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Feature Stories: Winter 2021-2022


The pandemic may have changed the plan for Wilkes University’s seventh president. But it didn’t change the promise.

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President Greg Cant speaks at his inauguration ceremony on Oct. 1, 2021.

Lighting the Way Forward

The theme of the inauguration of Wilkes University’s seventh president, Greg Cant, was “Carrying Forward Our Promise.” Even though the event took place almost two years after his presidential appointment was announced, the joyful weeklong celebration itself was a promise that Wilkes has a bright future ahead.

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Weckesser Hall was lit up to the sounds of Australian electronic music at the “Light the Way Forward” event on Sept. 24 and 25, 2021.

A Day in the Life of the Simms Center on Main

The Simms Center on Main, dedicated in honor of Ron and Rhea Simms, is “the intersection of campus and the Wilkes-Barre community, and one of the most popular parts of the Wilkes University campus,” said President Greg Cant at the dedication ceremony on Aug. 11, 2021.

The Simms Center on Main is adjacent to the east Gateway to campus on South Main Street in Wilkes-Barre, Pa.

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Meet the “Avengers” Behind Wilkes University’s Powerful New WARLOC Supercomputer

Wilkes University booted up one of the most powerful academic supercomputers in the region this fall. The Wilkes Accelerated Research Learning and Outreach Cluster, or WARLOC, is the product of a nearly $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.

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Wilkes Deals With a Global Pandemic and Maintains a Sense of Community

Senior communication studies Sarah Matarella’s tap shoes were still sitting in her room in University Towers at the end of April, awaiting her return. When Wilkes University first transitioned to remote learning on March 13 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Matarella and other students had expected to return on April 6. 

It was not to be. 

Within days, the number of Americans falling ill from the virus ballooned. The Wilkes campus closed, remote classes were held for the rest of the semester to ensure health and safety and most University employees worked from home. Facilities staff, some food service workers and campus police remained on campus to carry out some essential functions. Interim President Paul Adams ’77 MS ’82continued to travel from McCole House on South River Street to his office in Weckesser Hall, on many days the only figure walking on Fenner Quadrangle.

Like the rest of America, the family of Colonels was dealing with an unprecedented situation in spring 2020. Wilkes had endured floods and threats of floods from the nearby Susquehanna River, but never before had stopped holding classes on campus in the middle of a semester because of a health threat. On these pages, members of the University community talk about how Wilkes continued holding classes remotely, recruited a freshman class and maintained the family feeling that is the basis of the University’s culture. They share their own stories of life in quarantine. Through it all, Colonels remained connected. In Zoom classes and meetings, on social media and in music videos and text messages, they reminded one another what it means to be part of the Wilkes family.

Faculty, staff, students and alumni took to heart a message from interim president Adams: “Please remember that none of us has left Wilkes, we are just circling in a larger orbit around it.”

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Wilkes Voices of the Pandemic

Members of the University community share their personal reflections of life in a global pandemic.

Fatimah Altaher is a senior biology major and her husband, Hassan Alhodar, is a senor mechanical engineering student. They are from Saudi Arabia and live in Wilkes-Barre with their daughter Shahad and son Abdullah. 

First, I hope that whoever reading this is staying safe and healthy. My name is Fatimah, a student at Wilkes University, and I am from Saudi Arabia. I live with my spouse who is also a student of Wilkes, daughter, and son. None of our relatives are nearby us…which is something that we were used to. At the beginning of this pandemic that is caused by Coronavirus-19, we as an international family and as students are struggling especially that there is no daycare open, which had been super helpful. In addition, this pandemic, as all of us know, is transferred easily and therefore quarantine is required. However, toddlers will never get that and that is the most difficult part: how to control your child while going outside? At the same time, how to make them busy at home when you are having homework that’s due tomorrow or even an exam that’s due at midnight. 

As a mother, wife, and a student, every morning I look at the mirror and tell myself that everything is going to be okay! That you will pass this semester with great grades, not good grades! That your family in-country will do okay and none of them will get infected! It`s tough when you know that your family (in Saudi Arabia) is also in danger but you are not able to reach them. Although our government has given us permission to go back,  we didn’t want to because this will increase the probability of being infected.  Finally, I would like to thank all of the staff of Wilkes University, especially the international department ,who is taking care of us by sending regular emails and offering help at any time. I`m hoping that all of this nightmare will end before 2021.

