Deanne H. D’Emilio, President of Gwynedd Mercy University, spoke with VISTA Today about having hit the “parent jackpot” as a child growing up in suburban Pittsburgh; her interest in music and tennis; and her decision to attend Westminster College, Bowling Green State University, and Pitt for nine consecutive years.
D’Emilio also discussed the people who saw her potential in higher education; what brought her to Gwynedd Mercy; the priorities she’s focused on; and the challenges that lie ahead for the university.
Where were you born, and where did you grow up, Deanne?
I was born the youngest of two children in Beaver County, north of Pittsburgh, and grew up in Plum Borough in Allegheny County, east of Pittsburgh.
You must be a Steelers fan?
I am. My parents had season tickets, and I now share them with my brother.
What did your parents do?
My father worked at Carnegie Mellon University for his entire career. He started in payroll and retired as the Controller Emeritus. He worked there for thirty-six years.
My mother started working part-time when I was 10 or so, and she eventually became the Borough Manager for Plum. I learned a lot about local politics watching my parents. My dad was also on the local school board.
What memories do you have of growing up in Plum?
My memories of childhood are all very positive. I hit the parent jackpot with my mother and father. I grew up in an old-fashioned neighborhood with tons of kids who would show up at your door and ask to play. We’d stay out all day and be home for dinner. I’m still friends with some of those kids today.
I also remember a lot of music. My family was very musical. We sang a lot and played instruments.
What instrument did you play?
I played the clarinet and the piano, and I sang in multiple choirs. I picked up the piano when I was 12 and played all throughout high school and college. I still play the piano today.
My brother and I were in the concert band and he was also in a stage band. My mother had a naturally beautiful voice.
Did you practice playing the piano a lot?
I loved the music part of it, so I enjoyed the practice if I liked what I was playing. I had a great piano teacher in the Pittsburgh Symphony, and he always let me play what I wanted to learn.
Did you play any sports in high school?
I was on the tennis team in high school and college. It was hard to balance concert band, marching band, choir, and tennis, but my teachers were flexible.
You must have been good at tennis to play in college.
I was okay! I was better in high school. I had friends on the boy’s team and practiced with them. I put more time and effort into it in high school.
Did you have any jobs growing up?
I didn’t work during the school year, but I worked in the summer. My first summer job at sixteen was with the tax collector in Plum. I used a typewriter to type up information on the tax rolls. That’s what I did all day long!
I definitely learned that I did not want to sit all day and type! I was around adults all day, so it taught me a lot of communication and problem-solving skills at a young age.
What kind of music were you listening to in high school and college?
It evolved over time! Growing up, during the 1970s, I listened to the Osmonds and the Jackson 5. We went to church every Sunday and visited our relatives, where we would sing gospel music around the piano.
I had an eclectic appreciation for various types of music. Elton John, Billy Joel, and the Eagles were very popular when I got to high school. In college, I liked Journey and Styx. I remember those anthems from the fraternity parties.
Do you still appreciate gospel music?
I do, but I also still love Billy Joel! I also love musical theatre. Both of my children performed growing up and my son spent some time working as a professional opera singer. I have a wide range of appreciation for different music.
Where did you go to college, Deanne?
I went to Westminster College, a small, private Presbyterian college north of Pittsburgh in New Wilmington, PA. New Wilmington is about an hour and a half from Pittsburgh and has a large Amish population.
What drew you to Westminster? You could have gone to Carnegie Mellon or Pitt!
I didn’t want to stay in Pittsburgh or that close to home. I saw a poster for Westminster College in my church and went to a visit day. It reminded me of summer camp. I really liked it. I didn’t think much beyond that, and that’s where I ended up going!
Looking back, was it a good choice?
Westminster College was a great choice for me! When I was 18, it was a safe place. It was like four years of summer camp! I had a great time and was very involved on campus. I played tennis, was in a sorority and worked as a Resident Assistant in the residence halls.
You found the balance between having fun and getting things done.
That ability came from my parents. There was never a question about going to college for my brother and me growing up. My dad was the first and only one on either side to go to college. He was a Korean War veteran and went on the GI bill. There was an importance placed on education, and they taught us that we could do whatever we wanted. We were always playing educational games in our house. At dinner, my dad would hold up flashcards and quiz us.
It’s important to have a balance. My parents were successful people, but they had a lot of friends and socialized. I knew I wanted both in my life.
When did you realize you had leadership skills?
Probably not until I was in law school! Law school is such an intimidating place, and you need to be self-confident to ignore all of that and forge ahead. I remember thinking to myself, “you can do this. Look at everything you’ve already done.” As a woman, you don’t always have people reinforcing that.
Where did you go to law school?
