From Student to Administrator: An Interview with Mildred Van Bergen, director of Academic Support, Long Island Center
By Vickie Moller-Pepe, student, Long Island Center-Hauppauge Unit and 2011-2012 student representative, Student Affairs Committee
June 1, 2012
Mildred Van Bergen, the director of academic support for SUNY Empire State College’s Long Island Center, was raised in the ‘60s and ‘70s by parents whose high regard for education was equaled only by their enthusiasm for radical social activism. As a child, attending war protests, political rallies and poetry readings was as normal to Van Bergen as watching cartoons. Not only did her highly educated parents strongly influence and encourage her scholarly pursuits, they also instilled within her an awareness of the importance of working toward social change.
Still, like many young adults, Van Bergen struggled through her early college years and left school before completing her degree. After working for a number of years, she returned to school and attended Suffolk Community College at night while continuing to work. Eventually Van Bergen earned her associate degree in women’s studies. In 1999, she enrolled in SUNY Empire State College where she earned a bachelor’s degree in cultural studies, a master’s degree in liberal studies and 30 credits toward a master’s degree in education.
Van Bergen chose SUNY Empire State College because of the flexibility it afforded her—both in scheduling appointments with mentors and in designing a degree program. “I knew I wanted to be in a helping profession, but I was not sure whether I wanted to go into teaching or social work. I was able to take classes that were geared toward both because of the interdisciplinary nature of the school. It opened up my options,” Van Bergen said.
In collaboration with her mentors, Van Bergen, who always has been interested in the beat generation—the cultural implications of that time period, the political awareness surrounding it and its ramifications today— also was able to design an individualized learning contract specifically geared toward that subject. “I never took it in any of my classes and I never had the time to study it in-depth on my own; so we created a learning contract,” Van Bergen said. “I thought this was unheard of.”
In addition, Van Bergen’s primary mentor, Nina Thorne-Beckerman, introduced her to the concept of credit through prior learning assessment. “I didn’t think that was going to apply to me; I thought it was for someone else,” Van Bergen commented. After discussions with Thorne-Beckerman about her life experience -- training she had received on the job, years of advocating for her manic-depressive brother and learning how to sail with her husband, a captain on the Great South Bay, who has a six-pack license -- Van Bergen began to readily weave together ideas for her papers.
“That’s one way my primary mentor helped me realize my personal and educational goals,” Van Bergen said. “She was just unbelievably fantastic with me.”
As a student at Empire State College, Van Bergen also was a learning coach who worked very closely with the director of academic support, creating and conducting workshops and working one-to-one with students. In order to further develop her skills, Van Bergen often observed and freely assisted in other workshops as well. Administrators took notice of her work and her effort; and when the director of academic support position for the Long Island Center became vacant, she was immediately asked to step in.
Working full time, raising her son and dealing with aging parents, Van Bergen also is enrolled in a Ph.D. program in interdisciplinary studies with a concentration in humanities and culture. Her studies involve the connection between creativity and femininity and how exposing at-risk adolescents to the creative arts can empower them and help them connect with their femininity and their self-agency as human beings.
“It’s a big area,” Van Bergen admits; but she hopes to find her niche and eventually introduce new research and make a vital contribution to this critical social issue.
Van Bergen, whose educational and professional interests can be traced back to her early childhood experiences, has gone from student to accomplished professional, empowered to do what she loves most—teach and pioneer critical social change. She exemplifies, through precept and through practice, the inestimable value of her education at SUNY Empire State College.
“I am very well prepared for future endeavors—both my bachelor’s and master’s programs at Empire State College prepared me very well,” Van Bergen said.