Chester County Leadership: Dr. Marilyn Wells – Chancellor of Penn State Brandywine

Dr. Marilyn Wells.
Image via Penn State Brandywine.

Dr. Marilyn Wells, the Chancellor of Penn State Brandywine, spoke with DELCO Today about growing up outside Pittsburgh as the daughter of first-generation-born Americans who didn’t have the opportunity to go to college but made it their mission to have their children go.

Dr. Wells also discussed being active in Girl Scouts and other school-related extracurricular activities; her earliest jobs and the lessons she learned from them; her various college degrees; her work in education; and the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead for Penn State Brandywine.

Where were you born, and where did you grow up?

I was born outside of Pittsburgh, near the Pittsburgh International Airport, and grew up in Hopewell Township, Pennsylvania. I have one brother, who is three years older than me. 

What did your parents do?

My parents were first-generation-born Americans. My grandparents and great-grandparents emigrated from Europe for a better life in America.

Both my parents graduated from high school in 1944 near the end of WWII. My mother, like many high school graduates of her generation, worked as a part of the war effort. My mom was a secretary at Jones & Laughlin (J&L) Steel in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania. Also, like women of her generation, she quit working when she was expecting and became a stay-at-home mom when my older brother was born. 

My father owned two ESSO Gas Stations, which is now Exxon. He would work long hours and long days, so my mom was very invested in our lives, though he provided well for his family and cared deeply for my brother and me.

What memories do you have of growing up in Hopewell?

It was the baby boom era. My mom and dad lived good lives, but they wanted a better life for my brother and me. It was their life’s mission for my brother and me to have a college education. Although my parents were both high school graduates and did not have the opportunity to go to college, they were both very curious and intellectual.

My brother and I were both in Scouts, he in Boy Scouts and me in Girl Scouts. My mother was very active with our Scouting experiences, and we did all of the trips and camps. Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts allowed us to explore things we never would have otherwise. My brother and I both earned many merit badges, and he became an Eagle Scout and I earned the Gold Award.

My mother bought season tickets to the Pittsburgh Playhouse Junior, and she used to take us to see all the plays. My brother and I both took music lessons.

Where do you think your parents’ curiosity came from?

My mom was one of three children, and I have six first cousins. Almost all of us, six out of seven, went to college, and education was always seen as the key to a better life.

My dad grew up in Salina, 100 miles east of Pittsburgh, and his dad was killed when he was 12 years old before there were any Social Security benefits. He was the second oldest of four children, and they were poor and hungry at that time. He knew he wanted to give his kids an education so they could live beyond that.

With my dad being self-employed, we did not have health insurance at that time and my parents did not have a pension or retirement plan. They felt that education wasn’t just about having a job. It was about being a better citizen. My mom would say that I would be a better mother and community member even if I didn’t work a day after college.

Did you play any sports?

No. I’m just on the heels of Title IX. When I was in high school, they had just introduced girls’ sports. The first sport was track and field, and if there were ever a sport I wasn’t going to be good at, it was track and field.

However, when I was four years old, my mother signed us up for swim lessons at the city pool, and I became a swimmer. From there, I became a certified lifeguard. My mother also signed me up for dance lessons and I did roller-skating lessons through Scouts. I was on the bowling team in high school. School sports then weren’t what they are today, especially for girls.

Did you do any other extracurriculars?

Oh yeah! I was in numerous clubs in high school. I was in the Conservation Club, Choir, Marching Band, and Jazz bands, and in some school plays.

What kind of music were you listening to back then?

My mother and father felt it was important for us to play the piano, and we were both in the band. I listened to music on my 8-track tapes.

Before I went to college, my first stadium concert was Beach Boys, Peter Frampton, and Gary Wright at the former Three Rivers Stadium. I also listened to Chicago, the Eagles, Neil Diamond, Karen Carpenter, Ike and Tina Turner. As I got into college, it was more Prince and Billy Joel.

What about jobs? Did your parents allow you to work?

Work ethic was very big in our family. I think that’s probably big in every immigrant family. My great-grandparents, grandparents and my parents worked very hard.

