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Karen L. Pennington '76, G'83, H’15: Creating Opportunities for All Students

In her 44-year career, Pennington has made it her mission to erase barriers to success for students. Now, she’s mentoring two fellow Royals who serve alongside her as vice presidents at Montclair State University.

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As Karen Pennington, Ph.D. '76, G'83, H’15 approaches the end of a 44-year career in higher education administration — the last 22 at Montclair State University in New Jersey — it’s almost unfathomable to consider that she started this career not intending to stick around.

“I always used to joke and say that I was doing this until I figured out what I wanted to be when I grew up,” Dr. Pennington said. “But I think it’s really the rewards of working not only in higher education but particularly student affairs; the recognition, truly, that every day you get to make a difference in somebody’s life. It’s very rewarding to see the growth of individuals, to establish programs and services that help students grow and develop and achieve for their future.”

Student Affairs

Pennington, who was in the first class of women admitted to Scranton in 1972, worked as a resident assistant during her junior and senior years at Scranton. The RAs often spent time in the student affairs office, where she got to know John R. Gavigan '42, then-vice president of Student Affairs and namesake of the University’s Gavigan Hall. When Pennington wasn’t sure what her post-graduate plans would be, Gavigan nudged her toward a resident director role at Gannon University in Erie.

“The student affairs office, that was our hangout place,” Pennington said. “He thought this [job] would be something that was good for me, and he was right.”

After the resident director job, Pennington went on to work at five other universities, including a five-year stint as associate dean of students and director of Student Activities at Scranton, plus nearly a decade on the Board of Trustees. Throughout her career, she has overseen residence life, student activities and student development. Both Pennington’s undergraduate and master’s degrees from Scranton are in history, and she also has an M.Ed. in education counseling from Gannon University and a Ph.D. in higher education administration from the State University of New York at Albany. She received an honorary degree from The University of Scranton in 2015.

Erasing Barriers

Pennington took on the role of vice president for Student Development and Campus Life at Montclair State in 1998, and in her 22 years there, she has been an innovator, overseeing the creation of programs that erase barriers to success for students on her campus.

Take Rocky’s Closet, a resource created when Pennington learned that some students were missing out on interviews or internships because they did not have professional dress clothes. People can donate new or lightly used professional clothing to Rocky’s Closet, a spot on campus where the students can “shop” free of charge for the suits, jackets or other dress clothes they need to nail their interview or dress appropriately at their internships.

Pennington also launched a campus pantry in 2016, which, she said, was “many years before schools were doing it on a regular basis.” Dubbed the Red Hawk Pantry for the school’s mascot, it later expanded to offer personal care and laundry supplies in addition to food items.

“These are opportunities that students might miss otherwise — that internship might not be possible for them if they don’t have the appropriate wear,” Pennington said. “Or, if it’s food or other personal items [that they need], they can’t succeed. How do you manage to sit through a class or really be productive when you’re hungry? You can’t. So those differences are really important and very special ones for me.”

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Being Present

When the COVID-19 pandemic closed Montclair State’s campus in the spring of 2020 and resulted in a limited reopening during the fall semester, Pennington was responsible for directing campus life for a community that was physically separated. She and her team responded by finding ways to be present for students virtually, through programming and counseling support.

“How do we handle their concerns and their worries and their anxieties about what’s happening now, as well as the future? We’re dealing with students who have had COVID episodes in their families and with their friends. What does that mean to them?” Pennington said. “It was trying to manage all of those expectations and fears in a way that grounds them, that gives them a sense of security, and that gives them a place where they can feel, ‘I have somebody to turn to when I need help and support.’”

Now that Montclair State has begun a phased reopening, Pennington is glad to be back in the office and to have resources like the Red Hawk Pantry and Rocky’s Closet reopened for students. Colleen Coppla ’96 is the vice president for Development at Montclair State and works with Pennington to solicit financial support for both projects.

“Karen has a wonderful way of bringing people together. It’s a fine balance in a leader, of being able to listen and collaborate and make sure that everyone has a voice, but also being a solid decision-maker,” Coppla said. “She’s someone that I look up to — that a lot of people look up to — and her leadership style is something to really admire in that she’s so approachable and such a collaborator, but at the same time she can execute.”

“John Gavigan, who was a central force in my life and career, taught and trained me that it was all about the students."

All About the Students

Pennington pulls this off with a simple motto: What’s good for the students is what’s good for the institution. That’s her guiding principle in making any decision, and one she attributes to the influence of Gavigan and the Jesuits during her time at Scranton.

“John Gavigan, who was a central force in my life and career, taught and trained me that it was all about the students. That’s what we were there for, that was our purpose, that was our goal. It’s about them, and making them the primary focus of our decisions, our goals, our future,” Pennington said. “Giving back and taking care of those who need us, and the importance of education for the future, I learned that from the Jesuits. It has reinforced who I’ve become, who I am and what I believe in.”

In addition to the work she does every day with the students at Montclair State, Pennington has also given back by serving on the Board of Trustees at Scranton from 2003-12, on the current presidential search committee and on a number of other boards in higher and secondary education.

“The University of Scranton was my foundation for my future,” Pennington said, “and I wanted to be a part of doing that for others, being a part of the great experience and education that I got and helping to make sure that continued for others.”

'Scranton Proud, Not Just in Words'

Donna McMonagle '95, the vice president for Finance and Treasurer at Montclair State, called Dr. Pennington, “Scranton proud, not just in words, but in action, too.” Pennington took the lead in cultivating a connection among these three Scranton women in leadership roles at Montclair State. She organized their first lunch together and continues to serve as a mentor for both McMonagle and Coppla.

Coppla remembers meeting Pennington during her interview for the job at Montclair State, and that Pennington came up to her at the end to say, “Go Royals!” and point out their shared Scranton connection. McMonagle said that Pennington helps both her and Coppla stay connected to Scranton, as well.

“For those of us in higher ed, it’s an interesting dynamic in that we always have loyalty to the school we went to, but as you move through your career, you become a part of a campus community and have school pride [where you work],” McMonagle said. “What I find wonderful about Karen is that she is a Red Hawk through and through for Montclair State, but I love that she is still connected to Scranton. She is always very encouraging for Colleen and me [to stay involved with Scranton]. I’m so happy to see someone who has stayed so loyal to Scranton and continues to promote the institution and support it.”

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