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Women in FIU history: a compendium

Women in FIU history: a compendium

February 22, 2023 at 10:00am

FIU has plenty of remarkable females to credit for its success. The individuals featured here are among an impressive group of trailblazers who embraced great challenges, led by example and set the foundation for the university’s phenomenal rise. This growing list—to which more names are added every March, during Women’s History Month—represents but a fraction of the many who have contributed to making FIU what it is today.

 A  B C D E F G H I  J K  L  M N O P Q  R S T  U  V  W  X Y Z

Barbara Bader  has impacted the careers of hundreds of women and minorities who seek to advance within the field of higher education. She arrived at FIU in 1974 to serve as a faculty member in the College of Education and eventually took on administrative duties in the college and, later, the Division of Academic Affairs. She is best known, however, as the founding director of the university’s Educational Leadership Enhancement Program, a position she has relished for the past 20 years. In that capacity, she guides the personal and professional development of individuals within underrepresented groups who wish to advance within the ranks of university and college administration. Her unfailing dedication, wisdom and insight have created a foundation of lasting change for program alumni, many of whom hold leadership positions at FIU today. (featured in  2016)  

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. 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 her 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.”  (featured in  2018)

lynn-berk.jpegThe late founding faculty member and professor emerita Lynn Berk exhibited an adventurous spirit that belied her standing as an expert in the rules of English syntax, a subject on which she wrote a graduate-level textbook. A longtime resident of the Sunshine State, the linguist spent many summers hiking and canoeing in Alaska and other places in the Far North, and even wrote three cult-classic mystery novels featuring a female protagonist who solves murders in the frigid Yukon Territory. Those who knew Berk best recall someone with a well-developed sense of humor who didn’t mince words: If she disagreed with you, she was polite but direct, say friends. Generous and hospitable, she gave incoming faculty a place to stay as they got their bearings. Social to the max, she regularly welcomed a coterie of academics from FIU and other universities who partied in her backyard. The latter rife with trees, the gathering space invariably grew into a jungle that required Lynn’s serious trimming with a chainsaw whenever she and her professor-husband returned from their many cross-continental trips by camper van and motorcycle. Handy, she once joined colleagues on a house hunt and astounded the realtor with her knowledge of structural issues. Highly informal, the amateur wood turner and lover of blues favored tie-dye and Birkenstocks. For all her bold living, Berk stands out for her behind-the-scenes promotion of others, especially women, whom she imbued with confidence and went to bat for in her roles as director of the linguistics program, department chair, assistant dean of the college and grievance chair for the faculty union. (featured in 2021)

As a founding member of the education faculty and, later, a respected administrator who served FIU for 35 years, Judy Blucker broke new ground both inside and outside of the classroom. While the university opened with a handful of intercollegiate men’s sports programs ready to compete, there were no female counterparts. Blucker, a former collegiate athlete and coach, wondered why FIU had no women’s sports—and then took action to change that. Aware that Title IX legislation made equal opportunity the law, Blucker discussed the situation with the administration and helped launch women’s varsity sports at FIU, even coaching the inaugural volleyball and softball teams. “I was not thinking about what I could accomplish but more concerned with these young women and making sure they got the same opportunities as the men did,” Blucker said. “I assumed it should be fair play for everybody.” (featured in   2016)


connie-1.jpgThe late Consuelo “Connie” B. Boronat is remembered at FIU as much for her kindness and upbeat personality as for her brilliance. A South Florida native who grew up just blocks from FIU, she earned a full ride to Yale and then went on for a Ph.D. at the University of Illinois. Hired by FIU in 2005, she started as a coordinator for research programs and moved into various positions before serving as a director in the Office of Analysis and Information Management. In the latter role, she worked with a team focused on helping FIU meet newly established metrics for Florida’s public universities by interpreting statistics to crack the code on why students drop out. “Her work helped to inform and shape many of the university's student initiatives,” says Associate Vice President Hiselgis Perez, Boronat’s former boss, who remembers a committed and passionate colleague who left a lasting impression on all who worked with her. Adds former university administrator Barbara Bader of her close friend, whom she recalls as both intellectual and incredibly humble, “She was extraordinary in so many ways.” (featured in 2020)  