My first job was a newspaper route. Our town had a once-a-week newspaper, and I delivered the paper, which was called The News. I had 87 houses on the route, and I was paid 35 cents for the week.

When I was in high school, I liked the finer things in life, so I got a job as a waitress. Right by the Pittsburgh International Airport was a Howard Johnson’s hotel, and I worked in the restaurant there. I worked there in high school, college, and my first job out of college was as an assistant manager there.

We served a lot of the pilots and what were called stewardesses back then. I met people from all over the world and earned a lot of money.

What lessons did you take from your experience at Howard Johnson’s that stay with you today?

It was a continuation of the journey that our parents wanted to expose us to a lot of different people, opportunities, and lifestyles. I remember working there for a little while, maybe a year or two, and the manager asked me to take on more leadership roles by training other employees. That’s the first time I realized someone saw me as a leader.

What do you think they saw in you?

The waitresses were all high school or college-age, so we were all friends and hung out, but my manager saw that I would teach someone if they were doing something that wasn’t necessarily the way that Howard Johnson’s wanted it done, even if they were my friends or peers. I didn’t let things slide and encouraged a standard of excellence and expectations. I also did whatever they asked me to do. If they needed someone to work the midnight shift or fill in somewhere, I always said yes to those opportunities. My manager always said that I would do the right thing and help others how to do it.

Where does focus on doing the right thing come from?

Some of it is innate, and some of it is because my family always instilled in us that we should do our best and use every talent we have. My grandmother lived just a few miles away, and she was always instilling important family values in us, so I tried to replicate that.

Where did you go to college?

My mom and dad were strong believers in education, so they encouraged us to choose a public college. They felt private schools were for the very wealthy and didn’t think we would fit in. At that time, the PASSHE colleges and universities were not part of a system yet. My mother also said she wanted us to attend a school where she could get there and back in a day.

My brother went to Pitt, and my family loved to go there for football games and cultural activities, but I wanted to go anywhere else but Pitt! I didn’t want my older brother always watching over me. In reality, he probably didn’t want me watching him either.

When I decided what I wanted to study, which was home economics education, I looked at the three schools that offered that curriculum: Penn State, Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP), and Mansfield. I had a second cousin who went to IUP and decided to go there, too. It was less than 100 miles from Pittsburgh, so it was accessible.

Looking back, was IUP a good decision for you?

Yes, it was. I received an excellent education!  I went on to earn two Masters, both from East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania, and a Ph.D. from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. It was not intentional, but I think I chose the right universities at the right time for the right degree.

I was a very good student and a naïve young woman in many ways, so Indiana was a good choice in many respects. I received an excellent education that really set the stage for many things afterward, and I had many great experiences along the way. I took full advantage of my education there.

At that time, when I was graduating high school, girls’ career options were not what they are today – you were basically a secretary, a teacher, a nurse, or a stewardess. I really wanted to study marine biology. I was fascinated with it.

My options were limited because my mom wanted to be able to get to my college and back in a day, and we had to go to school in-state. As intellectual as my mom was, she had a narrower view of what a marine biologist could do – like working at the city sewage plant. In my degrees – home economics and public health – I had a lot of biology, chemistry, and other science courses. I thought about being a physician, but I wanted to get married and have children, and it really was not common or very possible for women to do both back then.

Who saw promise in you when you graduated and opened doors along the way?

My mom is really one of my most influential role models. I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, right as the women’s liberation movement and women’s rights were coming to be, but my mother always provided me with every opportunity, and whatever my brother did, I did. For my best friend across the street, her family believed her brother should go to college and she went to school to learn keypunching. I did everything my brother did and was never told I was less than or couldn’t do what I wanted because I was a girl.

When I graduated with my degree in home economics education, I knew I did not want to work in public schools at that time. That was a time of great social unrest. It was 1980, I was 21 years old, and labor unions were coming into public schools; there were race riots, busing issues, and other changes. So, I decided to pursue a management opportunity with Howard Johnson’s. I did that for four years.

