What makes Verona so special is the connection through its small-town roots, near and far, Natives share their stories of success and determination, and most importantly, the bridge between the two: transition. Dr. Kathryn A. Foster, who is now president of The College of New Jersey (TCNJ), recently took time to reflect on her hometown and the life experiences that have shaped her attitude toward life changes.
Foster was named president of the College in March 2018, but her story begins with the Verona experiences that influenced her personality from a young age. An active participant in extracurriculars, such as tennis and music, and simple activities such as walking to school each day, made her desire to become a lifelong learner and seek “independence and confidence for life,” she exclaims. Her first job opportunities stemmed from the Verona Public Library and Verona Recreation Department, and instilled hardworking habits into her lifestyle.
Foster has over 35 years of experience in public higher education and holds a Bachelor of Arts from from The Johns Hopkins University, a Master in City Planning from the University of California, Berkeley, and a and PhD from Princeton University. She says that she owes her robust educational background to her positive experiences as a student in Verona, where she graduated with the Verona High School class of 1975.
“Growing up I knew only Verona, so probably could not appreciate how it shaped or influenced me,” she says. “It was simply my fishbowl, a familiar and friendly place. Once I left for college and subsequently experienced graduate school, Peace Corps and two decades of professional life outside of Verona and New Jersey did I recognize how fortunate I was to grow up in my wonderful small town. I got a sense of how life will always require adjustments and how to bring the best that all I can do.”
Foster also cites experiences outside of education to be worthy of personal growth that helped her transition into the role as TCNJ’s 16th president. Like her other experiences, she circles back to her Verona roots as a key point of the experience.
“My most profound transition had to be moving to Swaziland [now eSwatini] in the late-1980s when I joined the Peace Corps,” Foster says. “So much about my new home–the Swazi culture, history, resources, language, rhythms and interpersonal norms–were entirely new to me. Fortunately, most of us are curious, engaged, and resilient enough to make a new home wherever we find ourselves-and I developed the same love for Swaziland that I found in Verona from pursuing what I am passionate about most.”
Following her passions for higher education and teamwork is central to Foster’s personality and is also her recipe for life adjustments. Although she has had an abundance of higher education experiences, she says that nothing could have prepared her for her first year in office at TCNJ, which was marked by the deaths of four students and an athletic coach. “Each passing was palpable and heartbreaking for the campus community,” she says. “Although it was gratifying to see how the community pulled together in mourning, the keen losses permeated our spaces and psyche,” she says. “I used my devotion for unity in the community to keep moving forward and simultaneously transition into my role as president.”
Foster also explains that her Verona experiences taught her to never stop planning ahead during transitional periods. Foster enjoyed walking to school as a child, then began enjoying running, with the end goal of a marathon on her mind. Through the life changes that brought her around the country, she kept this goal alive and eventually completed The Avenue of the Giants marathon in 1981, a race through the redwoods of northern California that is one of the greatest accomplishments of her life to this day.
Similarly, she says that thinking “big-picture with small steps” helped with her transition into the presidency at TCNJ. During her first year, she was always hypothesizing various goals for TCNJ, such as to “furbish athletic and academic spaces–particularly to find a place for our School of Nursing, Health, and Exercise Science–and to further diversify our faculty and staff. The overarching goal, always, is to do everything I can to realize the promise of this eminent school. My professional goal is to bring my A game to those obligations every day and to be sufficiently forward-looking that we position TCNJ positively for the future.”
No matter where life has taken her, Foster says that she owes everything she is and is becoming to her Verona roots. As a lifelong Verona resident and recent alumni of TCNJ myself, I appreciate the opportunities that Verona gave me, but also recognize the endless evolution that life experiences bring. Foster’s final words of advice for anyone enduring a transition are to continuously “embrace and pursue with gusto those natural attributes of curiosity, engagement and resilience. From my experience, you will be glad you did.”