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.”  (featured in  2017)

isis-carbjal-2.pngIsis Carbajal arrived in Miami from Cuba as a high school graduate who knew not a word of English. Some 40 years later, the FIU lawyer was a go-to when President Mark B. Rosenberg had legal questions: 1-800-CALL-ISIS, he joked of the confidence in which he held her advice. And no wonder: The lady followed a combined 16 years of service to the U.S. Department of Education and the University of Florida with more than 20 years as senior counsel at FIU before retiring in 2018 as the longest-serving university attorney in Florida’s State University System. The breadth and depth of her expertise led to what she considers one of her greatest and most impactful accomplishments at FIU: developing a workshop to equip every department chair with the tools to address legal issues such as the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), laws surrounding discrimination and the collective bargaining agreements that regulate faculty compensation. (featured in 2020)

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 18 th 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-American 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.”  (featured in  2017)

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.”   (featured in  2017)


For 30 years  Beverly Dalrymple helped students go further. With a Ph.D. in adult ed and HR development, she started in FIU’s career services office but switched gears as research in the 1990s emphasized the increasing importance of promoting personal leadership skills. So she assumed the challenge of launching the Center for Leadership and Service—with no budget. Lack of resources proved crucial to the success of what today is an active, thriving center: Working with others (who had financial support at hand) made clear that leadership training had its place throughout the university as a way to educate socially responsible young adults. She collaborated with various units to design training and certificate programs that prioritized skills such as relationship building and change management, incorporated leadership instruction into into the charity fundraisers Roarthon and Relay for Life and oversaw creation of FIU’s chapter of AlternativeBreaks. Today the retired, famously modest former mentor to thousands bursts with good memories. As for center she founded, it’s still going strong. “They’re building on everything,” she says of the students now running the show. “They’re making it better all the time.” (featured in 2019)

Carol Damian  made the Herculean effort to establish an art history program at FIU after she saw how students thrilled to the subject. Arriving in 1992, she made it her mission to formalize a bachelor’s degree, an endeavor that required shepherding the proposal through multiple approvals, from the Faculty Senate on up to the State University System governing board. Her next big move, by contrast, took nothing more than answering a question posed over lunch by Phillip Frost at the home of then-FIU President Modesto Maidique. The philanthropist inquired about the artwork on the walls, and Damian replied with thoroughness and thoughtfulness. A month later, Frost and Maidique (whom Damian schooled in paintings and monuments prior to each of his European trips) offered her the directorship of FIU’s Frost Art Museum. Charged with filling the new 47,000-square-foot space with exhibits and visitors, she did both with aplomb even as she continued to teach. “My students are everywhere,” says the retiree of the alumni who catch up with her at openings and reach out for advice. “It’s gratifying,” she says. “The fact that they’re still in the arts makes me happy.” (featured in 2019 )

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. Currently the director of Women’s and Gender Studies and recently named assistant provost, 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. 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.” (featured in  2018ivette-duarte.jpg

Ivette Duarte has had a hand in helping tens of thousands of FIU students and alumni embark on rewarding careers so they would not hate their jobs like she once did. Unhappily employed at a car dealership 30 years ago, she heard about an opening at FIU and has never looked back. The now double alumna took a secretarial position in what was then a five-person career services office, and today she directs 47 employees who aim to help Panthers find fulfilling work after earning degrees. It’s part of a continuum that has her team doing whatever it takes to help students realize their dreams, says Duarte, who misses no opportunity to give props to her staff as well as the late Olga Magnusen, the trailblazing leader who hired her. Whereas her mentor excelled under what now seem like medieval conditions — no internet, no LinkedIn, no Zoom — Duarte has by necessity embraced the digital world. Her implementing of the powerful career-development platform “Handshake” has dramatically upgraded the process of connecting students and employers. And throughout the pandemic, Duarte has with empathy and encouragement led a team that never skipped a beat, taking but a single day to transition to an all-online mode that has since supported five virtual career fairs, each of which attracted 1,000+ students and upwards of five dozen recruiters for group information sessions and one-on-one meetings. (featured in 2021) 

