Profile: Professor Robert Congemi
By Suzanne Lazar, student, SUNY Empire State College; editor, The Student Connection
May 20, 2016
We’re celebrating the achievement of publishing the 100th issue of The Student Connection – a newsletter specifically for students at Empire State College. As the student population has grown since the college was established in 1971, much of that growth has come from the college’s reputation for flexibility in adult learning, easy access to courses online and in group settings and the amazing faculty and staff that support and encourage student success.
Empire State College has an incredible group of faculty and mentors, all of whom have specialty areas and interests to accommodate students’ needs.
As I am a student enrolled at the college through the Northeast Center, I have had the honor and opportunity to meet quite a few of the faculty members through group studies, residencies, independent studies and by attending workshops and events in Latham, Schenectady, Troy and Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
I met Bob Congemi at the Empire State College center in Latham somewhat by accident, passing each other in the hallway and eventually stopping to chat for a few minutes here and there about literature and writing. I even arrived at my workspace some mornings to find poems by Emily Dickinson on my desk, after conversation with him the day before that had led to some relevant quote from a creative work, such as hers.
While I thought about what types of articles I wanted to see in the 100th issue special edition of The Student Connection, I knew I wanted to feature someone who’s been a part of Empire State College for as long as it’s been in operation, or close to that long. Then someone told me Congemi has been working at the college virtually since its inception and I immediately scheduled an interview to speak with him and learn more about his fascinating life than I already knew.
I sat down with Congemi and asked him to go back to the beginning of his career at Empire State College and share his experiences through the present day:
When did you begin your career at ESC and what was your first position? I began in 1973, briefly tutoring students before filling the role of a mentor and professor of literature.
What changes have you seen at ESC over the years? We wanted to help adults who were not easily pleased or accommodated by other colleges to finish school. We wanted to offer marvelous access to learning without interference of the workday, family life, etc. These adults were attracted to the concept of a new kind of school that gave the same results as more traditional college settings, and I and the staff worked at providing a more individualized study. We wholeheartedly went into mentoring and finding what was important: access and flexibility. Since then, the world has changed. Students we serve now are in a much larger pool than it once was. We’ve grown from 5,000 to more than 20,000 students. Great advances in technology have come along and we lean on it heavily. Institutions mature and change and regularize. We are more formulated and formulized and not as footloose. We have established more policy and still provide the access and flexibility that make adult learning successful.
What do you think sets ESC apart from other colleges and universities? We go above with extra advising, extra concern and extra support. We emphasize learning to learn, which has always been a strong dimension at Empire State College.
When did you find your passion for writing? In my junior year of high school there was a wonderful teacher of literature, a man just out of the army. He tossed novels at us and told us to read. As I read, I became fascinated with literature and even wrote plays in high school.
How do you best communicate your love for writing to students? I had a teacher who built on a play he was writing by giving students classic writers to learn about, which educed something in me which was already there, but I didn’t know it until I began reading and writing. I get very excited about language, literature and articulation and people pick up on it.
What is your favorite thing about being a mentor? Helping people achieve what they want academically and intellectually. It’s fun, fulfilling and makes life worthwhile. It allows me the opportunity to give them what I know.
What is one piece of advice you would give to students about choosing to continue their education and about embracing the ability to express through writing? I consider myself ‘old school’. I believe people should get as much education as they can afford, then continue to learn for the rest of your life. In terms of expression through writing, being able to conceptualize to write is like an act of God. It’s what separates us from living things. It’s a gift to take instinct, emotion, vague mental perception and turn them into higher stages of insight. There is something miraculous about turning insight into language. It provides bountiful benefits. Transferring thoughts into language is purifying. The more articulation, the finer and the more important words become. You find out who you are. Articulating and writing are gifts from God. Use them. It’s what makes us more human.
How many books have you written? I have written novels, plays and stories, all of which capture pieces of my life. I am currently working on my 13th book. I’m an Aristotelian kind of writer – one who imitates a significant action. When I get an idea, I see how it fits into what I believe is important to write. Whether it’s a name or character or situation, writing is the outcome of something that captures your interest and you see where it takes off and grow.
I felt like I took a course with Congemi, just from the hour or so I spoke with him. I learned a great deal about him, about writing, about finding something that interests you and sharing it. The experience of talking with a faculty member about his passion for reading and writing was one that could only inspire any person to seek joy in something they love and accomplish his or her goals.
Did You Know
Registration for the 2016 Statewide College Open House on June 28 is now open!