Anne Prisco, the president of Holy Family University, spoke with VISTA Today about growing up in Brooklyn and how being the daughter of a first-generation immigrant has shaped her life. Her love for Home Economics took her to the University of Arizona on a scholarship, but after college, she returned to New York City and found her way to a career in higher education.
Prisco discussed Holy Family’s opportunities and how universities must rediscover how best to serve students as a result of the pandemic, including new job-ready majors reflecting trends in the market, as well as the goal of delivering flexible, remote education while maintaining educational excellence. She also mentioned why Gen Z gives her hope and the biggest piece of advice she wants to impart to them.
Where were you born and where did you grow up?
I was born in Brooklyn, New York, and lived there until I went off to college. I’m the child of an immigrant and a first-generation college student. My father came to this country from Italy in 1954 when he was in his early 30s. My mother was born in the U.S. and her parents were from Sicily. She grew up in a tight-knit, south Brooklyn, Italian community.
What did they do for a living?
My dad was a skilled laborer who made terrazzo floors. He learned that in Italy before arriving here. My mother was a homemaker and she took some temp jobs when my dad’s work was slow.
How many kids were there in your family?
Just two – my brother and me. As the oldest child, I had the responsibility of navigating through some unchartered waters. Neither of my parents went to high school. They were wise people they just didn’t have the opportunity for formal education – but they strongly believed in it and supported me on my educational journey.
What memories do you have of growing up in Brooklyn?
It was very comfortable, very safe. It was a neighborhood. When we went outside, we didn’t lock the doors. The kids played in the street. I didn’t go away to summer camp – summer camp was in front of the house.
We were working-class families, but we were happy because our other friends were about the same, and I didn’t know what I didn’t know. And family was very important – the family was who you hung out with. I began at a small, parochial school in Brooklyn, but then attended a high school of 6,000 students from throughout the city. I experienced diversity from a young age, and this really shaped my worldview.
What were your interests in high school?
I was very much involved in what was then called home economics. I loved my sewing classes, where we would design and sew clothes. And then we had nutrition classes, and I loved all of that. I was president of the Home Economics Club and state president of the Home Economics Club. I was fortunate that the teachers who ran the program saw that I had potential and was willing to step up and take on responsibility. Having people who believe in you makes all the difference, and that lesson stays with me.
Where do you think you get that willingness to step up from?
This comes from my family and my upbringing. And it may have come from being the child of immigrants. People were not very friendly. I recall as a little girl, 6 or 8 years old, my father would take me with him to the bank or anywhere that he had to do a transaction because he spoke very little English. People would be rude because of the language barrier, so I felt an additional responsibility to take things on.
Did you work while you were in high school?
I worked from approximately age 12, when I started babysitting. At 16, I began working in a women’s retail store in the local mall.
What lessons did you learn from that job that stay with you today?
I learned a great deal about how people treated one another. It was apparent, even as this was my first real job, that nobody treated each other well. The store manager was under pressure, and he passed this along to his employees. There was always a sense that “we want more out of you.” I would have liked to have been treated a little differently. Respect and being kind to people go a long way.
So how did you wind up at the University of Arizona?
My father did not want me to go away to college. I passed up a full scholarship to Cornell, which I think is interesting because it’s a first-generation story. My parents and I didn’t know what the significance of a scholarship to Cornell was. What my dad knew was that he didn’t want me to go away. He said, “I’ll buy you a car, you’ll live at home and go to school.”
So I went to Queens College, part of City University of New York, my first year. And about halfway through my first year, I said, this is crazy. This is not what college is supposed to be. Life just felt like an extension of high school.
I was a good student – I was earning straight A’s – and I knew I had financial need. I chose the University of Arizona because I had family in Phoenix, and at that point, I was a family and consumer science major, and they had an excellent program. I received enough scholarships and financial aid that I said to my parents, “I don’t have to ask you to help me. I can afford to do this.” I never did anything to defy my parents in any way. But I said, “I need to do this.”
Looking back, how was your college experience as a first-generation student?
I did well, but I didn’t know enough, and I didn’t have enough guidance. I was excelling in my coursework in the sciences, yet no one ever said to me, “Why aren’t you pre-med? Why aren’t you considering engineering?” I was the outstanding senior in the College of Agriculture—even though I was from Brooklyn! As a result, throughout my professional career, mentorship of students has been particularly important.