Penelope Easton bucked early-20th-century conventions governing what a young woman could or could not do. The professor emerita of dietetics was born in 1923 (she died at 97 in 2020) and embraced adventure. Bachelor's degree in hand, she served as a commissioned officer in the Army and spent time working at its largest hospital, in San Antonio, Texas, after which she was recruited as a nutritionist to develop dietary plans for native populations in what was then the Alaska Territory. Fascinated by the foods of the indigenous people, such as muktuk, strips of whale skin and blubber, she took every opportunity to learn about their culture. As she gained knowledge, she identified the need for public health personnel to know and appreciate the dietary traditions and adaptations of the region and became an advocate for preserving native food customs. Easton eventually earned a Ph.D. and led in the intentional combining of in-class instruction with a concurrent clinical internship, today a common practice. “She could see what was going to be needed,” says Dean Emerita Michele Ciccazzo of her former mentor. “And she loved students. She knew when you were not performing up to your abilities, and she let you know that. But she never demanded more of you than she demanded of herself.” After retiring, Easton participated in additional research projects in Alaska and in her 90s published two memoirs, in one of which the publisher wrote: “Penelope’s curiosity, sense of humor and fearlessness emboldened her as she traveled a man’s world and, through her actions and ways, helped pioneer the contours that define modern-day feminism.” (featured in 2022)

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.” 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.” (featured in  2018)

Figure that it would take a pioneer in the study of computers—a woman who earned a tech degree in an era when few people even knew what a computer was—to launch FIU into the world of online teaching. A rare female when she entered the field,  Joyce Elam rode her foresight to the top. In 1990 she came to FIU as the James L. Knight Eminent Scholar in Management Information Systems after teaching at the Harvard Business and Wharton schools. In 1997 she assumed the college’s deanship, a post she held for 15 years, during which time she founded the executive MBA program, oversaw expansion and established a pilot program of 10 internet-based courses. “The infrastructure for online education was very weak,” she says, looking back. “But I could see a future for teaching online, and I wanted us to be a leader in that space.” That ambition led President Mark Rosenberg to name her vice provost for FIU Online, a position that allowed her to set the stage for the university’s growth in web-based education. The innovator went on to serve as vice provost for Analysis and Information Management, a role in which she used her knowledge of information technology to develop a new database in support of the university’s strategic plan.  (featured in  2016)


Catherine H. Fahringer  was a local businesswoman whose initial introduction to FIU in the mid-1970s was less than auspicious. “I was at a dinner, a fundraiser,” she recalls, “and somebody tapped me on my shoulder and said, ‘Kay, you owe me one. I have heard that FIU needs a woman on their board.’” To that not-so-subtle demand she simply replied, “FIU who?” So began her 40-year relationship with the university. Already active in community work, Fahringer soon drove to campus to meet President Gregory Wolfe and, after getting to know the upstart institution, agreed to sit on the FIU Foundation Board of Directors. No token appointee, she took on the role of raising money, often first educating others about the promising young university. “I was a firm believer,” she says of her early commitment. “I knew something important was going to happen.” Fahringer, active on the board through 1990 and today a member emerita, served a term as chairwoman and eventually concentrated on securing donations for athletics, an area near and dear to her heart. “Our place in the community is so good now,” she says of FIU. “Now people recognize who we are and what we are.” (featured in  2016)


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. (featured in  2017)


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 pooh-poohed 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.”  (featured in  2017)

