By DONOVAN HARRELL
Catherine Koverola, the new president of Pitt–Bradford and Pitt–Titusville, said her new home offers the best of both worlds — support from a large institution and engagement with a rural community.
This has been a common position for Koverola, whose career in higher education has been with a mixture of both large and small institutions.
She most recently worked at the African Leadership University in Mauritius, Africa, an island in the Indian Ocean off the continent’s coast. Her other past positions include provost and vice president for academic affairs at Cambridge College in Boston and dean of psychology and interim vice president of academic affairs at Antioch University Seattle.
Koverola also spent more than 20 years as a clinical psychologist, assisting traumatized youth in underserved, poverty-stricken communities in the U.S. and abroad.
Having officially started her new role on June 1, Koverola comes to the Titusville campus as it is transitioning into “the Hub,” which would alter the educational programming to serve the evolving needs of the region.
Pitt–Titusville will partner with Manchester Bidwell Corp., the Manufacturing Assistance Center at the Swanson School of Engineering and Northern Pennsylvania Regional College.
While the school’s courses are still being finalized, the Hub also will offer two associate degree programs in nursing and physical therapy assistant. It is scheduled to open in August 2020.
The University Times talked to Koverola about her past experiences, her priorities for the future of Pitt–Bradford and Pitt–Titusville, and more. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Now that you’re a few months in, how do you like Bradford so far?
I love it. Bradford is just an incredibly welcoming community. And it is so beautiful. The region that we’re in is just peaceful, its nature is so evident and prominent. There’s this soothing aspect to where we’re situated. But what’s most warming is the people. The Pitt–Bradford people and the community in Bradford has been incredibly welcoming to my husband and I.
What made you decide to take on this position?
I have been in higher ed for over three decades, and have been on different continents, different countries, to large institutions, small institutions, so I was looking to be at a serious institution, a higher-ed institution that’s making a difference in terms of teaching, research and impact on the community, regionally, nationally, as well as globally.
I basically grew up in large public institutions but have also spent some really wonderful years in small institutions, mostly private institutions. And to me Pitt–Bradford is really the best of both worlds. We have the resources and the gravitas of the University of Pittsburgh and what the University of Pittsburgh aspires to and what Pittsburgh does. But I have the opportunity to lead in a small campus community where access is really crucial.
And my entire career has really been about ensuring that educational opportunities are accessible for people for whom they’ve often been denied or limited. I am a clinical psychologist by training and have worked with populations that have been marginalized because of poverty, because of a variety of circumstances, violence and isolation. The many things that accompany poverty and lack of access.
I’m really committed to that. I’m a first-gen college graduate myself. I know firsthand what that is. I had parents who really believed in education. They didn’t have more than grade eight themselves. I’m the daughter of immigrants. My parents are from Finland. I was born in Canada. I am an American citizen, and very grateful to be back in the U.S.
I spent the last two years serving the African continent as the inaugural provost of the African Leadership University. And there, it was a wonderful opportunity to be part of transformative change and building educational opportunities for African youth. But I also realized just what a privilege it is to be an American, and to be part of American higher ed, and what we have to offer students.
Pitt–Bradford to me is the best of both worlds. I can I can make an impact. I love living in rural communities.
— PittBradford (@PittBradford) July 12, 2019
What are some of your priorities for your first year?
One of my priorities is really driven by not only my own commitment as an educator, and as a clinician, is the commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. And our student body at here is over 25 percent minority students, and our faculty and staff demographic do not reflect that.
I really believe that our faculty and staff should mirror our student demographic in all respects. And I want to ensure that our faculty and staff are equipped to provide everything that’s needed for every student that comes to Pitt–Bradford, so they are successful.
That means building out a whole host of services, ensuring that our curriculum addresses diversity, equity and inclusion. I’m very passionate about global issues. If we as educators are not equipping our students to be in a global society and a global economy, we have let them down. That also really dovetails beautifully with diversity, equity and inclusion. And we’re really privileged here to have students from so many different backgrounds.
We are launching the search for the founding chief diversity and inclusion officer. We have just hired two new faculty fellows — minority fellows. They will be joining us this fall. We’re really excited about that. They will be focusing on teaching freshman seminar. One is an African-American and one is Latinx.
The other thing that we’re going to be doing is launching our strategic planning process this September. What has been in the works are plans to develop an engineering/computer information systems building. We’re moving into the act of fundraising. For that we’ve gotten approval to launch two — a bachelor of engineering and applied engineering.
Even though you haven’t been here long, from your perspective, what are some of the strengths that you have here?
What I think is a real strength here is this incredibly caring community. Students can’t fly below the radar. So, if you want to be anonymous, this is not the place for you. I did a listening tour when I first came and what emerged in each group was how tight the faculty and staff feel their commitment is to the individual student and the student’s success, as well as the commitment and connections to one another is a huge resource.
Another big thing that I’ve noticed is the commitment of the Bradford community. If it wasn’t for leadership within Bradford, Pitt–Bradford wouldn’t exist. And I have the luxury of a very well-developed advisory board who not only give generously of their resources, but of their time and their passion. Those two things I would see as really big assets.