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Pandemics and History: Wilkes Dean Offers Perspective

By Paul Riggs, dean, College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences

Paul Riggs

What can the history of pandemics teach us about our present crisis? As someone whose teaching and research touch on the history of disease, I thought I would share some observations about previous pandemics before offering some personal thoughts.

History demonstrates quite clearly that virgin soil pandemics can be catastrophic. The great plague of the 14th century killed about 40% of western Europe’s population between 1348 and 1350. Worse still was the impact after 1492 of Old World diseases on the native people of the Americas, whose population declined by about 90% within two or three generations. In both these cases, the pathogens attacked populations with little or no immunity, and the devastation of these crises explains why public health officials have been so concerned.

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Past Preserved

Gail Wallen ’68 Helps Holocaust Survivors Share Their Stories

Gail Wallen poses for a portrait next to a sculpture entitled “The Learning Tree” by Joe A. Tyler in front of the Oro Valley Library in Tucson, AZ on March 25, 2020.

by James Jaskolka ’16

Philosopher George Santayana famously said, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” 

Gail Wallen ’68 has embraced that sentiment in nearly 20 years working with survivors of the Holocaust, the systematic persecution and murder of six million Jews by the Nazi regime in World War II. As the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp by American troops was observed in 2020, Wallen continues her work educating military personnel about that historic event by providing a platform for survivors to share their experiences. It’s appropriate work for an alumna who majored in history at Wilkes. Wallen, who is a staff chaplain at Banner – University Medical Center in Tucson, Ariz., has spent much of her life working with Holocaust survivors. 

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Global Perspective

Marnin J. Michaels ’92 Practices Law Internationally As A Leading Wealth Management Attorney

by Andrew Seder

Marnin Michaels ’92 works in Zurich, Switzerland, for international law firm Baker Mackenzie. Photos on these pages courtesy of Baker Mackenzie.

Marnin J. Michaels ’92 was a trusts and estates lawyer with the Buffalo, N.Y., Phillips Lytle Law Firm with a view of the Buffalo River and Lake Erie and Canada in the distance.  It was 1997, and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was taking off with Canada/United States trade laws becoming a hot topic. 

The trade agreement provided an opportunity for Michaels to transition to practicing law in an international arena, trading the New York landscape for life in Zurich, Switzerland, with idyllic views of the Albis Mountains and Lake Zurich. Michaels, who can speak five languages (although he would not say fluently), possessed attributes that would lead top international law firm Baker McKenzie to hire him in 1999. He’s been based in Switzerland for 21 years. 

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Frank Passalacqua ’15 has 1.28 million YouTube Followers

By James Jaskolka ’16

Frank Passalacqua ’15 has built his YouTube channel, RandomFrankP, into a successful business.

Frank Passalacqua ’15 still isn’t used to meeting his fans.

“It’s such a bizarre experience,” he says. “I’ve probably met 20 or so people, just randomly, who recognized me from my videos.”

Passalacqua has gained massive popularity with his YouTube channel, RandomFrankP, where he uploads tech reviews and how-to videos and guides fans on room tours of impressive video gaming setups. His channel currently has 1.28 million subscribers. Producing its content is his full-time job.

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Campers to Colonels

Women Empowered By Science Camp Launches Science Careers

By Sarah Bedford ’17, MA ’19

WEBS campers Persayis Horvath and Jevahnie Hernandez share a laugh with their four-legged lab instructor.

Squeals and giggles erupt from room 219 of the Cohen Science Center. Inside the “You Be the Vet” lab, Wilkes senior Morgan Tarnalicki lifts her two furry lab assistants, white rats Fish and Chips, from their cage.

Tarnalicki and Wilkes senior Bridget Regan, both biology majors, are running the veterinary lab, hoping to inspire the attendees at the Women Empowered by Science Camp to share their interest in veterinary science. Using the long-tailed critters and two pups named Bo and Derby is working: The elementary aged girls can’t don their stethoscopes fast enough.