The late Jacquelyn Hartley equipped herself with three degrees that set her up perfectly for the odyssey ahead. With an Army colonel husband, and two children, Hartley traveled the world, in each place finding ways to use her talents to the benefit of others. She worked at schools on military bases in Germany and Japan and taught at FAMU, the University of Texas, community colleges in Maryland and a hospital nursing school in Washington, D.C. When she arrived in South Florida in the 1980s, she brought deep experience that would prove invaluable in establishing the foundations for FIU’s own nursing school. Today, her legacy as a leader – she served as associate dean and acting dean – is matched by memories of her nurturing ways. “She was one of the professors that really gave meaning to what I wanted to do,” says alumna and now-professor Rosa Roche ’86, ’94, ’14, whom Hartley spent hours helping choose an area of nursing concentration. Roche remembers getting through the near-crushing pain of her father’s death, just months before graduating with a BSN, precisely because of Hartley’s support. “She told me, ‘You need to go on. You’re almost there. You’re going to make your dad proud,” Roche recalls of a respected guide who always exhibited understanding and chose to see the best in people. “She was one of those individuals who leaves imprints in your heart.” (featured in 2022)


susan-himburg-2.jpgSusan Himburg  arrived in 1973 and exhibited a history of meeting needs wherever they arose. For example, the newly hired dietitian quickly recognized the value of going on for a graduate degree to provide the best education possible to those whom she taught. So she earned a Ph.D. from UM and in 1979 became the director of FIU’s clinical program in dietetics and nutrition. During that 20-year stint she also served as department chair, rolled out FIU’s own doctoral program and thoughtfully mentored aspiring professionals, among them minority students whom she guided to success and for which she garnered FIU’s service award for promoting affirmative action. That same work with students received recognition from the dietetics industry association, for which she also participated as a leader by travelling around the country to evaluate dietetics and nutrition education programs as part of accreditation procedures. And that experience set her up perfectly to twice spearhead FIU’s push for reaffirmation of its accreditation through the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) Commission on Colleges. (featured in 2020)


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.   (featured in  2017


Rosa Jones ’ legacy as FIU’s steadfast and most respected student advocate is unmatched. A founding faculty member, Jones retired in 2012 after 40 years of service to the university. In that time, she was a social work professor, department chair, dean and vice president of Student Affairs. With each step in her career, Jones helped lay the foundation of the university. A champion of women and minorities, she never lost sight of FIU’s original mission: an institution that was responsive to the needs of a diverse, rapidly growing community. Jones made relationships with students her priority, and says she’s proud FIU has remained committed to providing access to a high-quality education. She initiated pivotal student-focused initiatives at FIU such as Freshman Convocation, a model for increasing the ratio of academic advisors, the Common Reading program, parent programs and an expansion of student facilities. “I still get chills at graduation watching students achieve their goals,” she says. “The success of students are my proudest achievements. I’d be truly comfortable and satisfied if people characterized me as being responsive to students. I would hope that they’d believe that no matter what position I’ve held, I’ve always been an advocate for students. Period.” (featured in  2016


Lillian Lodge Kopenhaver arrived at FIU in 1973 as coordinator of student activities and helped create the Student Government Association, jumpstarted publication of the student newspaper and worked on plans for construction of what is today the Graham Center. “I love challenges, and I love the opportunity to try new things and go in a new path to explore new possibilities,” said Kopenhaver, still at FIU today. A founder of the university’s original department of communication, which evolved into the School of Journalism and Mass Communications, Kopenhaver served as its dean from 2003 to 2011 and soon after made an exemplary financial contribution in support of the Lillian Lodge Kopenhaver Center for the Advancement of Women in Communication at FIU. “One of the reasons I made a pledge to the university was to give back and to help women achieve the pinnacle of their dreams,” she said. “I love working with students. It’s a joy for me to help them achieve their goals and their dreams.” (featured in  2016)


