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One Journey Over, Another to Begin

BC has been a place of personal and professional growth for husband-and-wife duo Paul Chebator and Mer Zovko

05/22/14
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“We recognized how different we were, but instead of that recognition creating tension, it helped us to look at our strengths as complementary, not competitive,” says Paul Chebator of his relationship with colleague and spouse Mer Zovko (right). Notes Zovko: “We’ve had to catch ourselves every now and then and say, ‘Enough. No more office talk.’” (Photo by Caitlin Cunningham)

By Sean Smith | Chronicle Editor

Published: May 22, 2014

Individually, they are respected professionals in the student affairs field who have cultivated long and fulfilling careers as Boston College administrators. But Paul Chebator and Mer Zovko also have been a couple for some two decades – husband and wife since 1997 – and this inevitably colors their BC experience.

Now, a new phase in their lives beckons: Chebator and Zovko are retiring from the University after, respectively, 34 and 25 years. Even as various end-of-academic-year tasks filled their schedules over the past several weeks, the two have found moments for reflection on their time – shared and single – at the Heights.

One subject they readily admit is an unexplored one: What would life at BC have been like if they hadn’t been a couple?

“For me, BC and Paul have been so intertwined, that question never occurs to me,” said Zovko, assistant director for leadership development in the Student Programs Office. “I think I would have found, and relished, the sense of community that exists at BC, with or without Paul. I just feel so fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with so many amazing people here, and to have that experience encompassing of Paul is icing on the cake.”

“I was here for almost 10 years before Mer, so I was pretty well settled at BC,” said Chebator, whose most recent position has been dean of students. “I think that, if I had found a relationship with someone other than Mer, it would not have been through BC. Being with her, and being here, has just been so natural.”

Prior to his arrival in 1980, Chebator had had a fleeting relationship with BC: Offered undergraduate admission, he chose UMass because he wanted to go away to college instead of commuting from home; later, he dated a girl at the Newton College of the Sacred Heart (“I’d sit in the Duchesne Hall lounge waiting for her”), the future Newton Campus; and in 1974 he taught a class at the School of Education.

Chebator made his foray into academia during the 1970s, earning a master’s as well as a bachelor’s degree from UMass and directing the Office of Student Activities and Athletics at Bunker Hill Community College. But then he found himself at a career crossroads, contemplating job offers from the Dean of Students Office at BC and Seagram’s.

“It came down to this: I thought I’d be happier working with students than in corporate affairs,” said Chebator. “While I was getting my master’s degree at UMass, there were a lot of exciting things going on, and I developed an affinity for working in a campus environment.”

Zovko found her career path as an undergraduate in Ithaca College, where she concocted her own major, in adult and college counseling, and drew inspiration from several internships, including one with the dean of students.  

“I was taken by the sense of welcome and outreach I felt,” said Zovko. “I really appreciated the ability to give people the feeling that someone was there for them. I thought, ‘I like this.’”

When Zovko was offered the opportunity to direct BC’s then-new Emerging Leaders Program, she accepted, albeit with some qualms and questions about working in a Catholic institution. Yet even as she dealt with these feelings, she was taken by what she found in the University community: “I loved the environment and the energy here. I felt this place could be my home.”

As an associate dean in what was then the Office of Student Development, Chebator had numerous duties, and these included coordinating ELP, which meant frequent contact with Zovko. It became evident to both of them that they had a rapport.

“We’d talk about ELP until 5 p.m., then just keep going,” recalled Zovko. “We were serious in what we did, but we laughed and laughed. Paul became a big reason for my enjoyment of BC.”

Each of them had personal situations that complicated the possibility of a deeper relationship. But there also was their workplace status to consider: Were they simply colleagues who got along well as friends? If they were more than that, what would be the impact on their personal and professional lives?

Ultimately, their relationship turned on a leap of faith, and trusting in one another, according to Zovko and Chebator, citing the famous Appolinaire poem: “...Come to the edge, he said/They came/He pushed them/And they flew.”

“We recognized how different we were, but instead of that recognition creating tension, it helped us to look at our strengths as complementary, not competitive,” said Chebator. “Whether in our work or at home, we have this synergy: Mer can deal with the micro, I’ll deal with the macro. If we were running a restaurant, she’d be at the front of the house and I’d be in the kitchen.”

Chebator and Zovko readily acknowledge they’ve had difficulty in shuttering that metaphorical restaurant. “We both knew all the players, the situations, the issues we dealt with at BC, so you’d think that would have made it easy for us to separate work and home,” said Zovko. “We’ve had to catch ourselves every now and then and say, ‘Enough. No more office talk.’”

But when you’ve been as passionate about the challenges and joys of working in student affairs as Chebator and Zovko, it’s perhaps understandable if the conversation runs overtime. Both look back at nearly 60 years combined experience in the field, and see change and continuity among the young people who come to the Heights: Zovko, for example, points to the technology-driven expectation for “everything to be instant”; Chebator, meanwhile, finds many students to be increasingly sophisticated and worldly, yet perhaps “not so street-smart.”

“These are 17 and 18-year-olds leaving home, pushing themselves into adult roles,” said Zovko. “They come in with such excitement, fear, ambiguity and loads of questions about who they are, what they want to be. These are issues that will forever be at the center of student affairs.”

Added Chebator, “Students are still experimenting, and not always in a positive way. But if you show them you care, that there will be someone who’ll not only talk but listen to them, that can make so much of a difference to their college life.”
And that caring, Chebator and Zovko agree, is a constant at BC, and not just where students are concerned: “You need help from someone, you’ll get it – that’s just inbred into the culture at BC, and we’ve experienced this time and again.”

After leaving BC, the two will spend several months in Italy (where they were married), then split their time between Vermont and Florida. But visits to BC are definitely on their retirement agenda – they plan to be on campus in February for the “Sing It to the Heights” 10th anniversary event, for one thing. And they’ll look forward to seeing students they’ve known become the next generation of leaders.

“You see the education these young people have had, the things they’ve done, and what they plan to do,” said Zovko, “and you think, ‘We’ll be in good hands.’”