While Geneseo’s mission is to foster student growth, faculty and staff learn and gain inspiration from students as well.
By Kris Dreessen
In higher education, we most often hear about how students learn from professors and staff. But just as often, those faculty and staff members say they learn from and are inspired by students. They are mentors, but their support of students comes back to them in many, sometimes revelatory, ways.
“The seeds we plant in the lives of others will come back to us as a harvest,” says Barnabas Gikonyo, director of introductory chemistry labs and lecturer.
For Gikonyo and other faculty and staff, that harvest has meant inspiration, transformation of teaching methods, new ways of looking at research and ideas, and innovation that has changed their work — and expanded what’s possible.
It’s not a unique moment, they say — it’s a constant at Geneseo.
“What I have learned from working with students is that in every student is a dreamer waiting to come out,” says Gikonyo. “I try to feed those dreamers, and over and over, I see them blossom.”
Wes Kennison ’79 : Adjunct lecturer in English and languages and literatures and former faculty fellow in the Office of International Programs
Geneseo family since his days as an English literature major; faculty since 1988
“I have said for 45 years that I would walk into a blazing fire to save this place, but it may not be for a reason you’d read in brochures,” says Wes Kennison ’79. “There is partnership and collaboration between faculty and students at Geneseo — to a remarkable degree.”
As an English major in the 1970s, Kennison had the privilege to read galley proofs of “The Medieval World View” textbook written by Emeritus Distinguished Teaching Professor of History Bill Cook and Emeritus Distinguished Teaching Professor of English Ronald Herzman.
He’s seen those same exceptional opportunities for students during the 32 years he’s spent at the College as a professor of Latin and humanities and as leader of the study abroad office.
“Those opportunities are the real value of Geneseo,” he says.
Kennison has led many humanities courses abroad over the years. While most are held in Italy and other European countries, Kennison started programs in Nicaragua and Hong Kong to consider the same questions, philosophies and history from different perspectives. Wherever the course, he encourages students to examine readings and relate them to their own experience and knowledge. He asks them to teach him something he doesn’t know.
What happened in his first class in Nicaragua in 2010 was “transforming,” he says: “It was a defining moment in my teaching career.”
The group explored the cities of Granada and León to learn about the country’s colonial history, struggle for democracy and rebuilding after war, then spent time in rural Ocotal, a small mountain community whose farming residents have created coffee and tourism cooperatives.
“We made tortillas, ground coffee, learned and stayed with families,” says Kennison.
The required reading for discussion was Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” in which a scientist creates a sapient creature in his lab. The misunderstood creature is hunted by a mob of villagers and spends several chapters hiding in a family’s shed. Peeking into the house, he learns about their lives, culture and language.
“As I always do, I asked the students what they thought about the book and what questions it raised for them,” remembers Kennison. “One student raised her hand — I will never forget it — and said ‘When we went to Ocotal, we were the monster.’”
She wondered what they felt, those Ocotal villagers who had Americans observing their lives.
“It led to one of the most interesting breakout discussions about the experience in Nicaragua,” says Kennison. “The story, though not about Nicaraguans, defined a set of perspectives of different people looking at the same action and gave us a way to ask really hard, interesting and meaningful questions that come up when we travel. It became an effective way to see a story from a different point of view, which is what literature does.”
Kennison deliberately led the “Frankenstein” discussion from Ocotal the next year, and those particular chapters were incorporated into orientation for students going to the region for service-learning programs.
“I will remember that moment when I’m old and in my rocking chair,” says Kennison. “It completely changed the way I looked at this book and how I approach it.”
Witnessing such moments of insight and revelation when students study abroad, often for the first time, is a joy. It takes Kennison back to his college studies in England, to the beginning of his own journey to explore and understand different cultures.
“I do see that same sense of discovery in students who study abroad now,” he says. “As a professor, I get to live my whole life in that moment of discovery with these students.”