Commonly referred to as WEBS, the program gives female students entering seventh and eighth grades the opportunity to investigate many areas of science through hands-on laboratories and activities. Now, in its eighteenth year, the program has expanded to offer opportunities for high school girls.

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Woman of the World

Wagiha Taylor Reigns As Wilkes’ Longest Serving Faculty Member   

By Andrew Seder

Sidhu School Professor Wagha Taylor teaches international business and is known for taking students on her annual spring break trip to Europe.

Wagiha Taylor, Ph.D., Wilkes University’s longest serving full-time faculty member, marked her golden anniversary this year and shows no signs of slowing down. She bristles when someone dares mention the dreaded “R Word.”

“I will never retire,” Taylor says. “I could never survive sitting around.”

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Saving History

Wilkes Alumni Build Careers Preserving The Past

By Rachel Luann Strayer MFA ’12

If Natalie Baur ’06 and Nicholas Zmijewski ’07 have one thing in common, it’s that history is a part of their past.

“I was always into old stuff,” says Baur, recounting trips to estate sales and antique shops with her mother growing up. She even did Civil War reenactments, though the authentic clothing held more interest for her than the battles themselves. “I liked looking at history in a creative and artistic way.”

Zmijewski also got his introduction to antiquities through a parent. “My father was an amateur photographer,” he says, “so I got drug around to coal mines, steel mills, railroad yards.” This led to Zmijewski’s own involvement in photography, and through it, his fascination with old photographs. “It’s a large part of what drew me to become an archivist.”

Both Baur and Zmijewski are proud of their roles in preserving history for future generations. Here’s a glimpse at the lives of two Wilkes graduates who turned their fascination with the past into careers for the future.

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Looking Back, Looking Forward

Wilkes President Patrick F. Leahy Reflects On Seven Years Leading the University

By Vicki Mayk MFA ’13


Ask Wilkes President Patrick F. Leahy how he would like to be remembered at the University and a wry smile crosses his face.

“It’s a humbling to think that people would remember me at all,” Leahy quips.

His self-effacing comment doesn’t accurately reflect the many accomplishments during his seven-year tenure as president. When Leahy announced that he will leave Wilkes at the end of July 2019 to become president of Monmouth University, a private University on the north Jersey shore, it offered a chance for faculty, staff and alumni to note the many milestones at Wilkes under his leadership.

The timeline on these pages highlights, year by year, achievements reached during the Leahy presidency. They include more than $100 million in campus improvements, the establishment of an honors program, the introduction of 25 new academic majors, the launch of a $1 million faculty research and scholarship fund and the start of Wilkes’ first Ph.D. program in the Passan School of Nursing, Wilkes’ fifth terminal degree. Perhaps the most significant moment came in January 2019, when Wilkes achieved doctoral university status, placing it among the nation’s most prestigious institutions.

Wilkes magazine sat down with Leahy to reflect on his years leading Wilkes.  In the following question-and-answer session, he talks about his fondest memories.

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Campus Life Captured on Social Media for 24 Hours at Wilkes


In the Ballroom of the Henry Student Center, students gather to play bingo – a prelude to Casino Night, one of the year’s biggest campus events taking place the next day. Upstairs at Henry’s Food Court, others grab food at Late Night, so named in students’ unique shorthand to refer to the time from 7:30 to 11 p.m. when they can get a snack to fuel a midnight study session.

Crossing West South Street in front of the student center, a pair of students enters the Fenner Quadrangle. Crossing in front of the John Wilkes statue, one of them turns, raises her phone and snaps a picture of the statue silhouetted against the night sky. Over its shoulder, the brightly lit student center sends out welcoming light through the eyes of all of its windows. The picture becomes one of dozens that students, faculty and staff snap in a 24-hour period and post to social media, capturing campus life.

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Game Changers

Athletics Hall of Fame Inductees Reflect on Their Experience as Student Athletes

Being a student athlete defines the Wilkes experience for generations of University alumni. This year’s The 2018 inductees to the Athletics Hall of Fame reflect on their most memorable moments and the lessons learned on the playing field that they’ve applied to life after Wilkes.