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. 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.”  (featured in 2018)

DeEtta Mills followed a meandering path to success as a tenured professor and the current chair of biology and the director of FIU’s International Forensic Research Institute. In 1965, as a high school senior among the top 10 students in a class of 300, the Washington state native was denied a university scholarship after disclosing plans to marry her kindergarten sweetheart. So she enrolled at a community college instead and took a job at Sears. Soon after, Uncle Sam played the draft card, and her spouse took the advice to enter the armed services as a volunteer, which laid the path to his distinguished military career. Over the coming decades, Mills would dutifully make 27 moves within the Unites States and overseas, two sons in tow, while grabbing every spare moment to pursue education. “I did my part to support him, but I was also doing my own thing,” says the indefatigable scholar, who – sometimes by taking courses through correspondence school (the precursor to online learning) – earned two associate degrees, a bachelor’s and a master’s before, finally, completing a doctoral program. When Mills arrived at FIU in 2001 as an expert in molecular microbial ecology, she was on the forefront of an important, still-emerging area in forensic science that she has since helped advance through investigations funded with more than $1.8 million in grants and contracts. Now at the height of her career, Mills can look upon her professional triumphs as well as 57 years with her (retired) colonel husband and know that she has done it all. (featured in 2022)

To legions of young people around the country,  Zaida Morales-Martinez is simply “Mama Z.” The nickname originated with a student in Texas who received guidance from the analytical chemist who for 30 years taught at FIU and to this day serves as a mentor on behalf of the American Chemical Society (ACS). Morales-Martinez landed at the new FIU with years of teaching experience and began shepherding young colleagues even as she juggled her own classes and worked to inspire would-be scientists: elementary school children whom she invited into university labs; high schoolers she took on field trips; undergraduates she advised and whose chemistry club she sponsored. The ACS in the 1990s tapped her for a taskforce to increase women and minorities in the field. From that grew a scholarship program that for 25+ years has seen Morales-Martinez annually keep tabs on 400 chemical sciences majors. The efforts won her a Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring bestowed at the White House. But it’s the gratitude of the thousands she has touched that means the most. They seek her out at conferences to deliver a singular message: You changed my life!” (featured in 2019)

aurora-morcillo-1.jpgThe late Aurora Morcillo could fill a room with her personality. Whether greeting others with a hug or lecturing on history, she displayed a zest for life that belied her start as a child under Spain repressive Franco regime. Born to working-class parents, she observed the outsized role that the country’s civil war and subsequent dictatorship played in shaping her family’s and community’s cultural and political views. An activist who helped create the Center for the Study of Women at the University of Granada, she realized that her research interest in contemporary gender relations — still highly influenced by the country’s fascist past and Roman Catholic sexual norms — was too sensitive for most Spaniards. So she moved to the United States to pursue a Ph.D. and eventually found her way to a 19-year career as a professor and the director of the Spanish and Mediterranean Studies Program at FIU. She left a scholarly legacy that includes four books in her field of expertise in addition to a co-edited volume that makes 400 years of once-inaccessible sources of Spanish culture and history available to English speakers. At the same time, she is remembered for her belief that emotion need not be divorced from history. “She always wanted the human story, the human face of history, in her scholarship and her interactions,” says her former student Maria Labbato. The beloved mentor offered students opportunities for deep discussions, always responding with heart-felt empathy. “She wanted to get to know us, our own histories, emotions,” Labbato says. “I will always carry her way of being into my teaching.” (featured in 2021)

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. 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.  (featured in  2018