Barnabas Gikonyo: Lecturer in chemistry, director of introductory chemistry labs
Geneseo family since 2006
In his lab in the Integrated Science Center, Barnabas Gikonyo teaches students the foundations of chemistry research. Last year, 10 of them assisted with long-term projects to support better health and more sustainable use of resources.
Gikonyo, an expert in organic and materials chemistry, and his team are developing both biofuels and a biocompatible cement that may one day be used by surgeons to repair bone defects and fractures.
As part of their biofuels research, Gikonyo and the students grow algae in the lab, analyze its properties and examine its ability to produce clean biodiesel fuel. The team also explores the possibility of making bioethanol, which would be used as a gasoline additive, from corn husks and other farm waste.
His students often suggest new ideas.
Gikonyo likes to share the story of a student who lived on a farm and wondered whether they could extract nutrients from chicken waste and use it to feed algae in the lab.
“I couldn’t believe it,” remembers Gikonyo. “It could work. I had never thought of it.”
Another student, now a doctor, suggested tweaking the properties of the bone-repair cement to make it injectable. If possible, it would allow for less invasive surgery.
The students may graduate before an idea is explored, says Gikonyo, but research and innovative thinking aggregates and adds to the understanding of complex problems. Student contributions directly affect the future of the research.
“All of their ideas spark a different way of thinking about the problem,” he says.
One idea directly changed their algae process and expanded research in Gikonyo’s lab. A student looked at the ingredients of the “media” fed to the algae and asked, “Why don’t we make our own?” Now the team buys raw ingredients, makes their own media and uses the money they save to purchase more algae to study.
“It’s brilliant,” says Gikonyo. “They work so hard and many of them have a sense of adventure. They have all these ideas.”
Gikonyo believes he provides a foundation of skills and knowledge to students — and a canvas for them to become artists in their discipline. A mentor, he says, is someone who sees your potential and helps you see your value. Gikonyo’s message to his students and everyone he meets: “Stay happy. You have incredible value.”
He encourages students to write “Stay happy” in many languages on a whiteboard that covers an entire wall of his office. It’s full. His corkboard displays notes sent from alums who have become doctors or researchers.
“When I see students rise up to be the best they can be,” he says, “it gives me inspiration to keep going.”
DeDe Soper: Food production and cashier with Campus Auxiliary Services
Geneseo family since 2017
As a cashier at Books & Bytes café on campus, DeDe Soper interacted with students who came for a quick snack or drink, and in doing so, she had a front-row seat to everything in the café.
What she saw impressed her.
“I have seen students so stressed out that they are crying at the table and their friends came and jumped in and helped them study. I saw them leave smiling. Students have offered to use their meal plan to pay for another student’s food when they were short,” says Soper. “They go out of their way to help. That’s how it should be. They are the best of our future. They are going to make this a world a better place.”
Soper moved to food production last year, and in her three years with Campus Auxiliary Services has made friends with many students who stop to say hello. Sometimes they ask her to attend their concerts and sporting events. She goes whenever she can. She wants to show support and help them succeed.
Soper remembers one student who came through the line and was nervous because of an upcoming test.
“I told her, ‘Breathe deep, relax. You got this,’” says Soper. “If they could see themselves how I see them, they’d know they could do it.”
The student, she says, returned to tell her she had aced the exam.
At home, a handmade card given to Soper by a group of five students hangs on her refrigerator. They had just finished their first year at Geneseo and thanked Soper for the kindness she showed them while they lived away from home.
Soper interacts with students — hundreds of them — every day. Maybe they don’t know the impact they have on her, she says, but they make her life better.
“Their own kindness to others is amazing. They’ve made me who I am. We all have crabbiness in us,” she laughs, “but when I see them and I’m here, I don’t have any in me.”