We have a beautiful campus. We don’t have deferred maintenance. We have opportunities to grow and expand, but we have a new residence hall. We have many residence halls that are lovely.
The beauty of our region, I think that we can also really capitalize upon our proximity to the Allegheny National Forest, in terms of thinking about building out sustainability programs, and there’s a variety of really market-driven programs that we could develop to really leverage the location.
I think our location is a big asset. Bradford, in its boom time, was a very successful oil town with a population of 25,000 people. There was a lot of innovation that happened in those early years in Bradford. And I really believe that DNA is in the people at Bradford. And I think that’s part of really what holds Pitt–Bradford together. There’s a lot of longtime Bradford residents who are part of the Pitt–Bradford staff and faculty. And there’s a real hard-core commitment to this institution and to this region. There’s real pride in it. And I see that when you look at the grounds and how the buildings are maintained. That’s not just facilities people. That’s because everybody who’s here really takes care of the place.
I noticed that you have some previous experiences in medical centers and serving communities abroad. Could you tell me a little bit about your work outside of higher ed?
As I mentioned, I’m a clinical child psychologist, and my area of expertise is in trauma and victimization. I have worked both in rural areas, as far as First Nations, aboriginal communities, in Canada and Alaskan-native villages in Alaska, as well as inner-city L.A. and Baltimore, and sort of everything in between.
My role has been to develop wraparound services for people impacted by violence. And so, I’ve worked within medical settings, large hospitals, and developed 24 response systems to victims of domestic violence, built services for children and families in the child welfare system. In Canada, when I was working on Canadian reservations, it was really about developing culturally relevant programs.
In my view, it’s not effective to just import Western mental health approaches. And so, I have worked alongside traditional healers, and really integrated culturally relevant practices. … I think it’s really important to look at the cultural context, of course.
What were some of the commonalities that you’ve seen in the communities you’ve served?
One of the common themes is the resilience of the human spirit. And the power of authentically connecting with an individual who’s hurting, and engaging with empathy, and providing resources for people.
I think you have to make sure that people are safe and that their physical needs are taken care of. Many times, the clients that came to me … weren’t physically safe; they were in danger of being killed in their homes and dealing with their physical safety. And then making sure that people have housing and food and clothing. And a lot of times, we don’t think about those kinds of things. But those are realities for a lot of people in North America. This isn’t an issue just in developing countries; poverty is very real. I’ve also worked with people who’ve come from affluent backgrounds who also don’t have basic safety and certainly don’t have emotional or psychological safety or relational capacities.
I have always sort of looked at making sure that people have their basic needs met, and that they have a community of support. And then when those things are in place, you build an assistance to be able to process what the trauma has done, so that they can be fully functioning people. And what has always amazed me is how some of the most vulnerable people with everything going against them, when you provide them support, they can thrive, and they can go on to be absolutely remarkable people who are change agents.
One of the things I’ve learned is, you never give up on anyone. I’ve also wept because not everybody makes it. But we owe it to everyone to not give up on somebody. And you never know what a small gesture, how that can be the thing that turns the person to then ask somebody else for help and put them on that journey.
Now I have the opportunity to lead an institution and equip young people to be agents of change and to transform their communities — whether it’s an engineer who’s going to design safe buildings or design medical equipment that’s going to save lives. Or whether it’s a social worker who’s going to be in the trenches, counseling a victim of abuse, or a teacher, or a new business leader who’s going to be creating work opportunities. It’s all about doing good in our community. That for me is why I think education is transformative. It was transformative in my own life. And I just really want to be a leader that helps this institution embrace every student who comes here, and when they go out there ready to make an impact.
There have been some ongoing changes with “The Hub” at the Pitt–Titusville campus. Do you have any updates on the school’s partners and how the process is coming along?
Things are really moving along with the Titusville Hub. It was a decision long in the making. And I think that was undeniably very difficult for the people of Titusville and for Pitt–Titusville. We are now really moving forward. The hub is going to be launched; there’s no question about that. We have established who our partners are. They’re the Northern Pennsylvania Regional College, Manchester Bidwell Corp. and the MAC, which is part of the Swanson School of Engineering. Bradford will be the academic partner.
We have three buildings that are going to be renovated. We’re starting the renovations on the first one in January. We have received funding from the Commonwealth, we are pursuing additional funding from the EDA (U.S. Economic Development Administration). We’re pursuing private foundation, private philanthropic gifts. Our academic groups are working on a curriculum. We have a team working on all the details of financial aid. This is groundbreaking. This is not simply co-locating four different organizations. This is really building a seamless educational training hub for young people and adults of the region. We will soon be hiring an executive director.
Do you have a rough timeline for when everything will be ready to go?
We’ll be launching in August 2020.
What are some of your hopes for the future of Pitt–Bradford?
My hope is that we can build upon the rich legacy that’s already here at Pitt–Bradford, that we will continue to welcome a very diverse student body and that every single student who comes here will graduate with success and go forth as a proud Pitt alum, making a difference in their community in the region and in the world. My hope for Titusville, for the Hub, is that we develop a new model of reaching rural youth and positioning them for really viable careers that serve their region. And that we become really a model for how that can be done in rural areas.
Donovan Harrell is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at email@example.com or 412-383-9905.
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