FRC News

Influential professor who helped shape FRC retiring

5/9/2014  8:00 am

Connie Shapiro has worn many hats during her University of Illinois career, all of which have allowed her to have a positive impact on students and her colleagues. In addition to being a researcher, teacher, mentor, and author, Shapiro served as Human & Community Development (HCD) department head—a role that enabled her to bring people together toward a common goal during an uncertain time. In June, she will retire.

When she was recruited from being a department head at Cornell University in 1996 to lead the Illinois HCD department, Shapiro knew she faced a formidable task. HCD was brand new, having been formed during a major restructuring of the entire College of Agriculture, which became the College of Agricultural, Consumer, and Environmental Sciences (ACES). As one of the few social science units in the college, the new department was struggling to find its identity and didn’t always get respect.

“It seemed that HCD got all the units that the college didn’t know what to do with,” recalled Shapiro, noting how four departments were merged into HCD. “We were not well defined.”

Motivated by what she saw as a great opportunity, Shapiro listened to the faculty’s concerns and then persuaded them to see the department as a patchwork quilt. “You can have pieces that have their unique aspects, but when you quilt them together the whole is sometimes more productive, scholarly, creative, and noticeable than the individual pieces,” she explained.

At the same time, Shapiro met with her fellow department heads in the college and shared her vision for HCD. Much to her surprise, the other heads were very supportive. “The guys were wonderful,” Shapiro said, referring to her six male colleagues. “They said, ‘Connie, we have to teach you how to get the resources that you need to have and that your department deserves,’ and then they helped advocate for HCD.”

She also raised awareness about the quality of HCD research and teaching among the ACES administrators by successfully nominating faculty and staff for the college’s coveted Funk Recognition awards. “That made everyone sit up and take notice,” Shapiro said. “They saw that HCD was a quality department and our faculty accomplishments were getting recognition.”

According to HCD Professor Laurie Kramer, currently an ACES associate dean, one of Shapiro’s biggest accomplishments was helping ACES leadership understand the value of HCD research and how it contributed to the success of the college. “The college was no longer just the Ag College,” said Kramer. “The word ‘consumers’ was in the new name, which was this human dimension, and that was HCD.”

Once the dean and ACES leadership understood the importance of HCD, the college began disseminating increased federal Hatch research funding to the department. “That was a real and symbolic victory for HCD because we weren’t going to be pushed over,” said Gerry Walter, HCD undergraduate academic advisor.

A hallmark of Shapiro’s tenure as department head was the special interest she took in HCD’s young professors, launching a faculty mentor program that reduced potential peer competition and enabled the more senior assistant professors to share their experiences with their junior colleagues.

“As a new professor trying to figure everything out, this was huge for me,” said HCD Professor Kelly Bost, recalling her days as an assistant professor in the late-1990s. “That was very helpful because I had this go-to person I could ask about things.”

Her support for junior faculty didn’t end when she stepped down as department head in 2002. Recently, Shapiro reached out to HCD Assistant Professor Gail Ferguson.

“Connie foresaw some of the challenges I would face as a new faculty member and a new mother, and she offered very practical kinds of help,” said Ferguson, who also appreciated Shapiro’s guidance in identifying high-quality undergraduate research assistants. “She became a family member and her support was very sweet and unexpected.”

HCD Professor and current Director of Graduate Programs Ramona Oswald, commends Shapiro for her successful tenure as department head. “She was able to pull people together and keep moving forward, so by the time she stepped down it felt like we were going somewhere rather than struggling to figure out who we were.”

Shapiro’s ability to foster teamwork was helpful in establishing The Pampered Chef Family Resiliency Program on campus, the pre-cursor to the Family Resiliency Center. She, Kramer, and others engaged faculty across campus in a multi-disciplinary research initiative on ways to strengthen families to meet life’s challenges. At the same time, they developed a relationship with Illinois alumna and Pampered Chef founder Doris Kelley Christopher, who gave nearly $15 million to support a lecture series, research seed grants, graduate student fellowships, an endowed chair, and construction of Christopher Hall.

“We had many exciting years of getting to know Doris and her staff and trying to fit together human development and family studies scholarship with the kinds of issues she cared about,” said Shapiro, who later served as interim director of the Family Resiliency Center in (2007-08) after founding director Kramer stepped down to become an associate dean in ACES.

Since then, Shapiro has continued to teach and mentor students, including the James Scholars in HCD, taking a genuine interest in their personal and professional development. “She’s a really thoughtful, caring person,” said HCD junior Alison Ganko, who worked with Shapiro to develop a new course on adult development. “She’s sensitive to different populations and people and she shares a lot of personal stories when she teaches, which helps students see that what we are learning applies to real life.”

Shapiro has had a profound impact on engineering sophomore Julianna Ge, who decided to become a double major after taking Shapiro’s How to Have a Happy Family (HDFS 199) class—a popular Freshman Discovery course on campus. “That was the first time in my entire academic career that I was so excited to go to class, and I often stayed after to ask questions or hear her thoughts,” said Ge. “I thought I knew my passion was engineering, but the class kind of touched my heart in a different way.”

Doctoral student Kimi Crossman sought Shapiro’s advice when she was contemplating continuing her graduate studies while working on her joint master’s degree in social work and human development & family studies. “She was my sounding board for my concerns and goals,” Crossman said. “Most importantly, I knew she had my best interests in mind, and she believed in me at a time that I didn’t fully believe in myself and felt very confused.”

Shapiro has written five books, including “When You’re Not Expecting: An Infertility Survival Guide,” which drew from her 20-year career as a clinical social worker in Ithaca, New York. The book, recently translated into Italian, is an honest and compelling—and occasionally humorous—look at the emotional journey associated with infertility.

Once June arrives, Shapiro looks forward to a slightly slower pace of life that is more restful and reflective. She’ll swim daily in the lake behind her house and enjoy breakfast on her patio. She’ll still come to her campus office and has begun to write the early chapters of her next book. She plans to teach the Happy Family course again in the fall, and will continue developing a campus-wide minor in adult development.

She and her husband Stu, a U of I astrophysics professor, look forward to visiting their adult children and their spouses—a son in Brooklyn who is a lawyer and a daughter in San Francisco who is a doctor.