UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Joan Miller said that when she started working at Penn State seven years ago, she wanted to interact with students every day.
She’s certainly gotten her chance. After earning her master’s degree from the Penn State College of Education, she first worked with the BASICS alcohol intervention program, talking with students about making positive changes in their lives. For the last five years Miller has worked in the Division of Undergraduate Studies as an academic adviser and program coordinator.
Miller earned the Staff Morale Award this year from the University Staff Advisory Council (USAC), which takes nominations from across the University. Her nominator described her as the “mentor of the mentors,” and Miller was lauded as a person who “fosters respect and cooperation, recognizes the potential within others, and demonstrates a concern for the well-being of their coworkers,” according to USAC.
“I just like to have fun,” Miller said in an interview. “Having fun at work is important to me. So I make it part of my job to provide opportunities for people to have fun.”
One of those opportunities is an initiative developed with the help of colleague Liz Agler called Healthy DUS. It started out as an education initiative, Miller said, about the different dimensions of wellness. That eventually evolved into optional outings for staff based on one of the wellness dimensions; for intellectual wellness, some of the DUS staff might watch a TED talk and discuss it over lunch, and for social wellness, they might gather for a local evening trivia event.
“We just wanted to bring the staff together and do fun but meaningful things,” she said.
Agler said she didn’t hesitate to agree when Miller came to her three years ago and asked for help to co-organize a wellness initiative.
“Although I was interested in the topic of health and wellness, I was even more excited to work with Joan because of her upbeat and positive personality,” Agler said. “We have since met regularly for coffee to share ideas and collaborate, and she is wonderful to work with because she is radically open-minded, encouraging and cares deeply about improving the lives of people around her.”
Miller has also been involved in mentoring new staff and participating in small group discussions, something she said like evolved from DUS’s Collaborative Advising Teams. This allowed new and veteran advisers to have a bank of responses to problems and a wider insight into students’ needs and concerns.
A career as an educator
Miller hasn’t always had a career in higher education. She spent the first 28 years of her professional life teaching K-12 in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where she lived for 30 years with her husband, Ken.
During her time teaching younger children, Miller said she became convinced of the need to look at people holistically.
“I developed a really strong philosophy of educating the whole person,” she said. “Looking at people, looking at children, looking at whoever I encountered holistically. That’s a really, really big part of how I approach my job anywhere.”
When she and her husband, Ken, moved to the State College area, Miller said she knew she wanted to pursue a higher degree and work at Penn State.
“There was always a piece of me that wanted to be an adviser,” she said. “I thought that sounded really interesting. I was ready to work with older students. When we had the opportunity to move here, I said to my husband, ‘I’m not going back to K-12.’”
After exploring some programs, Miller said she landed on a degree in student affairs from the College of Education, the same college from where she had originally earned her education bachelor’s degree.
“I really loved it,” Miller said of the graduate program. “It was transformative for me, learning about all the issues that college students deal with.”
She first got an inside look at DUS as a graduate assistant, where she said she was able to get a feel for advising. After earning her degree, she took an open position with Health Promotion and Wellness, working with students through the BASICS program. It was there she learned about motivational interviewing, which she described as a way to interact with people when you’re looking for behavior change. It’s a way of interacting Miller said she has taken with her to DUS.
“It’s not dictating to students how they should change,” she said. “It’s a guiding conversation to help them uncover what changes they’re willing to make.”
Miller said she loves her position at DUS, but that’s also one of the hardest parts.
“One of the things that’s been hardest for me is finding this so late in life,” she said. “I wish I would have done this at least 10 years earlier. But, things just weren’t right. Things weren't lined up appropriately. At least I got to do something that I loved. Not that I didn’t enjoy K-12, but I like this a lot more.”
She said leadership in DUS has been incredibly supportive, especially recently with the award. She said she was also impressed with the way the unit stepped up in response to the coronavirus pandemic and leveraged their strengths in order to anticipate students’ needs in the move to remote advising.
“Professionally, I can't say enough how our unit rose to the occasion quickly.”
Miller still lives in State College with her husband, who is retired. In her free time, had the pandemic not happened, Miller likely would have been visited by her two sons, Doug and Dan or traveled to visit them. Dan is in the Coast Guard, stationed in Hawaii and Doug is a teacher at a school in Singapore. Miller said they love traveling in Southeast Asia with him, a place she described as “the most vibrant, interesting part of the world.” Miller said she also loves to read and attend Penn State sporting events of all kinds.
“We are honored to have Joan Miller on the staff of the Division of Undergraduate Studies,” said David Smith, associate dean for advising and executive director of DUS. “Her genuine desire to build morale among her colleagues is critical to the success of our program. The organic nature of the effort that she and Liz have championed demonstrates the value of empowering staff to be active In shaping their work environment.”
The Division of Undergraduate Studies is a part of Penn State Undergraduate Education, the academic administrative unit that provides leadership and coordination for University-wide programs and initiatives in support of undergraduate teaching and learning at Penn State. Learn more about Undergraduate Education at undergrad.psu.edu.