It’s Women’s History Month, and FIU has plenty of remarkable females to credit for its success. The individuals featured here—just a handful of the many outstanding faculty and administrators who have passed our way—each contributed her best to the university. They join an impressive list of trailblazers who embraced great challenges, led by example and set the standards that still impact us today.
At the time an Army reservist and former active duty drill sergeant, Rebecca Salokar in 1981 received a bachelor’s degree in political science from FIU. After adding a master’s and Ph.D. from Syracuse to her resume, the South Florida native returned to begin a three-decade career as a professor who would influence a host of future movers and shakers, among them judges, Florida legislators and lawyers. A noted scholar who wrote on the role of courts in the United States, Salokar in 2009 earned a JD from the FIU College of Law, after which she established and directed FIU’s Pre-Law Advising and Training Office. Her untimely death in December left colleagues and alumni reeling, but her legacy lives on. “She was such an enthusiastic teacher,” remembers Catherine McManus ’86, assistant general counsel, 11th Judicial Circuit Court. “Professor Salokar was one of the reasons why I stayed in political science.” John Stack, a friend of 38 years and the dean of the Steven J. Green School of International & Public Affairs, in which Salokar taught, says an innate ability to connect with others “made her one of the most effective teachers I have ever known. She had a huge impact on careers and aspirations.”
One of the first people to graduate from FIU—in 1973, at the university’s first-ever commencement—Gisela Casines returned to campus seven years later with a Ph.D. in hand and a tenure-track job waiting in the very department, English, from which she earned her bachelor’s. An expert in 18th century literature, she moved in 1992 from the classroom to the then-College of Arts and Sciences’ dean’s office, where she became both the first Hispanic and first FIU graduate to hold the position of associate dean. In that role she wrote proposals for a seemingly endless number of new master’s and doctoral programs as the university rapidly expanded. Among the many initiatives in which she had a hand, applying for and helping to bring to campus the national student honor society Phi Beta Kappa—for which the university had previously been turned down—remains her proudest accomplishment. Retired since 2015, Casines still revels in having been “an active participant in history.” She adds, “One of the reasons I’m so glad that I came back to FIU was that there was always a sense of things that needed to be created.”
Ruth Hamilton was the face of the Graham Center for decades. She started at FIU as a coordinator of activities in 1979 and helped bring to campus some of the biggest names the university has ever hosted, among them Pope John Paul II and singers Ella Fitzgerald and Celia Cruz. Later, as executive director of the student center, she ran the busiest, most diverse building at MMC, with its classrooms, offices, public spaces and commercial outlets. Ever-exuberant, she exhibited the perfect mix of determination and instinct to get just about anything done. Case in point: When her boss poo-pooed the purchasing of a piano for public use by students—she felt it would give them an important artistic outlet, and history has since proved her right—she bought a baby grand and hid it in a closet until the timing was right to bring it out. Among her accomplishments was a much-needed expansion of the GC, on which she worked closely with the architect and builder. Three years after retiring, she is remembered for her endearing charm and sincere devotion to students and staff. “Ruth was a visionary mentor and great leader who dedicated her life to FIU,” says alumnus Sanyo Matthew, GC senior director. “She has been such an integral part of my career and so many others. I will forever be grateful for her guidance and kindness.”
Read more: 2016 salute to women in FIU history
Mary Ann Wolfe had a history as a pathbreaker when she arrived in South Florida in 1979 with her husband, FIU’s third president, the late Gregory B. Wolfe. A 1944 graduate of UCLA who went to work for the federal government in the newsroom of the Office of Inter-American Affairs, she in 1971 was appointed by the the labor commissioner of Oregon to the State Advisory Council on Sex Discrimination in Employment. A writer, she worked as a Newsweek stringer in Honduras and later for Miami Today in addition to drafting many of her husband’s speeches. So it came as no surprise when she quickly and ably inserted herself into the life of the university by joining her former-diplomat husband to host breakfasts for students and welcome to campus such dignitaries as former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and Alexander Haig. Mary Ann Wolfe’s passing in July 2016 prompted President Mark B. Rosenberg—who as a young professor of international relations thrived under the Wolfe administration—to recall her contributions alongside those of her husband and how their combined efforts helped make clear that the university’s aspirations went well beyond the local: “Together, they put FIU on the map – giving us an identity and direction.”
Unknown to many at FIU, Deborah Gallay worked tirelessly behind the scenes—first at the state level and then for the university—and had a tremendous impact on education in Florida. Upon her death in 2015, President Mark B. Rosenberg acknowledged her as a valued mentor and friend. “Debi was one of the most respected policy and budget experts for our state education system,” he wrote of a woman who directly advised two Florida governors, every SUS chancellor for four decades (including Rosenberg) as well as members of the Florida Board of Regents and Board of Governors, university presidents, provosts and legislative leaders and activists from both political parties. “Millions of Floridians will never know how much her life’s work transformed their lives and made the opportunity of a good education possible.” Gallay served as vice chancellor of the Florida Division of Colleges and Universities amidst the reorganization of the state’s higher education system and was instrumental in the successful campaign to initiate and fund new colleges of medicine at both FIU and UCF. In 2003 she was approached to join FIU’s Government Relations team as associate vice president for education policy and budget. Continuing to work out of Tallahassee, she played a pivotal role in FIU’s efforts to understand and secure performance funding.