Members of the Wilkes 2018 Hall of Fame class at the inductee ceremony are picture from left, Carrie Chipego Singer ’98, Kyle Follweiler ’08, Ed Burke ’70, Nadine Taylor Prutzma ’07, MS ’13, Ted Sokolowski ’72 and Jor Folek ’88.
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Gateway to the Future Campaign

Ralston Athletic Complex Project Will Enhance Experience of Student Athletes

An artist’s rendering shows Bruggeworth Field at the Ralston Athletic Complex. It will include a baseball field and a multi-purpose field that will be used by five sports.

The Gateway to the Future Campaign continues its goal of enhancing Wilkes University “brick by brick” with a project launching this summer at the Ralston Athletic Complex.

A multi-use field is planned that will transform the experience of student athletes with improved playing fields that will allow better scheduling of games and practices. It also will provide playing surfaces that will be better able to withstand the kind of weather that often accompanies a soggy spring in northeastern Pennsylvania.

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Ruth McDermott-Levy ’82 Studies Health Care for a Changing Planet

By Koren Wetmore

Ruth McDermott Levy
Ruth McDermott-Levy ’82’s research on health care and the environment often takes her outdoors. She is pictured on the Belmont Plateau near Philadelphia, not far from where she teaches at Villanova University. Photo by Dan Z. Johnson

Ruth McDermott-Levy ’82 arrived in Finland in summer 2018 during the third heatwave in what would become the nation’s hottest year on record. Finland’s average temperatures have already rose 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures — exceeding the 1.5 degree Celsius maximum set by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and double that of the rest of the globe.

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On The Edge of Knowledge

Wilkes Research Culture Puts Students At Its Center

By Vicki Mayk MFA ’13

Junior environmental engineering majors Scott Heffelfinger and Jillian Weston collect water samples from North Lake in Sweet Valley, Pa., to measure nitrate and phosphate levels. Photo by Knot Just Any Day

When Amanda Schall ’17 graduated from Wilkes, she received a present from Jeff Stratford, associate professor of biology.

It was a machete engraved with the Wilkes logo, Schall’s name and the words “Stratford Lab Legends.” The memento commemorated the four years she spent as a student researcher in his lab. Stratford, who is an ornithologist, is assisted by students as he studies environmental impacts on bird populations, food webs and other ecology-related topics.

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A Dream Realized

Ambitious Projects Transform Campus


At the start of the fall 2018 semester, students returned to a dramatically different Wilkes campus. Pictured here, the Fenner Quadrangle has been transformed with an expanded gateway linking it to South Main Street, new walkways and meeting places. All photos by Earl & Sedor Photographic unless otherwise noted.

The bulldozers and earth movers arrived on campus two days after the May commencement ceremony. They left the Fenner Quadrangle less than a week before first-year students arrived on campus for fall semester. In between their arrival and departure, a series of projects created a green oasis in the center of campus, planted new trees, built walkways and put the finishing touches on a renovation to Stark Learning Center. These campus enhancements, completed during summer and early fall 2018, have achieved Wilkes’ goal of creating a traditional residential campus within the City of Wilkes-Barre. Part of a $100 million plan, the completed projects include an expanded gateway linking the southern part of campus to the Fenner Quadrangle. Other recently completed projects created new green space and a companion gateway at the south entrance to the Henry Student Center. These pages offer a look at a campus transformed.

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Safeguarding Safety

Samantha Sonnett ’04 Works for the New York Police Department’s Counterterrorism Division

By Koren Wetmore


Samantha Sonnett ’04 rides a radiation detection boat in New York harbor – one of the tools she uses in work detecting chemical hazards. Photo by Dan Z. Johnson

Samantha Sonnett ’04 recalls the moment that changed the course of her education and career: It was Sept. 11, 2001, during a public speaking class at Wilkes. Her instructor switched on a television and Sonnett watched in horror as the Twin Towers fell.

“It angered me so much,” she says. “Right after 9/11, I decided to focus my career on ensuring that something like that doesn’t happen again.”

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