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Perspectives on the Heights

01/31/13
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Photo courtesy of Lee Pellegrini

By Reid Oslin | Chronicle Staff

Published: Jan. 31, 2013

A personal letter from founding School of Education Dean Rev. Charles F. Donovan, SJ. A summer “catch-up” course provided by Mathematics Department chair Rev. Stanley J. Bezuszka, SJ. The Russians’ launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957. All of these played noteworthy roles in forming Mathematics Professor Margaret “Peg” Kenney’s sparkling 60-year career as one of Boston College’s outstanding educators and most loyal alumnae.

Kenney grew up in a BC family and was a member of the second class of women in the School of Education when she enrolled as a freshman in 1953. She completed her undergraduate degree in mathematics in 1957 and added a BC master’s degree in the subject two years later. She began her teaching career as a graduate assistant in 1957 and moved up through the teaching ranks to full professor in 1992.

As assistant to the director of the Boston College Mathematics Institute, Kenney has shared her ample talents for teaching and mentoring other teachers to enhance and expand the study of mathematics in schools at all levels, winning numerous awards and citations for her professional work.

As she prepares to retire from the faculty at the end of this semester, Kenney shared some of her Boston College memories with Chronicle correspondent Reid Oslin at her Carney Hall office.

How did you arrive at Boston College?

My father, Matthew Kenney, graduated from BC in 1930. Early on I had made up my mind that I wanted to go to BC. I learned by reading my father’s alumni magazine that BC was to become coeducational in the School of Education. I wrote a note to Fr. Donovan, who was the chair of the Education Department [then part of the College of Arts and Sciences] at the time. They were petitioning to Rome to establish the School of Education. When he responded to me with a handwritten letter, I thought that was the greatest. The only college I applied to was BC.

What did you find when you came to BC?

There weren’t many women here! [laughter] Personally, I never felt awkward about being female on a [then] predominately male campus.

Because we were located in Gasson Hall for my first two years, my 1957 classmates and I really felt we were an integral part of the college — also, we were close to the hub of campus life, the Lyons Hall cafeteria.  Gasson 100 served as the center of many School of Education activities: For example, I had philosophy classes there and on many occasions it was transformed to serve as the locale for SOE socials.  

I commuted to campus by automobile with some classmates from “Archies” [Archbishop Williams High School in Braintree, her alma mater]. A lot of my friends hitchhiked to school every day. In fact, even female classmates “thumbed a ride” to school, and one of them got caught in the act by Fr. Shea [Dean of Students Rev. Joseph Shea, SJ] – she has never forgotten the scolding she received.

What brought you into the field of mathematics?

I had always wanted to be a teacher. Actually, I did not start out in mathematics, in large part because in my junior year my confidence had been shattered by a high school math teacher who said women should not major in math.  Although I thought this was a rather strange remark since the teacher saying this was female, it still influenced me. However, I came to my senses by the end of freshman year and changed over to become a math major. I had friends who were in math, and they took me to Fr. Bezuszka [Rev. Stanley Bezuszka, SJ] and I explained my problem. He was willing to tutor me in a summer course so that I could come up to speed with what the freshman majors had covered that year and join them in sophomore year. There were five of us math majors in the School of Ed, three women and two men.

For the first few years, many of the academic majors were taught in sections that were exclusive to the School of Ed and then gradually, they were mingled in with classes in the College of Arts and Sciences. Most of my classes — including the mathematics classes — were composed of strictly SOE students.  However, I took physics in a large A&S class. SOE students did take part in various campus-wide clubs and functions.  I became involved with the Ricci Math Society, and we actually published a student math journal in those days. I suppose that was my initiation in the practice of writing mathematical articles.

By the time I had completed undergraduate work, I had decided to stay on and get a master’s degree in math and it was at that point that we had fully mixed classes.

In 1955, Fr. Bezuszka, who was then the department chair, had hired three female PhDs in mathematics — that was most likely a first for Boston College. Nationally at this time only about six percent of math PhDs were women. I had courses with all three of those women, two of them as an undergrad and one as a grad student. I went on and earned the master’s degree in mathematics in 1959 and then was given the opportunity to teach full-time at BC.

It came about this way.   

The appearance of Sputnik in 1957 had prompted the National Science Foundation to support widespread programs that would assist veteran secondary mathematics teachers to deepen and improve their mathematics backgrounds and become more effective teachers.  Boston College, through establishing the Mathematics Institute in 1957 as a separate unit of the Mathematics Department, was one of the academic institutions nationwide that received government support and initiated graduate programs for mathematics teachers.

Thus, in addition to teaching undergraduates, initially in the School of Education, I was hired to work in the Mathematics Institute. As a consequence of that specific NSF initiative, I assisted, instructed, or served as project coordinator in 49 funded programs sponsored by the National Science Foundation. For several years, my teaching assignment during the school year was divided between teaching pre-service and in-service teachers.  The work with the veteran teachers continued in the summers as well.   During this hectic period I also managed to study part time to earn a PhD in Mathematics at Boston University.

Was there anything in the curriculum just for women at BC in your undergraduate days?

