“I sat down in the Union, had a cup of coffee in the middle of organic lab, abandoned my lab and had an honest moment with myself and said, ‘OK. So what do I want to do?’” Jeffrey Barnett, a Stony Brook University Class of 2000 graduate, recalled. “What do I love?”
His short-term answer was psychology, but eventually, he realized the truth.
Barnett, a psychology major who had experienced the life of a resident assistant, an assistant residence hall director and a residence hall director, had underestimated how much he loved working with undergraduate students. He commenced his academic journey as a Seawolf, but he has not relinquished that title since. Today, he educates young Seawolves as the interim associate dean of students.
He is one of many Stony Brook University “lifers,” people who earned a degree at Stony Brook and now work here years later. Some of these lifers saw year one of the Student Activities Center, celebrated the opening of the Kenneth P. LaValle Stadium and witnessed Wolfie’s birth. And recently, some of them recounted their college years at Stony Brook and reflected upon how they journeyed back to Seawolves Country.
Howard Sussman, a ’92 and ‘96 graduate, was a classic undergraduate at Stony Brook: a pre-med biology major. However, he was also part of a prestigious minority.
Sussman had turned down New York University and Cornell University for Stony Brook’s Scholars for Medicine program, which virtually guaranteed him early acceptance to Stony Brook’s School of Medicine, upon earning his undergraduate degree.
Being one of the few Scholars for Medicine students freed his academic schedule.
“You can relax, you can take 25 credits, you can take coursework that you probably wouldn’t have dared to take because God forbid something blemishes your application to medical school,” he said.
Sussman helped start the university’s jazz band and engaged in mischievous prank wars with his Cardozo College suitemates. He became possibly the first undergraduate research assistant in Dr. J. Peter Gergen’s genetics lab and studied at the Health Sciences Library, a place that he considered “kinda cool.”
And like many college students, he fell in love.
“I was running for office for the Alpha Epsilon Delta premed honors society, and one of the brightest and cutest people you’ll ever meet was running for president,” he said, referring to his wife, Dr. Sherry Sussman. “And the two of us were elected and got to work on AED projects and fundraisers and programs, and, like I said, fell in love… and the rest is history.”
Today, Howard Sussman is a clinical associate professor, the director of Medical Student Education and the Acting Head of the Division of Family & Community Medicine in the Department of Family, Population and Preventative Medicine.
When some of his students say they want to emulate him, he gets goosebumps. One of his pupils recently asked Sussman if he would bestow his doctorate upon him at graduation.
“This is the first year that a young man has said that he wants me as his mentor, to present him with his hood,” Sussman said. “And to me, that speaks volumes about the impact that I’ve had on a student.”
Lee Xippolitos, the current dean of the School of Nursing and chief nursing officer, entered Stony Brook’s health care education through Stony Brook’s registered nurse completion program in 1980.
She was then a 23-year-old married commuter with two children, but those obligations never stopped her from pursuing her dream to help people through health care, a dream she nurtured since she was six or seven years old.
“I used to line my dolls up and take care of them and put Band-Aids on them,” Xippolitos said, referring to her Betsy Wetsy dolls that could “drink” water and mimic urination. “My dolls were always sick for some reason, and I was always helping them get well.”
In her primary family, nurses were regarded as almost holy.
“It was a connection to God,” she said. “It was almost like being a nun.”
She chose to attend Stony Brook because of its nursing program and especially because of its faculty. As a student in the School of Social Welfare, she enrolled in a women in health care course taught by Elinor Polansky.
“I fell in love with her,” Xippolitos said, noting that the women’s movement was a big deal back in her day. “She was an activist, and she got us involved in ourselves, our bodies, our minds, and you know, really opened up so many avenues for me that I never would’ve been exposed to had I not come here.”
Xippolitos rose in the ranks from a critical care nurse in the coronary care unit to the director of consultation and liaison psychiatry. Eventually, President Samuel L. Stanley Jr. personally asked her if she would become the dean of the School of Nursing.
“I’m really glad he saw something in me that I’m not sure I saw in myself,” she said. “Because I ended up coming down here, and I just love it.”
Cathrine Duffy, a ’93 graduate, was an English major and journalism minor on the swim team who was mainly educated in the humanities. But at one point, she was a somewhat lonely pre-med student.
“I was in those large lecture classes, feeling invisible, feeling like no one even cares if I’m here,” she remembered. But when she encountered smaller journalism classes, things changed.
“I got to know my classmates, my professors really got to know me,” she said. “And that’s when I think I started to feel a connection to Stony Brook.”
As a commuter who frequented South P Lot, one of Stony Brook’s crowded parking lots, she did not fully experience the red-hot school spirit that engulfs today’s campus.
“If you were a commuter, you came, you went to your classes and you left,” she recalled, although she noted that commuter life has vastly improved since. “And the student life, if there was any student life, it was happening in the residence halls or after hours when I wasn’t here.”
After graduation, Duffy found her way back to Stony Brook following a phone call from Paul Schreiber, who is currently the School of Journalism’s undergraduate director, in November of 2005.
“I thought about coming back to Stony Brook to get a secondary education master’s, and Paul Schreiber called me the next day and said, ‘Hey, I hear you’re thinking about teaching. How would you like to teach at the college level?’ ” she said.
After working at Newsday for nearly ten years, she departed the Long Island-based newspaper as the deputy Long Island editor, and taught classes as an adjunct faculty member in the School of Journalism for six years.
Then in January of 2011, one of her students — Jeanine Rescigno, who once dreamed of being a sports reporter — died in a car accident.
Duffy and another adjunct faculty member created a scholarship in Rescigno’s memory. And at a spring banquet that distributed the scholarship, Duffy discovered her calling while sitting with the then-Assistant Dean of Students Ellen Driscoll, and Dean of Students Jerrold “Jerry” Stein.
“Just talking to them about what they do every day, supporting students, and the fact that Ellen had this deep connection to the family and that she just knew them personally, that really resonated with me,” she said. “This idea of being a student support advocate.”
As she walked to her car that night, she knew what she really wanted to do. Today, she is the associate director of student support.
Not all students will pave their way back to their alma mater like Barnett, Sussman, Xippolitos and Duffy. But someday, many of those young adults may understand Barnett’s advice.
“There’s a path that will unfold before you that you just don’t see yet because your glasses are a little foggy,” Barnett said. “And you have other people that are with you along that journey that can see things from different angles that you can’t yet see. Listen to them. Be mindful that there is a road in front of you that may suddenly turn, and it’s OK to go down that path because it can be really, really rewarding and really great.”