It’s Women’s History Month, and FIU has plenty of remarkable females to credit for its success. The individuals featured here join an impressive list of trailblazers who embraced great challenges, led by example and set the standards that still impact us today. Each contributed her best, and a few still work at the university and are going strong.
FIU has no bigger packrat than Althea “Vicki” Silvera. On her office shelves and desk, assorted handcrafts and knickknacks compete for space with books and folders. On the walls hang more than 40 works of art (with others stacked in the corners), among them a collage made with African fabrics, a painting bought long ago from an FIU student and at least a dozen drawings, watercolors and prints from her native Jamaica. And that’s just the personal stuff. The director of Special Collections has spent three decades amassing priceless treasures in support of faculty and student research, and her department on the fourth floor of the Green Library teems with her finds: handwritten letters, genealogy records, deeds to historic South Florida homes, thousands of vintage photographs, Medieval volumes and pre-Columbian figurines, to name a few. And while she has made plenty of strategic purchases—on a very slim budget, she says—Silvera has found her niche in getting collectors comfortable with the idea of giving their prized possessions to FIU.
It all starts with listening, she says, citing the example of Cuban-American collector Elena Kurstin. The two bonded over a cup of tea while chatting about cookbooks, and their ensuing friendship led to Kurstin’s donating hundreds of pre-revolutionary magazines, postcards, city maps and restaurant menus she purchased in exile from dealers. “At one point she teared up,” Silvera recalls. “She joked about my taking her babies. But I understood. She was collecting the Cuba of her memories.” In her role as university archivist, Silvera likewise keeps alive institutional memory by lovingly filing away (and digitizing) documents such as commencement programs and every issue of the student newspaper on the chance that an alum or someone else will come digging. Surrounded by so many reminders of her own history, she knows the value of preserving the past. “I think everyone is trying to find a little something to connect to.”
Toni Eisner worked at FIU from 1974 until her untimely death in 1998, but her legacy lives on. She started her career at the university working with grant programs to provide race relations training for high school students and eventually served as FIU’s assistant vice president for equal opportunity programs. Her office ensured that all hiring, recruiting, advertising and other practices were inclusive and followed state and national laws. During much of that time she also served as the chair of Miami-Dade County’s equal opportunity board, for which she was honored twice, the second time with Toni Eisner Appreciation Day. The Brooklyn-born daughter of a public defender and a school teacher, Eisner came by her commitment to justice and equality naturally, says her daughter, Beckah Kennedy ’00. Eisner’s parents taught her never to judge people on their exteriors but, rather, “to look at everyone for who they were.” Eisner and her older sister took that advice to heart, and in the socially turbulent 1960s learned the consequences of inviting children of different races and religions to a birthday party in their home. “The whole neighborhood talked about it,” Kennedy says, which prompted the girls’ mother to tell them, “Your friend choices are causing gossip, but ignore it.”
Darren Gregory, today an assistant director within FIU’s Career and Talent Development office, remembers Eisner giving him his first job on campus, as a student assistant in the 1990s. At the time he worried that his disability (cerebral palsy) might stifle his chances of having a voice in the workplace, but Eisner dashed those concerns by respectfully listening to what he had to say and and always encouraging him to share his viewpoint. That graciousness typified a lady whom Gregory recalls as “extremely jovial” and “light-hearted” despite having to deal with serious issues. “She was looking out for all people,” he says, “and making sure everybody got a fair shot.”
Dahlia Morgan needed just several hundred square feet in a corner of the concrete fortress known as PC to make an impact on the local arts scene. Back before South Florida was an arts Mecca, the founder of what is today the Patricia and Phillip Frost Art Museum—now located in a 46,000-square-foot signature building—drew crowds by curating some 200 thought-provoking exhibits and running a lecture series that featured the hottest names in the art world, among them the directors of The Met, MoMa and the Louvre. The high-profile speakers attracted several hundred visitors to MMC on Friday nights, and many current alumni credit Morgan with their earliest exposure to modern painting and sculpture.
