Education Graduates in Immokalee

My home – the meaning of the word “Immokalee” in the Mikasuki language. Located about 20 miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico and 8 miles from the Ave Maria University campus, the city of Immokalee is an agricultural center and leading supplier of tomatoes in the United States. Historically, the area has been demographically diverse, originally settled by the Calusa Indians, and followed by the Seminole Indians, who were joined by traders, hunters, ranchers, escaped slaves, and pioneer families. Today, Immokalee still reflects that diversity and consists of a community in search of a better life, with a population largely made up of immigrants from Mexico, Guatemala, and Haiti.


AMU alumni (from L to R) Mary Eckard (’15), Katie Ely (’16), and Jill Riordan (’15).

For many in Immokalee, the “better life” still eludes them. Migrant workers labor under harsh conditions with little pay, and employment opportunities are constantly in flux with the seasons.  According to some studies, 43% of the population live below the poverty line.

When Ave Maria University first broke ground to build its campus in the middle of tomato fields, some wondered why it was making a permanent home for itself so far removed from the beaten path of nearby Naples. But not AMU’s founder Tom Monaghan, who saw AMU’s siting as providential.  He envisioned the role Ave Maria could play as a bridge between the affluence of the Southwest Florida retirement communities and the needs of those in neighboring Immokalee.

Since arriving on its permanent campus in the fall of 2007, the University has been working towards building a relationship with families, individuals and institutions in Immokalee. For example, the Mother Teresa Project provides AMU students with opportunities to serve and volunteer on a regular basis in Immokalee.  Last year more than 10,000 service hours were logged through the program, with the majority of hours served in Immokalee.  AMU’s newly-formed department of Education provided an additional track of engagement.  The Elementary (K-6) Education Program is working in close association with the Collier County Public Schools to offer AMU students the opportunity to work as aids or student teachers in the schools of Immokalee, which for decades have ranked among the lowest-performing in the state of Florida.

As part of the requirements for the Education degree, AMU students complete three semesters of practicum experience, which consists in one full-day per week spent in the classroom under trained cooperating master classroom teachers. This experience culminates in a full-semester teaching internship. AMU students typically serve at least two of their semesters in Immokalee schools. These placements afford AMU students the unique opportunity to work with at-risk students in migrant schools.  For many undergraduates pursuing a teaching career, these experiences are powerful ones.  “Our students all wind up loving the experience of working with the children of Immokalee,” Dr. Seana Sugrue, Vice President for Academic Affairs, remarked. “It is often a life-changing experience for our teacher-candidates who, more often than not, then actively seek out their first teaching jobs in at-risk schools.”

Their search does not take them far from campus. Three AMU program graduates—Mary Eckard (’15), Katie Ely (’16), and Jill Riordan (’15)—are currently teaching in Immokalee. “It has been challenging to meet the diverse needs of my students,” Mary said of her experience so far, adding, “but I have loved every minute of it. My greatest pride and joy comes from my students, their efforts to learn, and their growth.”

Several of the faculty in AMU’s Education Department are themselves active in Immokalee schools on a day-to-day basis. Dr. Joy Bonnaig, for instance, teaches a University course on identifying and working with diverse and exceptional students.  She is also an Intervention Support Specialist at Lake Trafford School in Immokalee. Ms. Shirley Rainwaters, the Literacy Coach at Immokalee High School, also teaches the AMU course EDUC 310: Teaching Social Studies in the Classroom. These professors, and the entire Education faculty, are well equipped to prepare AMU students to flourish in any educational environment, no matter how challenging.

Katie Ely is grateful to have been taught by professors who were also active in the Collier County Public Schools, since they were able to present information with the expectations and procedures of the local school system in mind. “My AMU education prepared me for my professional work by connecting me with professionals working in the school district,” she explains. “These professors provided insights and practical knowledge that was current with educational philosophy and research, and held us to the expectations of the district.”

AMU’s Elementary Education Program is approved by the state of Florida as an initial teacher preparation, and is in line with the most recent expectations for excellence in teacher preparation. Program graduates qualify for Florida professional certification for grades K-6, including ESOL and Reading Endorsements. Two of the program’s required courses focus on teaching English language learners (ELL), and seven of the required courses are ESOL (English for speakers of other languages) infused. These aspects of the program prepare AMU graduates well for working in migrant and at-risk schools.

Jill Riordan spoke about the challenges in working with ELL students, and the joy she experiences when progress in the classroom is achieved. “I never imagined the amount of planning, repetition, and assistance we need to provide,” she says. “It is all worth it to see the growth and ‘ah-ha!’ moments in the classroom. The greatest joy comes from working with students of different backgrounds, and watching them grow into successful students.”

These three AMU graduates are bringing their own diverse backgrounds, and their formation in the liberal arts, into the lives of the elementary students of Immokalee. In turn, they have been welcomed into the community as one of their own. “I feel at home teaching in Immokalee because the sense of community and family at my school,” Jill shared. “It is not always easy to teach at a Title 1 school, but the staff at Village Oaks Elementary is like a family, always looking out for each other and working together to ensure the success, safety, and well-being of our students.”

