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#WhyIChoseEducation: ‘Education Just Has, To Me, The Most Meaning and Purpose and Joy of Anything That I’ve Done,’ Says Adjunct Associate Teaching Professor Sue Wasiolek

Sue Wasiolek, often known simply as Dean Sue, is a fixture at Duke University. Now an adjunct associate professor at Duke, she previously spent 40 years serving as the university’s dean of students. While it is in that role she is best known, for more than a decade she’s also been an adjunct associate teaching professor in the Department of Educational Leadership, Policy, and Human Development at the NC State College of Education, where she teaches the graduate level course EAC 778: Law and Higher Education.

“I have a firm belief that folks who are studying to possibly go into college administration, or even college teaching, ought to have a class that focuses on legal obligations and legal pitfalls,” Wasiolek said. “And so I enjoy working with and being in the classroom with those students.”

In her class, Wasiolek focuses on real world examples. There’s no text book; instead, students are given court opinions to read. 

“At the end of the day, a court case applies that legal theory to a facts and circumstances situation,” Wasiolek said. “And so it’s very real, it is very practical. And that’s what I try to bring to the classroom for the students. “

Wasiolek’s interest in law began shortly after she began working in student affairs at Duke, where she saw firsthand the impact a lawsuit could have. She decided to attend night classes at North Carolina Central University, eventually earning her law degree and becoming a licensed attorney. 

“I had that epiphany that I hope the students in my class have and that is, ‘Wow, the law really does impact higher education in a big way,’” Wasiolek said. 

Wasiolek later earned a second degree in tax law and considered leaving higher education behind, but she realized she missed the students and the sense of community. At Duke, Wasiolek worked mainly with undergraduate students and spent the last eight years living in a residence hall, which she described as “the ultimate experience in terms of really being part of an educational community.”

Her work with the NC State College of Education has allowed her to engage in a different sort of educational community, at the graduate level, while also providing her an opportunity to share her knowledge and experience with how the law relates to the field of higher education.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Why I Chose Education:

Education just has, to me, the most meaning and purpose and joy of anything that I’ve done. And for me, the highlight has been the relationships with students. I’ve had great colleagues, but it’s the relationships with students, and being able to engage with students on a day-to-day basis, and just watch them grow.

I have stayed in this field and stayed at the same institution for 40 years. I have been able to see someone as an 18-year-old, and now see them as almost a 60-year-old. I have a lot of students that I follow who are in the 45- to 55-year-old age group, and to see how they are now approaching their lives, how they are parenting and how they view education, that’s just a gift. To have that opportunity to have that, that longitudinal view of not only an individual, but also an institution, has just been remarkable. 

To also be able to have been at NC State and teach various cohorts of grad students and also stay in touch with many of them and to follow their careers — what could have been better? It’s been a career with no regrets.

How Education Has Shaped Me:

I go back to my mother, who did not have a college degree, nor did not my dad. I read in her high school yearbook, where she wrote her goal in life was to be a well educated person. And so she had an incredible impact on me in my view of education. And that it was just opportunity, any kind of opportunity. 

Education is an opportunity to meet people. It’s an opportunity to connect with people. It’s an opportunity to be part of a community. It’s an opportunity to learn, to learn traditionally, in the classroom — it’s an opportunity to contribute to a bigger thing, other than yourself, It’s an opportunity to go to sporting events; it’s an opportunity to go to theater and musical performances; it’s an opportunity to gain self awareness and to learn about how the body and the mind and the spirit are all connected. It’s just an endless opportunity. 

My mother introduced me to that. It started there, and it just grew, and it grew, and it grew with really good teachers. And it grew with this desire to just learn. We talk a lot about lifelong learning. To me, that’s just a given. Learning is just part of life. It’s just what we do every day without even knowing it. 

What I Enjoy Most About Being Part of the NC State College of Education:

What I enjoy most about being a part of the NC State community is really being able to engage with students who are at this threshold point in their lives, where they’re trying to figure out what their next career move is and whether they really, truly do want to find themselves in education in the long term. And I have spent so much time, and I do spend so much time, on a day-to-day basis with undergraduate students, that having a chance to engage with a cohort of graduate students every year reminds me that not everybody’s an undergrad. There’s life after undergraduate school. 

It also reminds me that there are people who are considering careers in higher education who I might be able to support in some way and might be able to share some pearls of wisdom that could influence their decision making in a positive way. I might be able to help them think about some of the things that they will encounter on a day-to-day basis, if they do enter the world of higher education, and maybe give them an opportunity to avoid some of the pitfalls I fell into.

I have loved, loved being in the classroom with NC State College of Education students. And one of the reasons is they come from all different undergraduate experiences. So they bring that with them to the classroom. And that’s just a very different dynamic than a classroom of 18- to 22-year olds. It’s very different. In spite of the fact that I am four decades older than most of them, I still feel more like their peer than their teacher or mentor. We’re all sort of in this professional thing together. So, I have loved teaching at NC State.

What Others Should Know About the NC State College of Education:

I would tell folks that my interactions with faculty, with the administration, have been such that, particularly during COVID, I felt such enormous support. I felt this incredible sense of collegiality. I feel as though the College of Education is just a tremendously caring community, that people really care about each other. 

It’s more about the relationships and supporting each other than it is about making sure that everybody learns A, B or C. I want people to learn in my class, and I’m sure other faculty members want folks to learn, but at the end of the day, it’s being there for each other. And that’s the dynamic that I try to create in the classroom, and I have really appreciated the support that I’ve gotten for that. I have found the NC State campus just in general, the people, to be so helpful. 

I just feel this friendliness. and the support that I’ve really, really appreciated. So I’ve liked the fact that the graduate school, the College of Education, has allowed this class to be taught, and it has seen the value of its practical application. So it’s a combination of a lot of things: the students, my faculty, colleagues and just the climate at NC State overall. And I can’t ignore the fact, I just can’t, that my favorite color is red.

The Last Thing I Experienced That Inspired Me:

I’m teaching a class at Duke this semester that I’ve never taught before. I recently taught my second class, and I was absolutely inspired by the students’ willingness to discuss some fairly difficult and controversial topics.

I was inspired to continue to teach this class. I was inspired to try to do better and come to class even more prepared. And I could feel my anxiety going down a little bit because of their engagement. So I was inspired by their connectivity. 

I’m also working for a startup company right now that is trying to introduce social and emotional learning to 6-year-olds through 16-year-olds in a way that perhaps the Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts have been able to do in the past. This is using more of a digital platform to try and create community and also teach these social and emotional life skills. I am absolutely inspired by the young people who have started this company and who are trying to make it into something that’s going to matter. I’m sort of serving right now as an adviser to them, and I’m inspired by their energy.