Undeterred by tight quarters, the Canadian transplant harbored a vision to create “the most important gallery in the state” and promptly harnessed her own “avant-garde thinking” and innate confidence to boldly borrow artwork from around the world. Unusual for the time, she frequently organized exhibitions not around a particular style or artist but around themes such as “nighttime” and “beaches” that allowed her to mix pieces by individuals of widely differing backgrounds, and she annually showcased the works of Cuban artists in exile alongside those of other Latin Americans. Much of what she started—affiliation with the Smithsonian Institution, free admission, invitations to school and senior groups (for which she raised money to provide bus transportation), an outdoor sculpture park, the Art in Public Places campus initiative—remains in place today. Critical to her success: Morgan gave talks and attended luncheons on Fisher Island and elsewhere to stimulate intellectual discussion as well as befriend potential donors who could help the little museum grow—and it worked! Some 38 years later, the retiree recalls the excitement of arriving at a young FIU, where possibilities abounded and new ideas flourished unbridled. “I wanted to be where the action was,” remembers Morgan, herself a catalyst for so much of it.
Glenda “Rusty” Belote arrived at FIU just five years after the first class of freshman enrolled. Having once catered exclusively to upper-division students, the university was still grappling with how to help new high school grads transition to higher ed. “More freedom, more choices, exposure to new ideas and people, academic life, a changing relationship with parents,” rattles off Belote of the challenges youngsters faced both then and now. Recruited away from Ohio University, where she had been a counselor and the director of residence and dining halls, Belote came to FIU to help plan new housing but soon added other concerns to her roster. She hired “kindred spirit” Larry Lunsford, today the vice president for Student Affairs, and the two quickly organized FIU’s iconic First Year Experience course, meant to teach students about university resources that could help improve their chances of success. Eventually the pair wrote their own textbook for the class, a version of which is still in use.
Belote’s understanding of what was back then cutting-edge thinking—that students must be treated holistically, and that campus life and academics go hand in hand in turning out well-adjusted, workforce-ready graduates—came as something of a revelation at FIU. At the time many in Student Affairs and on the faculty did not recognize a shared goal, but with her help the university eventually embraced national best practices and took a more-integrated approach. Programming in the student union, comprehensive career planning, counseling services, leadership opportunities—these together, she made the case, contributed to retention and graduation. Belote eventually moved to Academic Affairs, as its associate director, but in the dozen years since her retirement, her long-ago push for coordinated efforts across the university might well be her greatest legacy. “Anybody who works at the university needs to know their mission,” she says, “to know their purpose in helping students succeed.”
Maida Watson landed at FIU in January of 1973 to direct an intensive Spanish language program for faculty and staff. Perceiving a value in such skills in multicultural South Florida, the administration sought to advance employees’ knowledge with noncredit courses. While not everyone appreciated the directive—some saw the mandated instruction as a burden—Watson has remained a strong proponent of Spanish as a second language, something she views as a “practical tool,” especially for anyone living and working in the region. Undaunted, the Panama native completed her Ph.D. in language and literature from UF with a specialty in Latin American studies, and soon she found her stride at FIU as a full-time faculty member and a contributor to the mission of the then-new Latin American and Caribbean Center, now a U.S. Department of Education-designated National Resource Center. She brought in directors and playwrights for the first international theater festival in 1977 and since then has annually produced one or more conferences on topics such as 19th century Latin American writers and Cuban literature while actively publishing in both English and Spanish.
Now at FIU for 45 years—a university record—Watson is proudest of having successfully advocated for FIU’s Spanish Ph.D. program, which debuted during her tenure as department chair and has educated some 40 alumni who have gone on to leadership positions around the country. She takes great pleasure in serving as advisor to the Spanish graduate club and travels with a dozen members at a time to conferences. And the students love her for it. “She is never too tired to help,” says Ph.D. candidate Primavera Cuder. “She inspires us to never give up and tells us that everything is possible,” adds Cuder, who cites not only Watson’s much-appreciated academic support—writing recommendations, finding funds for student travel—but her commitment to offering every possible moral support, from feeding students to boosting their psyches. “She helps us in all aspects of our lives.”