“Home is where the heart is,” Mary added. “And that is exactly how Immokalee has become home for me. My heart is with my students here in this community.”

For Mary, Katie, and Jill, Immokalee—“My Home”—has become theirs.

By Sarah Blanchard

The Ancient Art of Illumination and Gilding

imageJust recently, the Canizaro Library hosted a demonstration of “The Ancient Art of Illumination and Gilding,” led by artist
and scribe Valerie Weilmuenster. Weilmuenster spoke on the process of illuminating, from the preparation of the paper to the mixing of pigments, from applying accentual gold leaf to designing  the balance of text and image and the contrast between black and white, shine and matte.

Working with words and not just pictures, she explained, demands a level of accuracy that images alone do not. “It’s a challenging art form,” she said. Not only must every word be spaced evenly and precisely, but also the text as a whole must be in balance
with the images that surround it.

imageMembers of the University community had the opportunity to watch Weilmuenster as she applied gold leaf to an illuminated text, tooled the gold with patterns, lay down colors on the decorative vines surrounding the text, and wrote out sample script. As she demonstrated these various practices, she answered questions from those gathered and spoke on the history of her craft and its development in modern times.

“It’s very meditative,” she went on. “You get lost in the process, really, and the words become important.” For that reason, she cautioned, it’s important to choose your text and subject matter carefully. The illuminator spends a lot of thought and quiet mediation on the subject before her. “I’m a monk!” she joked towards the end.

The Canizaro Library is holding a Special Collections display on Calligraphy and Illuminations until November. In the display cases on the first floor of the library (to the left after entering the building) is featured samples of Weilmuenster’s work, as well as descriptions of the tools and process of illumination. In the Rare Books Reading Room (Library 222), the display continues with a facsimile of the Gutenberg Bible, an illuminated version of the Sermon on the Mount, and more.

Stop by the Reading Room during open hours to view the display.

[Below: Some of the pieces now on exhibit in “Calligraphy and Illuminations.”]


Valerie Weilmuenster is a resident of Naples, Florida. After graduating with a degree in fine arts, she began work as an engrosser at B.C Kassell studio in Chicago, where she designed and lettered certificates. Her practice at this work is what led to her becoming a scribe and illuminator. She offers classes and workshops around the country, and her work has been exhibited widely.

Nursing: Year 2

img_7232-minThe Bachelor of Science in Nursing Program is just one-year-old, but this academic year promises to be another milestone: the first cohort of majors is due to graduate in May 2017. A lot of work goes into developing and writing a brand new curriculum, hiring appropriate faculty, creating lab space, and securing clinical experience opportunities for students. In spite of the challenges of being a “start-up,” AMU’s nursing program has already landed some significant milestones. Besides meeting all of the requirements set by the Florida Board of Nursing, AMU’s B.S.N. program is the first one in Collier County, and also the only Catholic nursing program in all of Southwest Florida.

“Our students stand out in the clinical setting,” Dr. Denise McNulty, founder and director of the program says. She means it quite literally: AMU’s program is one of the few in the area that requires students to wear a white uniform. “Many patients and staff have made comments that our students stand out and look so professional in their white uniforms,” she goes on to explain. “We want our nursing students to look like nursing students—and future nurses!”

Denise McNulty, DNP, MSN, RN-BC, ARNP, not only oversees the program’s operations, but she also teaches a number of the courses. McNulty developed a nursing model of healing for AMU’s program inspired by Mother Teresa’s words about faith, love and service. She describes the experience of opening a new program—from the drafting of a proposal for the Board of Trustees to the acceptance of a second cohort of students—as “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Over the past year, what have our nursing students been up to?

The first cohort of students, who came into the program as juniors, began their clinical training at local hospitals and healthcare agencies. They were accompanied by clinical instructors who are also currently practicing nurses—something not all nursing programs can boast, and a unique advantage for our students. Our nursing students also began attending the local Collier County Nurses dinner meetings, which afford many opportunities for the students to meet and network with nurse leaders and staff nurses in the area. Another project the students worked on this past year was a class on Diabetes, which they presented to seniors at the Golden Gate Community Center in Naples.

This year, while the second cohort of eight new students is starting on their clinical training, the first cohort is finishing senior year and preparing for graduation, a step that will make them eligible to take the NCLEX-RN examination.

Nursing student Michelle O’Loughlin, who is preparing to graduate in May, reflects on her experience thus far and offers an insight into what sets AMU’s B.S.N. program apart from other programs: “The nursing program has helped me learn not only the science of nursing, but also the art. While the science is taught exceptionally here, it is also taught well elsewhere. However, here at Ave, we also learn the art of nursing, which unlike the science, includes both the therapeutic element and the caring element. I now understand the difference between having a job as a nurse and being one. Being a nurse involves treating the whole human being—both soul and body. Love your patients and you will begin to see Christ in all of them. My favorite part of the nursing program is the people to whom I bring healing. I am empowered to do so by this program, which has trained me both as a professional and a person.”

By Sarah Blanchard