I started out in Pittsburgh at a busy location along the Boulevard of the Allies, right near the University of Pittsburgh and medical centers. From there, I was promoted to the location in Erie before being transferred to the location next to the Delaware Water Gap. That location was the fourth-largest volume restaurant out of 90-plus restaurants in Pennsylvania.

I moved up very quickly throughout those four years, and I very much enjoyed it. I looked at my superiors – my regional and divisional manager – and saw that they had lifestyles I did not aspire to have when I was in my mid-30s. I also worked nearly 80 hours a week with Tuesday off. I knew I was young and wanted to transition to something else.

I walked on to the campus of East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania and decided to pursue a master’s degree. I’ve had a lot of great mentors throughout my life who have opened doors for me, but one really changed the trajectory of my life. In my master’s program, we had the end-of-semester picnic at one of my professor’s houses. My professor, Dr. Carol Underwood, asked if I thought about going on to get my doctorate.

Another professor, Dr. Bill Livingood, convinced me to go to Southern Illinois University. By that time, I was in my mid-20s and didn’t have the responsibility of marriage or children, so I decided to pursue it. That changed the trajectory of my life. Both Dr. Underwood and Dr. Livingood were transformative individuals in my life and career.

Later, I worked at Hampton University, which is a private and historically black university (HBCU) in Virginia. There were a lot of strong women leaders such as Dr. Mamie Locke, Dr. Pollie Murphy, and Dr. Joyce Jarrett there. My dean, associate provost, and provost were all women. I took away lessons from each of them that I still use today.

How did you end up at Penn State Brandywine?

I’ve lived and worked in eight different states. Most of my career has been in higher education. I’ve worked in two state Health Departments – Pennsylvania and Alabama. Twice, I’ve worked in the private sector industry.

Immediately before being at Penn State Brandywine, I was the Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs at Minnesota State University, Mankato, which has nearly 15,000 students. As I was looking for my next career move, a Presidency or a Chancellorship, I knew I didn’t want to go more north than I already was. Minnesota is pretty cold!

I was successfully pursuing opportunities at other colleges and universities, which were excellent opportunities, but coming full circle, I wanted to return to Pennsylvania. The state had been so good to my ancestors, and I wanted to help the future of Pennsylvania. Philadelphia cuisine was also appealing to me!

Before I was in Minnesota, I worked at East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania for five years. That’s where my son finished high school, and my daughter was there from 2nd through 6th grade. They liked the eastern side of Pennsylvania. My brother and his family still live in the Pittsburgh area, and I knew I would be able to see my great-nieces and great-nephew more than once a year.

I worked at a private HBCU for nearly a decade and much of my career in higher education was in public regional comprehensive universities, so the opportunity to work for a land-grant, a very-high research-intensive university, was appealing. I’ve worked in large and small institutions and know things can happen more quickly in a smaller environment. So, it was a lot of factors that came together that led me here. Right time, right place, right opportunity.

When I visited Penn State Brandywine, I was impressed with the faculty, staff, students, and campus. When I saw the opportunities at Brandywine, I knew that they were limitless.

You’re in the 4th quarter of 2021; what are your priorities and opportunities ahead of you?

When I look at transformational leaders, it really rests on their values. Drawing upon my roots, I believe in education being a key to a better life, not just a better career but a better life. Education opens doors to opportunity. However, the public overall has not had the highest opinion of post-secondary education recently. I’m focused on doing my part to restore the public’s opinion of the value of higher education.  We need to respond to enrollment for today’s world.

Another priority and opportunity for Penn State Brandywine, and for me as Chancellor, is to address some of the most pressing social challenges of our time, such as racism, recently brought to the forefront of our nation again. This is important for me, personally, too, and again goes back to my roots in Pittsburgh and the values my parents taught me.

There were many instances where my mom and dad instilled in me and my brother the importance of treating everyone with respect and appreciation. They taught us by example.

We are the second-most diverse of all Penn State campuses in the percentage of students from historically underrepresented racial and ethnic groups. We have a responsibility to uphold the promise and the purpose of higher education in a democratic society. I want to help people define what higher education can help them to learn to be civically engaged to create a better society.