Going to Tucson and then moving to California for six years as an adult helped to shape my leadership style because in many cases I was the “other” in the community. Being in a place where you’re not like everyone else, and nothing’s familiar is a powerful lesson in perspective—and this is part of the intrigue of the college experience.
By the time I had finished school, I was eager to get back to my family and friends in New York and had planned to become a teacher. There were no teaching jobs in ’79 – the New York City market was horrible. There was an opening for a financial aid counselor at Fordham. I liked the idea of helping other students to be able to afford going to school, so I accepted—and thus began my love affair with higher education. While I was there, I took advantage of tuition remission and earned an MBA in finance from Fordham. I knew higher education was where I belonged. And, after starting a family, I had the opportunity to pursue doctoral studies at Columbia University.
Looking back across your career, who were the people who saw your potential and opened doors for you?
In high school, I credit the amazing teachers who saw my potential – and I am grateful to Fordham for hiring me and for providing opportunities for professional development. To this day, I like to pay it forward by providing opportunities for young professionals to apply their skills in ways they might not have considered. No one gets where they are going alone and it’s up to today’s leaders to shine the light for the next generation.
And how did you end up at Holy Family University?
Holy Family University had an appeal that those who visit notice right away. The university’s motto is teneor votis – I am bound by my responsibilities. That resonated with me, as did the charism of the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth, our sponsoring ministry, which is family. Having served as president of Felician University for the past eight years, Holy Family was a natural next step and I am thrilled with what we have been able to accomplish in just my first year.
So here you are, coming out of the challenges of the last two years. What are the things you’re working on? What are the priorities and opportunities you are focused on?
To begin, Holy Family University is in a strong position financially. Earlier this year, we received an A- stable rating from Standard & Poor’s. This positions us to do some innovative work on behalf of our students, beginning with our academic offerings. We must always be responsive to market trends and jobs of the future, so we have launched a number of new academic programs—from applied computer science, to gaming and administration, to cybersecurity and a new Master in Organizational Leadership, and a low-residency MFA at the graduate level.
We are looking at some exciting opportunities to expand our presence in Newtown. An increasing number of our students now take courses at both our Northeast Philadelphia and Newtown campuses, and we are developing initiatives to provide more support and resources to our Newtown community. We will be working with partners in the community, including Bucks County Community College to best serve both the students and the communities.
And we are devoting a great deal of energy to how we deliver higher education. The pandemic taught us a lot about the ability to be remote, what really works in remote, and what remote means—whether it is synchronous, asynchronous, or hybrid. The challenge over the next three to five years is figuring out what students need in order to succeed and then meeting them where they are. Practically speaking, this means delivering education and resources in a manner that aligns with quality educational outcomes. We want our students to have a first-rate educational experience. We bring a great deal of value as a selective institution with the lowest-cost private tuition in the state.
So what do you do with your free time, Anne?
One of the pieces of advice I got when I took this job is to always hold one day a week, one weekend a month, and one month a year for oneself. Sounds good in theory but admittedly, serving as president really is a 24/7 commitment. I love the arts, so I spend a lot of time in museums – from the Philadelphia Museum of Art to the Rodin and the Barnes. I’ve yet to get to the Michener Art Museum, but it’s on my shortlist! And I do take time to practice yoga and meditate.
What are you reading? What’s on your nightstand?
I’m currently reading James Heft’s The Future of Catholic Higher Education and John Sexton’s Standing for Reason: The University in a Dogmatic Age. And as a longtime Anna Quindlen fan, I’m also reading Write for Your Life. All of these pose timely and powerful questions about who we are as a society and where our focus should be for the future.
What gives you hope in this world that is full of doom and gloom, Anne?
This next generation, Gen Z, gives me tremendous hope. Our focus on social and environmental issues and on making an impact through action aligns with our students’ priorities. From this group, we find a genuine interest in problem-solving for positive change. This is a quality we must continue to nurture—and higher education has a responsibility to do so.
Finally, Anne, what’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
You have to be willing to work hard. There is no phoning it in when it comes to professional or personal achievements. Integrity plays a critical role. People have to know that you’re honest, that they can count on you and you’ll do what you say you’re going to do. It’s part of the holistic approach we take at Holy Family. It’s not enough just to educate our students on academics – we are educating them to be creators and collaborators—to do well and do good in the world.
The other piece of meaningful advice came from my mother who said, “When God closes one door, He opens another.” This resiliency is what we must instill in our students so that as challenges emerge, they not only have the knowledge but also the persistence to succeed. That’s what makes higher education so compelling – we have an opportunity to help build a better world.