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Longest-Employed Women Shed Light on Changes at Bellarmine


Katelyn Norris 

March 12, 2021 

This Women’s History Month, we wanted to hear from the female faculty and staff who know BU and its students better than most.  I spoke to five of the longest-employed women on Bellarmine’s staff. Each has seen the changes in the classroom over the last 30 or 40 years and continues to make waves in her students' academic careers. 

Ann Jirkovsky, assistant professor of Psychology, and Joanne Dobbins, a professor in the Biology department, began their careers at BU in 1984. Patricia Selvy, associate professor in the Rubel School of Business, began at BU in Fall 1985.  Joan Riggert, Director of Planned Giving and Stewardship, started at BU in 1989 and Caren Cunningham, a professor of Art, started at Bellarmine in 1992. 

Each of these women has seen the substantial changes Bellarmine has made over the years, from the class to technology to the advance of student-centered programs. 

Jirkovsky said she has seen a surge of female faculty members over the years, especially in her own department. The Psychology department doubled from four faculty members when she arrived to its eight current members, seven of whom are women. 

“There were so few women when I arrived that there was no women’s restroom on the first floor in  Pasteur Hall. There were so few women in the Arts and Sciences when I began, it was Dr. [Margaret] Mahoney, Dr. [Joanne] Dobbins and I,” Jirkovsky said.  

Dobbins' favorite aspect of BU, and what has kept her here all these years, is the students. Every year she continues to be impressed with the students in her classroom and said Bellarmine students are among the best. 

“I found students were open to new ideas but not from the standpoint of blind allegiance. It was more of an intellectual inquiry. You know, ‘Why do you think that way? Tell me what has brought you to that point?’ and they give you reasonable explanations, not just some mantra that they had heard,” Dobbins said. 

One of the changes Selvy observed is the increasingly diverse demographics of her classroom over the years. The number of female students has increased in her classroom and today the women outnumber the men. She said she has also seen an influx of students from different states and backgrounds. 

“It's a very diverse class. It's a lot of interesting perspectives to gain from the students from different places, ethnicities and backgrounds,” Selvy said. 

While Cunningham, who teaches art, points out that she hasn’t seen nearly as many shifts in the technology of her classroom, she said her students have changed over time. 

Cunningham said she has learned to teach to the individual over the course of her teaching career. She has seen this help her students grow in their art. 

“I'm teaching art and I'm asking my students to be very personal and what they do, I want them to be personal. To me it has so much more meaning if it's relative to who they are,” Cunningham said.  “Our student body is getting more empathetic and sympathetic. They’re so good to each other.” 

One of the transformations Joan Riggert has observed is the growth of Bellarmine's planned giving group, the Heritage Society, which is composed of donors who leave gifts in their estate and create outright or provide estate gifts to endow scholarships. The Heritage Society, which Riggert began in 1990, has grown exponentially and now includes a Visionary level of giving for those who have made gifts of $1 million or more.

“I think the change that I see the most is that we are so student-centered with the donors and also talk about faculty and their programs,” Riggert said. “There are a lot of new partnership opportunities that give students opportunities to be out in the community through internships and practical experience.” 

During Jirkovsky’s tenure at BU, she said the greatest shift hasn’t been in the content she teaches but rather the medium. She recalls the transition from chalkboard to whiteboard and now to PowerPoints during her career, one that has served to elevate her teaching in her eyes. 

The Psychology Department has always strived to bring their students research oriented, experiential learning says Jirkovsky. Not much has changed in those areas of academics, but the one shift she said has shaken her teaching is the sudden switch to remote learning in 2020. 

“There's all the information we do in class and then we give you a test. For a while I was uncertain, ‘Are those kinds of tests really relevant today when students can access information so quickly?' "Jirkovsky said. “I've really moved away from quizzes to application activities. I don't know whether I'll go back to the quizzes or test when I get back into the classroom.” 

Dobbins said one of the many “game changers” in her time at Bellarmine was the switch from writing on the blackboards to overhead projectors. 

“I never saw the faces of my students because they always were writing so they had their heads down writing very good notes. I noticed that it was a kind of a game changer when all of a sudden, students were looking at me and it was kind of new to see their faces,” Dobbins said. 

She was one of the first faculty members to own a computer on campus after being awarded a grant, which caught fire not long before finals. She built her own computer and saw the internet make its way to BU in the mid-'90s. 

“We had to make a commitment and then do it. We're going to have everyone phase in with computers and so my teaching changed. And around that time, I started seeing more women in my classroom,” Dobbins said.  

However, she said the hardest part of her long career has been the COVID-19 pandemic. While Cunningham found the switch to online difficult, what impacted her the most was seeing her students struggle. 

“I just found it really frustrating to know that some of my students were hurting and I couldn’t help them,” Cunningham said. 

Cunningham said her students are the best part of her job and she said the thing she will remember most about being at BU is her students’ senior shows. Jirkovsky also said her students’ accomplishments are what she will carry with her after her time at BU. She said she wants all of her students to feel supported, and when they walk across the stage she feels accomplished, too. 

“There are some students who are going to be great. They're going to do really well, and we just want to make sure we don't mess them up," Jirkovsky said. "But then you've got the students that need the more support and encouragement. When they walk across the stage, that that's the biggest sense of accomplishment I think we get as faculty members.”

Tags: women's history month

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Bellarmine University is a vibrant community of educational excellence and ethical awareness that consistently ranks among the nation’s best colleges and universities. Our students pursue an education based in the liberal arts – and in the distinguished, inclusive Catholic tradition of educational excellence, the oldest and most rewarding in the western world. It is a lifelong education, worthy of the university’s namesake, Saint Robert Bellarmine, and of his invitation to each of us to learn and live In Veritatis Amore – in the love of all that is beautiful, true and good in life.