Michele Sampson-Nelson ’03 is the assistant vice provost for student services at Iona College, overseeing residential life and providing commuter student services.
The first person in her family to attend college, Sampson-Nelson was also among the first students to complete the Wagner Plan, which had been launched in 1998, the year before she started her Wagner education.
“When I say that Wagner changed my life, I really do mean it,” she says. “It’s why I have such a passion for serving at a school that meets first-generation college student needs.”
Sampson-Nelson came to Wagner from New City, New York, an affluent suburb of New York City. Because her family was working class, however, she experienced economic marginalization from her peers. She also observed the prejudices faced by her niece, who is multiracial.
She came to Wagner, in part, because she loved to dance. She saw that the College’s strength in theater and dance education would allow her to continue to enjoy that artistic outlet. (Wagner offers a minor in dance, and a new major in dance education is being launched in 2019.)
What became most important in her Wagner Plan education, however, was her focus on understanding diverse perspectives and backgrounds, particularly those of marginalized groups.
“Only a small percentage of the population is privileged to get an education, and the question is, what are you going to do with it to make the world a better place?”
Her First-Year Learning Community dealt with literature and politics in America, with a theme of “Diversity and Democracy.” Her professors were President Richard Guarasci, who was then the provost and had led the creation of the Wagner Plan, as well as two other senior scholars, George Rappaport and Peter Sharpe. In this Learning Community, Sampson-Nelson not only learned about diversity and immigration in the classroom, but she also saw it in the community. She remembers taking tours of gentrifying neighborhoods, followed by powerful class discussions in Guarasci's home. She also worked hands-on at the Staten Island AIDS Task Force.
Her study of diverse communities, from post-colonial societies to working class Americans, expanded throughout her Wagner Plan education. She chose to major in English after speaking with Wagner alumni, who showed her that the English major would provide a solid basis for entering multiple career fields. She did internships in publishing with Pearson Education and with Dance Magazine. But ultimately, she discovered that it was higher education that inspired her the most.
“I knew I had a passion for education, and Wagner changed my life. I knew I wanted to go into education by my senior year,” she says.
“[Wagner] taught me how to think; it showed me my interests; it helped me with my writing,” she continues. “Now, I work with commuter students, and they are far more physically diverse and economically diverse than my residential students. I sincerely think that the experiences, exercises, assignments [I had as a Wagner student] gave me a true appreciation for differences, and sameness, that I don’t know that I would have had.”
President Guarasci’s mentorship was particularly important. She had never thought about graduate school until he “planted the seed” in her mind during her first semester at Wagner. She went on to earn a Ph.D. in faith-based educational leadership from Fordham.
“Dr. Guarasci was a visionary. I think what he brought to fruition is profound. Only a small percentage of the population is privileged to get an education, and the question is, what are you going to do with it to make the world a better place? That’s a really important message for young people to hear,” she says.
“If you’re looking for an education that doesn’t just shape your brain, but shapes your heart and shapes your soul, I think that’s what Wagner did.”