CHB Interviews: Sister Elizabeth A. Hill, CSJ, President, St. Joseph's College

sister-elizabeth-a-hill-picture.jpg St. Joseph's College on Clinton Avenue has really been making its presence known of late, offering lots of interesting community events (many of them free!). I spoke with the college's President, Sister Elizabeth Hill, about the impact of the college on Clinton Hill, as well as her own personal history.

1. When did St. Joseph's College first open in Clinton Hill? How did the school come to own some of the most famous mansions in the area? St. Joseph's College opened in Clinton Hill in 1916. I have been told that the Pratts decided that this area was no longer "the" place to live, and they were anxious to divest themselves of their property, and that the Diocese of Brooklyn and St. Joseph's College were able to purchase it, but I don't know any details of the transactions. St. Joseph's only owns two of you know, the Bishop lives in the third, and Pratt Institute still owns the last. There was a fifth, but that was damaged by fire, and finally destroyed to make room for the apartments, needed for workers in the Navy Yard during the Second World War.

2. How has the college influenced the neighborhood, and the other way around? The College has been a physical anchor for the community through many decades of ups and downs in property values, appearance, safety, etc. We have also tried to be a good neighbor, responsive to the needs and concerns of those who live near us and are affected by our activities. In recent years, we have invited the community to our growing arts program, which provides concerts, plays, art exhibits, etc.

3. Who is your typical student? Are they young adults from the neighborhood? Are you welcoming more out-of-town students? We have two schools at the Brooklyn campus...the School of Arts and Sciences, which serves a traditional age population, and the School of Professional and Graduate Studies, which serves adult students. Since we are basically a commuter school, in both schools the vast majority of our students come from Brooklyn and Queens, with a small number from the other boroughs. In the past five years, we have launched a small, but growing, residential program, and so we are attracting more out-of -town students, but they are still a real minority.

4. What do you feel are the benefits of an urban campus? The benefits of an urban campus are many indeed. First is the opportunity to interact with and learn from people from many different cultural and ethnic backgrounds. Easy access to the riches of major cultural centers such as world-class museums, art galleries, and performance spaces such as Lincoln Center, etc. is also a wonderful aspect of urban living. The availability of internships and other "hands on" experiences is also very valuable to undergraduates who are exploring new fields and trying to discover if they are a good fit. And public transportation is also a real asset!

5. I've just read your bio on the SJC website, and your educational background is extremely impressive. How did you decide to return to your alma mater as a leader, and what led you to the field of educational administration? I returned to St. Joseph's as the Assistant to the President at the time the college had opened a new branch campus on Long Island. I had earned a law degree and practiced immigration law for two years, but realized that I found the "academic world" more suitable for me than the legal one. I served as Assistant to the President for 17 very happy years, and when my then boss decided to retire, I applied for the position and was elected by the Board of Trustees. I enjoy the challenges of educational administration, primarily because it is a collegial enterprise which, at its best, taps into the gifts and talents and passions of some very extraordinary people, (faculty and staff alike) enabling us to provide our students with an excellent education, at a modest cost.

6. Tell us about the religious order you belong to. How did you choose it, and what influenced you to become a nun? Is it difficult to balance your religious responsibilities and the responsibilities of running a college? I am a member of the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Brentwood, New York. We were founded in France in 1650, and there are branches of the Sisters of St. Joseph all over the world. Our particular branch was established in Brooklyn in 1856, and we have served as teachers, nurses, social workers, school administrators, prison and hospital chaplains, and in many other ministries through the years. I chose to enter the Congregation because I had had the sisters as teachers at the College and had been deeply impressed by their intelligence, their spirituality and their love for their students and their disciplines. It is no more difficult for me to balance my personal life with my professional life than it is for any other woman who has family and community relationships and responsibilities.

7. You're heavily involved in community groups. What is your favorite aspect of life in Clinton Hill? I love living in Clinton Hill. It is a beautiful place, with gorgeous homes and gardens and wonderful people and interesting restaurants and a great quality of life. I feel very fortunate to be able to live here. When I was elected President ten years ago, someone said to me, "Well, now you can move to Long Island!" (we have a campus out in Patchogue) and my response was "Why ever would I do that?" I was born and raised in Brooklyn, and I can't think of a better place to live and work.

8. What do you think the community is lacking, if anything? I can't think of anything the community is lacking, except for parking and a good bakery! Seriously, I think there is a very real sense of community, people care about the neighborhood, and their neighbors, and many make significant efforts to contribute to the improvement of the area.

9. What's your vision for the future of SJC, both academically and in respect to the neighborhood? As I look ahead, I see St. Joseph's continuing to be a partner in the growth and evolution of the neighborhood. We will strive to provide excellent academic programs at the most affordable tuition possible. I don't envision a major change in our mission, but I believe that we will always stay rooted in the liberal arts, while providing high-calibre pre-professional programs. An ongoing effort to prepare our students to assume roles of responsible leadership in the larger community is and will remain one of our major commitments.

10. If you were a flavor of ice cream, what would you be and why? If I were a flavor of ice cream, it would be a chocolate/caramel/vanilla is complex, and sweet!