By Cassandra Modica
Hidden behind an aged wooden door on the first floor of the historic Sutherland Building that hundreds of students pass indifferently every day is a spacious office with a wooden desk, tall shelves, and an assortment of academic texts and necessities on each. The space shows evidence of years of scholarly evolution, and a student or faculty member may certainly feel at least a bit hesitant approaching it. Like much else in academia, it has the capacity to intimidate. But its occupant, Chancellor Karen Wiley Sandler, never fails to offer an infectious smile as she warmly welcome those who come by, and on a fall day in her last semester on the job before retiring, she welcomed me in for a conversation about the depths of her reverence for Penn State.
As Chancellor Sandler well knows, Penn State Abington encompasses five core values that help to shape staff, faculty, and student experiences both professionally and academically. They are growth, community, academic excellence, diversity, and opportunity. And throughout her Penn State career, Chancellor Sandler, has worked to establish these values in the Abington campus that local Penn Staters have come to adore in large part because of her efforts.
Both Sandler’s educational and professional Penn State careers go hand-in-hand, as she credits the staff, faculty, and students for educating her by means beyond traditional academia. Before earning her PhD in Romance Languages at the University of Pennsylvania, Sandler attended Penn State as a candidate for her Master’s Degree in French. A first-generation college student akin to so many of Penn State Abington’s students, Sandler admitted that the low cost of Penn State’s education played a large factor in determining her graduate program of choice, as she ultimately endeavored to travel to France. When offered a teaching fellowship, Sandler told the Penn State Department Head offering the position, “But I don’t know how to teach.” The response she received? “That’s okay; we’ll teach you.” Teach her they did, and Sandler’s extensive career with Penn State blossomed as a result. It’s at Penn State that she found her passion for education.
Sandler was hired as the Chief Executive Officer in 1994 and became the Inaugural Dean of Abington College in 1997. Since then, she has contributed to the once two-year feeder campus in ways that students today may not fully recognize. Within the first two years of her employment, Sandler had the opportunity to lead faculty to propose Abington’s transition to a four-year college within Penn State. She also worked with students to create the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliant entrance to Sutherland. Before the ADA compliant entrance existed, students and faculty with disabilities would experience excessive difficulty exiting Sutherland and entering Lares. More recently, Sandler has helped Abington to join the NCAA Division III. Even now, Sandler delays her own retirement in order to follow through with key projects such as making Abington a residential campus.
Although her job descriptions have varied within the two decades of service at Penn State, Sandler assured me that her experience as an educator has never really ended. “I’ve never stopped being a teacher,” Sandler stated passionately. “You just change what you do. You teach different people and you do it in different ways.”
Originally scheduled to retire last year, Sandler will say goodbye to Penn State Abington on July 5, 2016. After decades of generously serving Penn State, Sandler expresses her fond appreciation for the faculty, staff, and students here in Abington, all of whom she says have contributed to her experience in its entirety.
“Any wise administrator learns from the students,” Sandler explains. “The students lead us, and I’ve learned a lot about empathy and understanding others from them.”
Sandler also expresses her gratitude for Penn State Abington’s faculty, emphasizing the incredible difficulty of finding both excellent researchers and educators such as those that Abington hires and supports. “An amazing researcher may not want to take the time to teach because they are discovering some great thing,” says Sandler. “But another kind of amazing researcher may find that teaching helps them with those discoveries. That’s what we have here.”
As for the staff, Sandler emphasizes that, “it’s a family here. I’ve learned about trust, and I’ve learned about how people help each other. Everyone here cares about each other, and they—most of all—care about our students.”
Sandler hopes to leave a safe, inclusive, and welcoming community that Penn State Abington’s five core values highlight—a legacy that she certainly fulfills. And students would certainly benefit from heeding her parting advice to them: “Believe in yourself,” Sandler says. “Get your education and establish your own values. Live true to those values and nothing can stop you.”