Civic Matters

A Catalyst for Community Dialogue

Issue 2, April 2008

Building and Expanding Community—Two at a Time

Lisa Peterman


Editor’s Note

The Bryn Mawr College Teaching and Learning Initiative’s Staff/Student Education Program (SSEP) project has two components. The Empowering Learners Partnership Program (ELP) pairs staff, students and faculty in teaching and learning relationships. Computing I, II and III are courses in which staff and students are partnered in mentoring relationships built upon the teaching of computer literacies. These components both emerged in spring 2006 out of discussions among administrators, faculty and staff, who subsequently delegated the task of program design and implementation to various campus actors. Staff, students, faculty and administrators alike have contributed to the design and implementation of this initiative, creating a collective vision that works toward connecting all members of the Bryn Mawr community to the College’s educational mission. In November 2007 a conference sponsored by the Katherine Houghton Hepburn Center (KHHC) was held to explore “Community Engagement and Learning: Within and Beyond the Campus.” Members of the SSEP formed a panel, led by Professor Alice Lesnick (faculty coordinator of the SSEP and director of the Bi-College Education Program), to discuss what it means to participate in these programs. One of the panelists, staff member Lisa Peterman, who works in partnership with Maggie Powers ’10, wrote the following reflection for the KHHC panel.

When I attended community college in the mid-1980s, I did not have the opportunity to work on, or with, computers—there weren’t any! I possessed an electric typewriter. Some of you may remember those: the things without a monitor and with the loud, but comforting, hum.

I majored in hotel and restaurant management and became a professional cook. There was no need for computers there, either. I spent the next 10 to 15 years as a cook, and the computer explosion passed me by. I always thought I would be a cook, and perhaps one day a manager, although I loved the cooking part of it too much to seriously consider management. So, the fact that I knew nothing about computers didn’t bother me at the time.

By the mid-to-late 1990s computers were everywhere: the workplace, the home and even on phones. I began to feel insecure about having no knowledge of them and thought about taking a course or two, or enrolling in a computer school. But being a single mom, always with two jobs, I had neither the time nor the inclination to take out a student loan and get into more debt. Besides, I thought I would always be in the food business.

More time passed, and by the time I came to the College in early 1998, I was unqualified for many of the jobs I applied for because of a lack of computer skills. I had decided at that point for a number of reasons to give up cooking. Luckily, the job of house manager/personal assistant to the then-new president just opened, and I was hired. But again, there were virtually no computer skills needed outside of knowing how to turn one on and read and send e-mail.

I did pick up a class or two here, like basic Microsoft Word, which turned out to be hugely beneficial, and I learned from a few friends how to navigate the Internet, but beyond that I knew virtually nothing.

Then along came the Empowering Learners Partnership Program, and at the suggestion of my boss, President Nancy Vickers, I contacted Alice [Lesnick]. This was a program that would work for me, because the College allows us to learn at work, and it’s free. That was a “win-win” situation for me. After telling Alice what I wanted to learn—Excel and PowerPoint in depth—she put me in touch with Maggie Powers, then a freshman, and we began working together last spring.

One of the truly great and amazing things about this program is that each person is at once a teacher and a pupil. Maggie wanted to learn more about cooking, and I could do that; I wanted to learn about computer programs, and she could do that. I swear she was born with a mouse in her hand! She is certified in all kinds of Microsoft programs and is thoroughly knowledgeable about computers. We spend two hours together once a week, with one hour on the computer and one hour cooking.

Maggie wants to teach in a Montessori school, where kids learn at their own pace, and teaching me is definitely good practice. I make so many mistakes and do some pretty silly things, and she is always patient and kind—although I do give her a few good chuckles now and then. So we each are able to teach and learn from one another.

Maggie has become rather popular in her dorm as she feeds her friends the food we prepare. Every other week I try to come up with a dessert (usually involving chocolate in some way) or an appetizer; then we also prepare entrees of some sort on alternating weeks. I let her do the actual work while I act as her prep cook and coach. I incorporate the principles of classical French cooking as much as I can to teach her the basics, such as how to make different sauces from scratch or quickly dice an onion, because once you known the basics you can make anything, and you can invent your own recipes.

I think too often staff members here don’t get the chance to get to know very many students. I know I don’t. We are often separated from one another, each busy with our own day-to-day responsibilities. By bringing us together, the Empowering Learners Partnership Program has given all of us the chance to get to know one another better and to see why we are all here. As staff, we are here to support these students and make this college the very best experience it can be for them—some of the very best and brightest young people in the world. And we want them to get to know and appreciate the work we do on their behalf and to understand that there is a population here that is committed to making their college experience as easy, fun, satisfying and memorable as possible, so that they may go out into this world and impact it in a positive way. This program builds community, which has many, many benefits, all of which make this institution stronger and more productive for faculty, staff and students alike.

I can’t say enough about what this experience has given me: more confidence about computers and my knowledge of them; a chance to cook for fun and prepare some really delicious food (the president also benefits here!); and, most specially, the chance to get to know a student and work with her. These young women amaze me with their intelligence and poise, and I feel so very lucky to have gotten the chance to get to know such an incredible young woman and to be able to call her my friend.

Thank you for such a wonderful opportunity, President Vickers and Bryn Mawr College, and Alice and Maggie.


Lisa Peterman is the house manager at Pen y Groes and the personal assistant to the president of the College. She holds an A.A. in hotel and restaurant management from Delaware County Community College and has been employed as a cook and/or manager in various institutional settings, including nursing homes, hospitals and Haverford College. Lisa is a single mom and lives with her 15-year-old daughter in Northeast Philadelphia.