Peggy Levison Nolan was a 40-something single mother of seven when she enrolled in a photography course at FIU. A one-time college dropout, she lived many adult years in low-income housing while relishing every minute spent with her kids. So when her father handed her a used camera, Nolan knew exactly what she wanted to capture: her daughter folded into a ratty armchair while engrossed in a magazine, a teen son lounging on a couch surrounded by crumpled laundry, a younger boy getting his bangs trimmed, sisters dancing together in front of a Christmas tree. Such images of ordinary life would eventually command wide attention – and hundreds of dollars. “The pictures are unsparing in their description of our sprawling, unkempt life,” wrote Nolan’s oldest son for her 2018 book, “Real Pictures: Tales of a Badass Grandma.” A review by Chris Wiley for the New Yorker stated, “There is a tenderness and a sensitivity in these pictures of family that cannot be faked.” Nolan earned both a BFA (1990) and an MFA (2001) from FIU and eventually served as an instructor of film photography, inspiring and encouraging countless students. Freelance photographer Manny Hernandez ’96 remembers her kind words, great eye and free-spirited style from years ago even as the two have connected more recently at local events. “I see 25-year-olds now on the art scene, and she blows them away,” Hernandez says. “She’s hip and cool. She could run circles around these people.” (featured in 2022)


lesley-northup-1.jpgLesley Northup is an ordained Episcopal priest who arrived at FIU in 1993 to teach courses in religious studies, a subject in which she eventually helped establish a graduate program. But serving as dean of the Honors College for more than a decade remains the accomplishment of which she is most proud. “It gave me and the people who worked with me a chance to bring our most creative ideas to the front and give them a try,” she says. And did they. Under Northup’s direction, the Honors College started many of the initiatives that the larger university has since embraced: an emphasis on internships; formal instruction in entrepreneurship; a focus on service learning and a mutually productive relationship with the neighboring city of Sweetwater; in-depth study aboard trips; and an accent on campus involvement. The result: a growing reputation that saw enrollment in the interdisciplinary college grow exponentially. Beyond numbers, she recalls how her team created a close-knit community based on quality interactions. “We got to know our students and they got to know us,” she says. (featured in 2020)


In 1981  Nancy Olson became FIU’s first, and to date, only female athletic director, a position only about a dozen women around the nation held at the time. During her tenure, she hired key people, secured funding to build FIU’s much-needed arena, petitioned for Division I status for the baseball team and watched men’s soccer become NCAA champions. Most ambitiously, perhaps, she started FIU’s men’s basketball team from scratch, a move designed “to grow the athletic program and get some notoriety,” she recalls. And so she set about finding a head coach, ultimately selecting Rich Walker, a choice distinguished by the fact that most African-American coaches at the time worked almost exclusively at historically black colleges and universities. Finding a space in which to play home games proved another hurdle. “All we had was a ‘tin gym,’ an airplane hangar where the volleyball team would practice,” she remembers. So the team headed to a local high school that first season. “We all made it work,” Olson says matter-of-factly, adding that the former university mascot and team name—“Sunblazers”—perfecting captured that early spirit of FIU: “We were the new university blazing a trail.”  (featured in   2016)

bennieosborne-1.jpgBennie Osborne remembers fondly all the good she accomplished at FIU even as she recalls a young adulthood peppered with bigotry that could have thwarted her dreams of education and a career. Born into a family of migrant farmworkers, a determined Osborne chose to attend an all-white high school shortly after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made it possible. She and about 10 other Black students walked into a rural Palm Beach County building where they encountered an animosity that made their days there outright dangerous. Even as all but one of her peers left out of fear, Osborne persisted. At a local community college, she had a professor tell her on the first day of class that he planned to fail her. And he did. Eventually changing her major to avoid a second course with the man, she received an AA and soon after found her way to FIU, where she would earn four degrees, among them a Ph.D. in sociology. In 1974, with a bachelor’s in hand, Osborne took a part-time job in the office charged with gathering student and employee data to understand both existing needs as well as the required structural changes to meet growing local demand for higher education. When her supervisor announced plans to resign, he quickly trained Osborne and encouraged her to apply for the vacant position. She got it. Over the next three decades, she continued her education and rose in the ranks, eventually earning appointment to the directorship of equal opportunity programs.(featured in 2021) 


