have businesses from outside of the campus that are in Rochester, you have the career services department that sets up our internships, we have a 72 corporate partners that we already have as part of strategic initiative. Those groups will come together in a way to help businesses locally, help workforce development locally, but also engage our students in a way that they can come face to face with what’s happening in Rochester. And that’s really where the building came from and it came from these 10 executives that spoke into that along with the need we had.

And so Tom Golisano graciously gave us the lead gift, the largest gift in the history of the college, $7.5 million, and so we are in a campaign now to move to $15 million, we’ve broken ground, and we ‘re doing something different with this campaign. The fundraising is to build the building of course, but there are also some funds in there to endow the building so it has the resources needed to continue it beyond our generation and into the future.

Anything else you’d like to add?

1We’re are the only NCAA Division II scholarship program in Greater Rochester area. And last year we were just blessed to have 5 conference titles and one of those conference titles was held by our women’s lacrosse team who went to the NCAA Division II Final Four.

And so very proud of them and very excited about this year’s athletic season and representing not just Roberts, but all of Rochester in the way in which we travel and compete.

You can watch the full interview here:

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