Penn State Brandywine has a lot of first-generation students who may not want to go to a large campus.

Absolutely. The average income of a student who comes to any one of the Commonwealth campuses is about half the family income of a student who goes to University Park. We have a new residence hall and a new student union with dining, but about 75-80% of our students commute.

Our students can earn a Penn State bachelor’s degree with excellent teaching, undergraduate research, internships, and extracurricular experiences such as community service, clubs and organizations, and championship athletic teams, and in a more affordable and accessible way.

The campus conducted an informal survey a few years ago and found out that 1 in 5 of our students don’t speak English at home. About 40% of our students are first-generation college students. This year, one-third of our students have SAT scores over 1200. And, by race and ethnicity, over 45% of our students are diverse students by race and ethnicity.  

While the majority of our students come to us from the greater Philadelphia region, we have students from nearly 15 states and countries across the world. We strive to make sure the bachelor’s degrees we offer are what the region needs and what students want.

Currently, Penn State Brandywine offers 15 bachelor’s degree programs. Our three newest are Computer Science, Cybersecurity Analytics and Operations, and Project and Supply Chain Management. Currently, our most popular degree programs are Business, Psychology, Information technology, Human Development and Family Studies, and Communications.  Also, Engineering and Biology are fast-growing programs.

What new initiatives are on the horizon?

Quite a few! We recently had a joint leadership meeting with Delaware County Community College about our students, the region, and the pathways and how we can work together to provide opportunities for students who would not have them otherwise. Our teams are working on scholarship opportunities, articulation or curricular agreements, and other opportunities. We are excited to see what we can do together!

Another one I’m very excited about is our 3+3 accelerated, early admission program with Penn State Dickinson Law. Students who meet all requirements can attend Penn State Brandywine for 3 years and then enroll in Penn State Dickinson Law for 3 years, earning both their bachelor’s degree and law degree in 6 years instead of 7 years, saving a full year of time and tuition!

Additionally, one important benefit of this new partnership to both Penn State Brandywine and Penn State Dickinson Law is to advance our respective commitments to diversity and equity by increasing pathways for students into law school and the legal profession which is currently less than 5% African American.

Danielle M. Conway, Dean and Donald J. Farage Professor of Law at Penn State Dickinson Law, has been our partner and champion in this new initiative.  

Penn State Brandywine also has an interest in growing our Veteran and military-affiliated students. We are doing this through partnerships and scholarships as we realize that the military is a pathway to higher education for some students. We have relationships with Widener University and St. Joseph’s University for our students to participate in Army and Air Force ROTC, respectively. We also are working to establish relationships with various Veterans organizations throughout our region. We’ve also had a record year of fundraising including the largest, named gift in the history of our campus and another major gift to support scholarships for students who are Veterans and military students and their dependents. We are grateful for our partners and donors who support those who have served our country.

Another initiative I’m very excited about is our new Penn State Brandywine LaunchBox powered by Penn State.  The Brandywine LaunchBox is a signature program of President Eric Barron’s Invent Penn State initiative ( designed to drive economic development, job creation, and student career success. Invent Penn State’s LaunchBox and Innovation Hub Network is creating innovation economies and entrepreneurial ecosystems in communities across the Commonwealth through the power of partnerships.

Penn State Brandywine’s LaunchBox will be located in downtown Lansdowne, across from the historic Lansdowne Theatre.  Lansdowne, in southeastern Delaware County, was chosen for the location as it is an area that has been economically depressed and now through the work of many partners is being revitalized. 

The new site for Penn State Brandywine’s LaunchBox will feature a no-cost co-working space and programs designed to provide entrepreneurs and early-stage business startups with the support and resources they need to build sustainable and scalable businesses and a viable plan for growth.  It is open to everyone, community members and those affiliated with Penn State. We currently have a presence in the Utility Works location on Baltimore Avenue and this new location will provide even greater opportunity.