Bonita Bauter Stubblefield ’82: Lecturer in theatre and dance, theatre costume designer
Geneseo family since her days as a theatre major; faculty since 2013
In a Dance Ensemble piece last fall, performers lit up the stage in leotards and flowing skirts that transitioned from sun yellow to orangey-red. The look was created from plain white fabric hand-dyed by a student learning costume design with Bonita Bauter Stubblefield ’82.
“She experimented on the technique. Students have been very creative and think outside the box to solve problems for what they imagine,” says Stubblefield. “I’m there to guide them.”
Stubblefield graduated from Geneseo with a degree in theatre, earned a master’s degree in fine arts, then worked as a lawyer for decades before returning to her love of costuming at Geneseo.
She teaches costume design and construction, stage makeup, costuming history, directed studies and practicum. She also runs the costume shop. Alongside Stubblefield, theatre majors and student workers learn basic and advanced design and construction, often dying, altering and embellishing pre-made pieces or bulk-purchased white fabric. They create looks for the department’s two theatre and dance productions each year.
Until a few years ago, the costume shop didn’t sew leotards. Without a commercial finishing machine, it was too difficult to sew a proper, flexible fit, remembers Stubblefield.
That thought changed, she says, when a student imagined sewing a unique leotard that could not be bought.
“I want to support their creativity but I also know what may not be practical,” says Stubblefield. “This student really wanted to experiment and she had a really interesting design.”
Stubblefield gave her the go-ahead to try and asked a dancer to test the final piece.
“The trial run went great and we went with it,” remembers Stubblefield. It gave her ideas on how to refine the process. “A student’s desire to try something new opened an entirely new design opportunity for us.”
They’ve been creating leotards ever since, including the orange-and-yellow costumes worn by the Dance Ensemble.
That’s the beauty of students, says Stubblefield. They are new to the field and have imagination but don’t know what’s not supposed to be possible. They want to try, even though they know they may fail.
“They aren’t limited by ‘what can’t be done,’” she says. “Hopefully, they can keep that mentality because that’s what keeps us pushing to do things that we think are impossible — and we find out they really are.”
Sarah Frank: Director of residence life
Geneseo family since 2012
Students choose Geneseo for an education, but only a fraction of their time is spent inside a classroom. Most is spent in labs, on projects, with teams, in clubs — and in building a life.
For those who live on campus, the Department of Residence Life bridges the gap between college and post-graduation, when students go out on their own, start careers and join communities. That campus experience is just as important as academics, says Sarah Frank.
As director of residence life, “I oversee the residential experience at Geneseo, but there is so much more to it than that,” she says. “We create a living and learning experience that helps students communicate, discover their strengths, become socially responsible citizens and build positive relationships with others. We help them find their purpose.”
Residence Life encompasses a lot of moving parts: housing assignments and educational programming run through residence halls, such as the 13 Living-Learning Communities that focus on shared student interests. Among others, those include Writers House (academic and creative writing), Global House (cultural inclusion, languages, anthropology) and the new Entrepreneur House (a partnership with the School of Business). Residence Life also oversees the structures and resident assistants, who in turn lead the students in each hall and create safe spaces for deep-dive conversations about social and other issues, says Frank.
Frank has learned that to create the best experience for students, you invite them to participate in the planning process. They know what resonates and is relevant in their lives.
“They are on every committee. They are directing processes and supervising students. Working with students is exciting and rewarding and challenging,” says Frank. “They are compassionate and fun — and they challenge the process. That challenge stretches me and we become stronger because of it.”
Resident Assistants for Wellness (RAW) is one of the department’s most successful specialty programs, says Frank. Geneseo offered a substance-free living program, but when a student came to her and said students wanted something more comprehensive, she knew they could do better. Together, they designed what became RAW. Resident assistants in the program receive specialty training on drugs, alcohol and other topics and provide support and education about physical, mental, social and financial well-being.
“I had to get out of the way and not control the students’ process to let them create,” says Frank. “RAW is one of the department’s most successful programs we have. The RAs who are in it made it so, not me. The students did that.”