Phys ed classes [laughter]. We would go across Commonwealth Avenue to Mount Alvernia’s gym. We played intramural basketball – what else was included there I do not remember. We also had archery training on the field behind St. Mary’s Hall [laughter]. This was all required — to get a teaching certificate, we had to do a course in physical education.  Several of us also went on ski weekends in the School of Ed, and one of the women who taught phys ed would come with us as chaperone.

What are some of the major changes you have seen at BC over the past 60 years?

I have been impressed by the vast changes to the size of the campus starting with the acquisition of the Newton Campus, and more recently the Brighton Campus. Then there has been the gradual transition from being a commuter school to one that has attracted students primarily from states in the Northeast to the present major effort to draw students nationally and internationally. Of course, the size of the undergraduate student body is approximately three times what it was when I was an undergraduate. 

The plethora of courses, majors and minors, undergraduate research programs and internships, international study opportunities and the considerable faculty available to support them are the most significant tangible part of the changes for me. 

How about the influence of Jesuits on Boston College education?

In four years, I had 11 Jesuits for teachers in a variety of courses, but there were many others that we interacted with, simply because they were always around – either as administrators or sponsors of clubs or attending sports or other campus-wide events. They supported us students academically, spiritually and socially.

I am especially grateful to Fr. Francis Sweeney, SJ, and his Humanities Series that introduced us to personalities such as T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost and Alec Guinness in the old auditorium in Bapst Library. Spiritual depth and enrichment in the SOE evolved through a strong sodality and a retreat program — it was through that participation that we were introduced to the possibility of volunteer teaching opportunities in the lay apostolate and working in our local parishes. I particularly recall the positive influence of Frs. Paul Curtin, SJ, and Bill Leonard, SJ, in those programs.

On the social side, my friends and I were staunch supporters of sports — especially hockey and football and we helped build floats for football rallies. Fr. Joe Connor, SJ, became famous for his animated description of a football game in Latin at those rallies. I would be remiss if I did not include Fr. Frank McManus, SJ – he was everywhere and he had eyes in the back of his head! Fr. McManus had many roles — as dean of discipline in CBA [CSOM] he was an enforcer of the dress code for students – that included the mandate to wear ties and jackets in class  – ties could be had in the bookstore for 75 cents.  My friends in the CBA both feared and loved him.

One Jesuit in particular, Fr. Bezuszka, was a personal mentor to you. Any special memories of him?

As mentioned earlier, I first met Fr. B. in the spring of freshman year when I wanted to become a math major and he agreed to tutor me in freshman math so I could join my classmates in the fall. Class took place in Devlin Hall in a small seminar room near the front door – Fr. B. would talk a blue streak about math and then run out for a cigarette. He could never go through any class without taking a break to go out and have a smoke. He’d say to me “Do you want a cup of coffee?” At the time I didn’t even drink coffee, then he’d dash out the door over to St. Mary’s for coffee and be back in a flash.

I saw another side of Fr. B when I began working in the Mathematics Institute. In the first few years of the institute, demonstration classes were a fixture in the summer programs and Father would conduct a math class of 7th and 8th grade students, in front of the teacher participants, in the attempt to convince the teachers that the young students could respond well to some of the proposed changes in mathematics instruction.  I’m not sure who had the most fun – the students or Fr. B.  His enthusiasm for mathematics was contagious and uplifting.

When I became involved in mathematics beyond BC, I saw yet another side of Fr. B. He was an inspirational and energetic speaker and convincing advocate for change in mathematics education. He spoke about mathematics in just about every state and in several countries overseas. He advised me about doing mathematics, becoming active in the various mathematical associations, how to get involved in committee work and how to be an effective leader.

Looking back, what has Boston College meant to you?

In effect, my world has been defined by BC – personally and professionally. Many of the friends I have had from my undergraduate days remain close friends now. Spiritually, Boston College has been a trusted source for deepening my faith. Professionally, the Mathematics Institute pursuits afforded me the opportunity to work with teachers and students of all levels in this country and abroad for many years. A large number of these pre-service and veteran teachers became cherished lifelong friends.  I am forever grateful to BC for all this.

Will Boston College continue to be the same type of “Jesuit university” that you have known so well?

With some degree of regret, I don’t believe so.  But how could it be? Everything else has changed so drastically in our society. In my time as an undergrad and for some subsequent years, it was the many Jesuits themselves, through their vibrant personalities and fine example that taught us how to be productive and caring members of society. More recently, the Jesuit influence has remained strong through the pervasiveness of social justice that permeates so many course offerings and academic events.  

Today, it is the task of the fewer Jesuits that remain, acting through channels such as the Center for Ignatian Spirituality, Campus Ministry and other means to reach out to this University community with strong words to hold fast to the message of Ignatius and his followers.

Earlier we talked about some of the changes taking place in BC from my student days until now. To me, the most startling change, and it is a very positive one, is the articulation of, and emphasis on, the imperative given to today’s BC students on their matriculation – to “go set the world aflame” and to be above all “men and women for others.”  I do believe the Jesuit Catholic identity of Boston College is ensured.