The ribbon-cutting is set for early 2022. This has been a fundraising priority for us and we are excited about the future for our community. Also, Penn State Brandywine’s LaunchBox is an American Express Small Business Neighborhood Champion. 

Men's Soccer 2021 National Champions!

Though not a new initiative, I’m also very excited about our Penn State Brandywine athletic teams – 17 men’s and women’s sports – and future plans. What is new – our Men’s Soccer National Championship – won just a few weeks ago in Virginia Beach! The team won their first National Championship in 2018, with five seniors who were freshmen on that team. 

We also hosted our second-ever Athletics Hall of Fame earlier this fall, honoring student-athletes and coaches whose accomplishments have contributed to our success over the years and the trajectory of their lives!   

Penn State Brandywine Athletics are a part of the Pennsylvania State University Athletic Conference (PSUAC) and the United States Collegiate Athletic Association (USCAA). 

Our student-athletes receive tremendous leadership opportunities and comprise 15% of our student population. We have aspirations to continue to enhance our teams and facilities and are currently fundraising to support this growth. 

Other new initiatives that I am excited about include growth of our international students and programs, the continued growth of our showpiece Center for Ethics and Civic Engagement, and growth of other student populations such as our students with disabilities who have increasingly been coming to and excelling at Brandywine. 

What do you do with all your free time?

Marilyn with her daughter Michelle Marie Wells

I moved here 8 weeks before the pandemic hit. My daughter’s college went totally online, so she came to stay with me for five months and continued her education from my breakfast bar.  Following all of the COVID requirements, when we were able, we drove and hit every ice cream place that was open nearby. We did a lot of exploring in summer 2020. We went to the Delaware beaches and Cape May, as they opened and enjoyed every minute!

Now that everything is open, it’s nice to finally explore the area! I recently spent the afternoon at the Delaware Art Museum and another at the Lansdowne Arts Festival.

One of our very good partners, neighbors, and friends is the Tyler Arboretum. We do several joint educational and research initiatives, so I like to spend some time there.

The new Chancellor of Penn State Abington and I have become fast friends, so she and I recently went to Philadelphia to enjoy dinner and see Hamilton! I’m still in the process of making friends, so exploring the area and enjoying new activities that help with that!

Do you read much?

I do quite a bit of reading, and like most of America, I’ve pretty much watched everything on Netflix over the past year and a half. I read a lot of books and usually lean toward fiction that is historically based. I read Sea Glass last summer, and it’s based in New England, so I learned a lot about the early history of labor unions and different immigrant groups and their experiences.

What gives you hope, Marilyn?

I think our future generation!  I have a son who is 30, a daughter who is 20, great-nieces, and great-nephews who are 9 months, 1 year, 3 years, and 5 years old. Every generation has its story and defining characteristics.  My great-grandparents and grandparents was their immigrant story, my parents was WWII. My children’s was 9-11 and the pandemic.

Our students today want to make a difference in the world, they are socially conscious. We should begin not by asking what they want to major in, but what difference they want to make in the world or what’s their purpose. Then we can help them find their way back to what they want to study to get there. Students today are very ethical.

Our students are very hardworking but also looking for balance in their life. There’s a lot of hope. We have a lot of challenges: racism, climate change, threats to our democracy, but there’s also a lot of good out there.

Finally, Marilyn, what is the best piece of advice you ever received? 

I can quote so many phrases that my mother said when I was growing up, all kinds of advice and famous quotes, like, “In order to have a friend, you have to be a friend” or “You’re only as happy as you want to be.”

One lesson or piece of advice that sticks out to me is from one of my college professors.

When I was a freshman at IUP, one of my professors, Dr. Frank Viggiano, quoted USC professor Dr. Leo Buscaglia, “Every night when you lay down, ask yourself three questions: Did I learn something new today? Did I laugh? Did I give and receive kindness and love today? If you can go to bed answering yes to all three of those questions, you’re living the good life.”  

I often ask my daughter if she learned something new or helped someone today. We all need to be learning every day, and it’s not always as important to be right, but it’s always important to be caring, loving, and giving.


Publisher’s Note: Laura Manion contributed to this profile.

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