Jan Martin, a lifelong educator, has been a part of the Wagner College community for a year and a half, including some of the most difficult months the college has ever faced.
She’s focused on making social and emotional connections between the Martin household and the campus community, especially students.
One initiative Jan started during her first year involved baking hundreds of beautiful, individually wrapped cookies for every incoming freshman, both residential and commuter. She continued that this fall, extending it to the socially distanced welcome event staged on the Sutter Oval by the Wagner College Theatre program for its incoming students.
“I remember this one group of freshmen who came up … they’d been on campus just six days,” Jan said. “I asked how things were going and this girl burst out, ‘This has been the best six days of my life!’
“We went to any campus event we knew about, every theater production, and I would always bake for that. For the senior cabaret, ‘The Other Side of the Rainbow’ — I made cupcakes with little rainbows, just trying to celebrate what the kids were doing and participate on that level.”
She could not continue this fall with the classroom visits she began in 2019 — but, with a little ingenuity, she could spend time with students in other ways that were safe for everyone involved.
“That’s when I came up with the ‘Walk & Talk with Jan & Elvis’ idea,” she said.
The idea was to invite students to go on walks with Jan and her friendly, furry canine pal, Elvis, to nearby Silver Lake Park and the Staten Island Zoo.
Several members of the new Presidential Fellows program came along with her and half a dozen undergraduates. The Fellows are recent Wagner graduates taking part in a brand-new one-year campus residency, working with academic departments and mentoring undergrads.
“Setting up a mentorship is really hard,” Jan said, “but with the Fellows coming along on the ‘Walk & Talks,’ the students were really on fire to get the inside scoop from them on campus life, studies, internships, career advice, everything.”
Jan had a very different group in mind for a second outreach activity, “Books Upon the Hill.”
“I knew that when the campus closed down in March, it was going to be traumatic for students,” she said, “but they were going to maintain their connections with their professors and one another through their virtual classes.
“Staff, however, were going to feel the most isolated. They were home alone, trying to do their jobs but isolated from the colleagues with whom they had been so close every day.
“So I decided to start up a virtual book club just for staff,” Jan said.
The first book they read was about a young California couple who quit their jobs and set sail for the South Pacific. Reading it together took the group away for a few hours from New York, the epicenter of the pandemic at that time.
“As a group, we read eight books over the course of the pandemic,” Jan said. “The group evolved; some left, others joined, but it was very free — come when you want, when you can.
“Starting a book club had not been on my radar, but when the pandemic hit I thought, what can I do to draw connections for people who are feeling isolated, or just need something that will take them away?
“We really got to know each other well,” she said, “and we really made friendships.”