In 1981 Marilyn Hoder-Salmon, finishing up a Ph.D. from the University of New Mexico, had just returned home to South Florida when she had a chance encounter that would lead to a 31-year career at FIU. “I got to campus through one of those life-changing moments,” she recalls. “I went to a luncheon and sat next to an FIU administrator.” Soon enough, she was tasked with conducting a study to determine interest among employees and within the community in the proposed Women’s Studies Center. By the next year she was its founding director, eager to draw in faculty who would teach courses that embraced the writings and achievements of women. “It’s a simple idea, but in practice there was resistance,” Hoder-Salmon recalls. “It was a struggle,” she says of those who made clear they thought little of her mission and preferred the standard texts of the day. “But we persisted.” As more faculty cross-listed their courses with the center and more students enrolled, Hoder-Salmon sought to offer a women’s studies degree. Buoyed by a growing national movement, she mobilized a letter-writing campaign in the early 1990s—still some years before the large-scale use of email and internet—that generated hundreds of missives to state legislators. One lawmaker tried to shame her by saying she was single-handedly responsible for killing more trees than anyone else in Florida. But her tactic worked. Today more than 4,000 students annually take a women’s studies course and in 2015-2016 two dozen earned dedicated degrees.
Connie Crowther pitched news stories about FIU in the days before email, internet and social media. A journalist who previously worked for the Miami Herald and various news agencies, she served as director of Media Relations and then University Relations from 1980 to 1995. Having stood up for herself years before as a young reporter seeking work in a man’s world—“I had to prove that someone who looked like me,” blonde and all of 100 pounds, “could seriously interview someone and have them treat me with respect”—she applied the same tenacity to promoting FIU. Among many highlights, she placed dozens of stories related to the university’s tenth anniversary; persuaded CCN to do a piece on dietetics research; and wrote the remarks for and fielded media calls around then-President George H.W. Bush’s FIU commencement address at the Miami Beach Convention Center. To build bridges with other universities, she reached out first to the communications director at the University of Miami and then brought together counterparts at Barry, St. Thomas, Florida Memorial and others to work collaboratively on higher-education issues. “I was always excited about my job,” says Crowther, who ran her own PR agency for two decades after leaving FIU. “I like to think that the long hours, strong commitment and dedicated staff helped to lay the groundwork for what FIU is today.”
Joyce Peterson spent her entire 40-career at the Biscayne Bay Campus where she labored to create a vibrant atmosphere for both students and faculty. As an associate dean in the then-College of Arts & Sciences, she pushed for the expansion of courses there, including marine sciences, which continues to have a strong presence. She also supported cross-disciplinary collaborations among professors that resulted in greater camaraderie and encouraged an important sharing of knowledge. A professor of history, she early on helped make the case for establishing the Women’s Studies Center to meet the needs of interested students at a time when such studies were taking off nationally. Similarly, she worked with others to bring to campus a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa because of what it could do for young people. FIU’s eventual inclusion in the national honors society, she says, “was a measure of the quality of the institution in terms of undergraduate education.” For student inductees, the payoff was huge, she adds, as employers began to understand that FIU turned out competitive graduates. Retired in 2016, Peterson still recalls the Spartan environment—a single-room library, a trailer that housed faculty offices—that preceded a campus building boom, not to mention the sheer beauty of the bayfront campus. “Sometimes I would pinch myself that I could take a walk along the water,” she says. “It felt like you were in a special place.”
Josefina Cagigal devoted 18 years to anticipating all that could possibly go wrong as she organized high-level events that put the university on wide display. “You have to worry about everything little thing,” says the former director of University Relations while recollecting the stress of presenting commencements, freshman and faculty convocations and ribbon cuttings. It’s the one-of-a-kind affairs, however, that she remembers most vividly, among them a standing room-only public lecture by then-Czech President Vaclav Havel—which required live simultaneous translation from Czech into English and Spanish—and no fewer than three weeklong visits by the Dalai Lama. The latter had Cagigal traveling to New York with then-religious studies professor Nathan Katz to meet with the Buddhist spiritual leader’s representatives and then, with limited budget, scouting local housing for a retinue of 30 monks and accompanying security personnel, and persuading South Florida restaurants to donate the skills and time of their kitchen staff to cook for the group. (“The Dalai Lama had a good appetite,” she recalls. “He loved everything.”) A force behind the scenes, the ever-positive Cagigal understood the often-thankless nature of her job, one in which no one notices what goes smoothly but everyone comments on the flaws. “That’s a given,” she says five years after retiring, but adds, nonetheless, “I loved it. It was exciting. We were bringing something beautiful to the students, to the university, to the whole public.”
Know of another FIU legend who deserves a shout-out? Mention her in a comment below.