Students and alumni always speak of your genuine care for them. How did you come by that?
Joanne DeBernardo: I treat people as I would want members of my family to be treated: with genuine concern and an understanding that our students are our customers. We don't refer to them as customers, but they are. They made sacrifices in their lives to come here for graduate school and to earn this degree, and we are part of helping them reach that goal.
That’s earned you the title of “F&ES Mom.” How do you feel about that?
DeBernardo: For a long time, as a professional, it didn't make me feel as valued and appreciated as I felt I should have been. But about five years ago, my church held an open session about joys and concerns. A gentleman stood up and said that he would like to thank all the moms in his life — his mother who raised him, his wife who raised his children, his boss, his teachers. That opened my eyes to what being the “F&ES Mom” really meant.
You’ve been a part of the lives of thousands of F&ES students during your time here. What advice and encouragement would you give them now?
DeBernardo: Life offers us many different things and we don't ever really know from one day to the next what is going to be there. What challenges are we going to face, and what crossroads will we come to? It is a matter of setting the correct priorities and living up to them.
I am a perfect example of that. In 1975, I graduated from college and became a high school teacher. Now, I’m retiring as an assistant dean at a graduate school at Yale. I never would have believed it.
What about future students?
DeBernardo: You've decided to come to the best environmental school. I applaud you for the love of the work you are going to be doing and the excitement and enthusiasm you bring to it. I would encourage them to flourish here as part of this community and then go out and do great things.
What’s the next chapter of your life?
DeBernardo: [My husband] Frank and I will be in North Carolina. I’ll be answering far fewer emails, decorating my new home, traveling, spending time with our adult children, and learning to play golf. I'm happy to be retiring, but it's bittersweet because I absolutely love F&ES. The school is going in great directions, and new energy is always good.