I went to the University of Pittsburgh Law School. I went from Westminster right to graduate school at Bowling Green State University in “College Student Personnel,” which is similar to higher education today. I graduated, and from there, I went straight to Pittsburgh Law School. It was 9 straight years of school! I loved school, and that’s why I continued my education.
Looking back over your career, who were the people who saw potential in you?
There have been many people along the way who have had faith in my potential. I think about who saw my potential in higher education were Sister Mary Ann Dillon and Suzanne Mellon.
Sister Mary Ann was the President of Mount Aloysius College. She hired me for my first higher education job as a professor. . I was at Mount Aloysius for 15 years, 12 of which she was the President, and she gave me many opportunities to learn the ins and outs of higher ed. She put me on different committees and gave me numerous professional development opportunities. She was a great role model and mentor.
Suzanne Mellon hired me as the Provost at Carlow University, a school in Pittsburgh also sponsored by the Sisters of Mercy. I learned so much from her and that role, which prepared me for my current position at Gwynedd Mercy University.
What brought you to Gwynedd Mercy University?
While I was in my Provost position at Carlow, a search firm had reached out to me and asked if I was interested in the presidency at Gwynedd Mercy University. I knew the name because it’s a Sisters of Mercy school, and I’ve worked with the Sisters for over twenty years now. They’ve always served as a source of inspiration for me and I love the mission of our schools.
I wasn’t really looking for a presidency, and I thought if I was ever going to do something like that, GMercyU would be the place. I knew I would find purpose here. I told my husband about the opening, who immediately said I had to do it! I was chosen, and he has remained supportive. I came to the school in August 2017.
You’ve been there for 5 years now. What priorities and challenges are you focused on?
We are focused on a lot! Looking forward, exciting things are going on at the University, despite the last two years being so challenging. We are in the fourth year of our strategic plan, and while we’ve accomplished a lot, we have more to go.
We recently completed a transaction that will enhance our endowment by about 74% and will give us the flexibility to invest in the vision and the goals that we have to be a Catholic university leader in professional and healthcare education. We’ve done some of that already by purchasing state-of-the-art technologies for our students, and we want to do more.
We are focused on healthcare innovation as we move forward and will continue to expand by adding a new healthcare innovation campus named in honor of Frances M. Maguire, a graduate of GMercyU. In addition, we are beginning to renovate our residential Triplex for students.
What’s on the horizon this year?
We’ve been open and up-and-running, but commencement was one of the biggest things we had going on this year! Last year, we had seven small ceremonies. This year, we were back to our traditional graduation ceremony.
We also had various honor society inductions in the spring. It’s one celebration after another! Students were so happy to do them in person. We had our spring sports up and running too. So, the horizon looks active and energizing as we approach the next academic year.
What would it be if you could point to one thing that’s better now than pre-pandemic?
I hope that it would be that people have a deeper appreciation for the good. We have all the things that we do have, especially on campus; we’ve been blessed. We will be celebrating our 75th anniversary next October, and we have so much to celebrate! It’s different now than it was in March 2020. We are so much more resilient now.
What do you do with your free time?
I am a Disney person! I like to go to Disney when I can. I’ve been 45 times or so to Disney World. This past year, I went to Disney Land because my daughter moved to California.
I like to go to the beach in Cape May. When we get there, we don’t do anything. We just relax and take in the ocean.
I’m hoping to get back to see more musical theatre now that it’s back up and running. I had season tickets in Pittsburgh to the opera and the Broadway series.
When you read for pleasure, what do you read?
I like to read about people. I recently read “The Ride of a Lifetime” by Bob Iger about Disney. It was fascinating! It was about the history of Disney, but it was also about leadership, and so much of that resonated with me.
What gives you hope, Deanne?
A lot of things give me hope, but when I look at the younger generation, I have faith in them. Certainly, it’s been hard to have hope in recent years, but their outlook is different, and I have hope and faith that they will steer us in the right direction in the future.
I look at my own children and the students at school, and they just see things through a different lens than the rest of us. I like to think that what I do here at this University is trying to foster that. To me, that’s what makes the Mercy education different. The world needs merciful education and hope.
Finally, Deanne, what’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
That’s a hard one. It’s not so much advice, but more so a foundation or a mindset, and it’s from my parents. They always said to look at things in an optimistic versus the opposite way.
I can’t tell you how important that’s been in life. That advice has affected everything I’ve done and how I view the world and accounts for any place that I’ve arrived in life.
My parents taught my brother and me to believe in ourselves. My parents came from poor backgrounds, but they knew they wanted to work for what they wanted in life. It was a great example, outlook, and foundation for us to see. It really was a gift.
Publisher’s Note: Laura Manion contributed to this leadership profile.