Yesim Darici is on a mission to bring as many women and minorities as possible to the lab table. In her nearly 31 years at FIU, the theoretical and experimental physicist with expertise in transition metals and clean coal technology has garnered research funding from the Department of Energy and National Science Foundation, written dozens of articles for peer-reviewed journals, presented dozens of scientific papers at national and international conferences and secured a patent. But her biggest contribution might well be her pivotal role in promoting diversity and new opportunities for others. The first female physics professor at a university in Florida, the Turkish-born Darici for six years served as the education officer for an organization dedicated to advancing and celebrating Hispanic-American physicists, sat on the American Physical Society’s committee to promote initiatives that attract women and minorities to careers in physics, worked with federally funded programs to engage South Florida high schoolers from economically underserved areas and coordinated physics workshops for local teachers. She has championed STEM initiatives for the underrepresented at FIU, including two National Science Foundation-funded projects to increase diversity among its faculty.
Currently the director of Women’s and Gender Studies and recently named assistant provost—her focus in that position is to help steer faculty inventors toward entrepreneurship—she takes great pleasure in mentoring others. That includes one young man who claims Darici practically forced him to take a competitive internship at a national lab. “In this article he was saying that ‘she made me,’” Darici says. True enough, she confirms that she strongly encouraged the first-gen student after he expressed concerns about leaving his parents’ home in South Florida. Years later, he is highly successful and “says he he owes it all to me,” Darici beams. “That’s what I’m most proud of—how I can help the students and how years later they appreciate it.”
Meri-Jane Rochelson’s so-called retirement was nothing short of an excuse to find more time for research. The English professor emerita with a specialty in Victorian literature left FIU in 2016 and soon will have out two new books published by prestigious presses: a scholarly biography of her late father and a contextualized edition of the 1908 play The Melting Pot by British author and political activist Israel Zangwill, on whom she is a renowned authority. Those latest successes follow a 32-year career at the university during which Rochelson not only turned out several volumes, nearly three dozen journal articles and 20 book reviews, but also made presentations at 52 conferences and served as a moderator, panelist or organizer at 43. And all that was in addition to her extensive teaching, devoted participation on the committees of 45 Ph.D., MFA and MA candidates across several disciplines, major service to the university (most notably as associate department chair for eight years) and committed service to her profession (most notably as president of the Nineteenth-Century Studies Association for six years).
Rochelson continues to field requests to evaluate manuscripts while currently helping plan the 2018 North American Victorian Studies Association Conference. Over the years her scholarship has taken her to libraries on three continents, where she has reveled in tirelessly gleaning the minutiae of history through the mining of archives. “Both of my parents loved literature and language. I guess I got that energy from them,” she says of her American-born mother and immigrant father, a Holocaust survivor of great tenacity whose own fascinating paper trail she excavated. Once stationed primarily at BBC, Rochelson taught “the best students in the world,” with whom for more than three decades she shared an enriching experience. “I loved introducing those things I care about to the people in my classes,” she says. “I learned a lot from the students, and I hope that they learned a lot from me.”
The late Olga Magnusen harnessed an innate exuberance to lay the foundation for a strong and effective career services office at FIU. Back before personal computers were commonplace and the internet had yet to be invented—no online job postings, no LinkedIn accounts—she understood that universities had to do more to connect young people with good positions. Recognizing that many first-generation students lacked a certain savvy—she herself was a child of Operation Pedro Pan and lived in Peoria, Illinois, until reuniting with her parents and moving to New York before earning undergraduate and master’s degrees and coming to work at FIU in 1973—she made it her mission to help jobseekers rise to the occasion and turned every concern raised by employers into a challenge to overcome. When interviewers complained that students didn’t seem prepared, she instituted a program of mock interviews that were recorded and critiqued in an effort to boost skills. When a recruiter mentioned that a young man had come to an interview with a price tag and labels still affixed to his suit jacket because, the job candidate explained, his tight budget had him planning to return it, Magnusen began collecting business attire for distribution to those in need. When another recruiter commented that students had trouble navigating table manners over lunch interviews, she began a series of popular “etiquette luncheons” during which an expert covered the finer points.
“She was really into the students and making FIU look good in the community,” says Vice President for Student Affairs Larry Lunsford, who recalls the high energy Magnusen brought to every task during her three decades of service, including exponentially growing the career fair. Former colleagues and the students she guided still remember her as nothing short of remarkable. “Words cannot do her justice,” says Ivette Duarte, the current director of Career Services. “Her compassion for others and her enthusiasm for life were unmatched. Olga was a friend, a mentor and a one-in-a-million human being.”