Betty Laird Perry  arrived at FIU in 1969 and, like her husband, founding president Charles Perry, assumed a brand-new position: first lady of a university years away from enrolling students. During that planning phase, when the campus featured only a small decommissioned air-traffic control tower, Mrs. Perry opened the couple’s private home to host the governor of Florida, numerous legislators and the chancellor of the SUS, all keenly interested in the progress of Florida’s newest public university. Mother to two youngsters, she found herself advising would-be employees, down for interviews, who looked to her for guidance at a time when few outsiders knew much about South Florida. “I had a lot to learn, and I was probably pretty naïve,” she says today, “but I loved Miami, and I loved the people.” Compounding her already-hectic life, Mrs. Perry undertook coursework to earn a BS in nursing from FIU in 1974. “It was just such an exciting time,” she recalls of the seven years she and her husband spent getting FIU off the ground. “There were so many frontiers to conquer. It was the best time of my life.” (featured in  2016)  

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.”   (featured in  2017


ritchie_ozzie_012-1.jpgOzzie Ritchey  rose to assistant vice president for Student Affairs on an incredible personal drive that began when the employed cosmetologist and then-mother of eight (she would go on to have a ninth child) decided that pursuing higher education would set a good example for her brood. So she earned a bachelor’s locally and in 1974 took a job as an admissions counselor at FIU. Three years later she earned a master’s in education administration and became an alumna. For two-plus decade, Ritchey directly supported the dreams of young people, especially first-generation Black college students. She held orientation sessions in her home to inform them and parents about available services and resources, among them scholarships that she herself initiated and administered. In a precursor to today’s campus food pantries and student-emergency funds, Ritchey fed students who were short on lunch money and successfully reached out to top administrators when a student needed extra financial help. Perhaps most importantly, she listened to students. “She somehow knew the right words to 100 percent calm me down,” says author and motivational speaker Dwayne Bryant ’93. “She would just smile and say, ‘I know you can do it.’” ( featured in 2020)

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). “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.” (featured in  2018)

Suzanna Rose  remembers how as an undergraduate in the late-1960s an administrator told her outright that women had to score higher than men on the SAT to earn admittance. And how as a psychology Ph.D. student she received no mentorship support while male counterparts played poker and tennis with the all-male faculty to build their network. So, to continue a mission she started years ago, Rose—who arrived at FIU to head FIU’s the Women’s Studies Center and later served as senior associate dean of CASE and the founding executive director of the School of Integrated Science and Humanity—secured a $3.2 million National Science Foundation grant with a colleague to establish the Office to Advance Women, Equity & Diversity. Today she is creating a model for inclusion by educating employees on the ways that implicit bias keeps certain groups down. Rose acknowledges positive changes over the years but recognizes the continuing struggle. Case in point: More than 30 universities nationally and internationally have consulted with her about recruitment and retention of women faculty in STEM. Ushering in a new generation of appropriately diverse professionals is difficult, but with Rose covering their backs, they will get there. (featured in 2019)

When Cindy Russo retired after 36 years at FIU, her legacy as the most successful coach in the university’s history and one of the great women’s basketball coaches of all time was clear. Under her leadership, the Panthers made six trips to the NCAA Tournament, won eight regular season conference titles and seven tournament crowns, and had a run of 22 consecutive winning seasons from 1981-2003. Russo called it a career in January 2015 with 707 wins (667 of them at FIU, the others during a two-year stint at Lamar University), which ranks 15th all-time in Division I women’s basketball history. “From the time I came to FIU, the university always had a lot of good energy – people were excited to be here. I had the chance to come in and make a mark on this university,” she said. “It’s a priceless feeling, being able to make a difference in these young women’s lives and seeing them go out and be successful and positive contributors in the world.”  (featured in   2016


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.”  (featured in  2017


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, Medieval volumes and pre-Columbian figurines, to name a few. And while she has made plenty of strategic purchases, Silvera has found her niche in getting collectors comfortable with the idea of  giving their prized possessions to FIU. Case in point: After bonding over a cup of tea with Cuban-American collector Elena Kurstin, the latter donated hundreds of pre-revolutionary magazines, postcards, city maps and restaurant menus she purchased in exile from dealers. In Silvera’s role as university archivist, she 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.”  (featured in  2018)

Linda Agustin Simunek  didn’t worry about the lack of perfect facilities in which to teach nursing students. The founding dean of the School of Nursing—FIU’s earlier, smaller nursing program had been discontinued—arrived in 1982 and cared only about the quality of education. “We started out in a trailer, and I remember having to use an outhouse,” she says of the days when a proper space, then at BBC, was still under construction. “For our first lab day, I had to get the linens from my home. The students learned to make beds with rainbow designs.” Despite those little challenges, Simunek “always knew the school would flourish.” An immigrant herself, from the Philippines, she understood the importance of cultural diversity and made it a priority to recruit and retain a diverse body of multicultural students and faculty. Case in point: She developed and implemented a program to help RNs from Cuba apply for licensure in Florida even when obtaining their nursing school records was all but impossible. “I am most proud of having produced successful FIU nursing alumni,” she says, “many of whom now serve in leadership positions in health care facilities and in nursing schools in Florida and throughout the nation.”  (featured in  2016)

Judith Stiehm  is the only woman to have held the job of provost at FIU, a fact that also made her the first female provost in SUS history. She arrived in 1987 from the University of Southern California and moved FIU forward on many fronts during her three years in the top academic post. She appointed three vice provosts, named FIU’s first two eminent scholars and helped oversee the implementation of several master’s and doctoral degree programs. She also oversaw the revision and approval of the faculty tenure and promotion guidelines and procedures, completion of the 18-month-long university reaffirmation of accreditation self study, and a positive review by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools site-visit committee. Today she is a full-time professor of political science and working on a biography of former Attorney General Janet Reno. “I came from USC, a very old, very well established institution. I knew it would be crazy at FIU, and it was,” said Stiehm, who added that she loved the adventure of those early, formative years. “The university has matured, of course, but back then it was a bit like a frontier.”  (featured in  2016)  


Felecia Townsend  is usually the loudest one in the room—and people like it that way. Best known  not for her work managing food-service vendors for Business Services, the high-energy alumna—she graduated in the 1980s after playing power forward and center under legendary basketball coach Cindy Russo—instead has made her mark by commanding the microphone to emcee and sing at many of FIU’s signature events. Her stage presence and soprano voice have elevated the annual Holiday Party for Children (which she helped found), the President’s Holiday Party, the Employee Awards and Recognition ceremony, the Ignite breakfast and others. Whether belting out FIU versions of “Simply the Best” and “Proud Mary”  or leading a crowd in the FIU alma mater or a roomful of mourners at a memorial service, she has celebrated with the FIU family in the best of times and comforted it in the worst. “I need to be a light for others,” Townesend says. “I really believe that’s what I’m here for.” (featured in 2019)


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. (featured in  2018)

Mira Wilkins  joined FIU’s faculty in 1974 as one of the few female experts on the history of foreign investment in the United States, a subject she continues to research and write on today, in retirement. She has published numerous journal articles and several books, including four with Harvard University Press, and her co-written volume, “American Business Abroad: Ford on Six Continents,” first released in 1964, was republished by Cambridge University Press in 2011. Her scholarship has received wide acclaim. She was the first woman recognized with the Worlds Ahead Faculty Award, FIU’s highest honor. Among other distinctions, she earned a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Business History Conference, an international organization that annually awards a prize in her name. As a lifetime researcher, Wilkins delighted in FIU’s recent Carnegie ranking in the highest tier of research universities. “We are hiring excellent faculty,” the professor emerita says. “They are the core of an institution.”  (featured in  2016)

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.”   (featured in  2017)