Dorothy Pieniadz, Retired Dean of Students at RIC, Honored With Jefferson Award

Dorothy Pieniadz, retired dean of students for RIC, winner of a 2013 Jefferson Award

Dorothy Pieniadz, retired dean of students for RIC, winner of a 2013 Jefferson Award


Dorothy Pieniadz, retired dean of students and professor emerita at Rhode Island College, has been honored by WJAR NBC 10 with a 2013 Jefferson Award for her lifelong educational leadership and mentorship.

The award was formally presented during the Jefferson Award Ceremony on May 8, but it was announced on April 24, when WJAR-TV aired an interview with her. (Click here to view the televised interview.)

During the interview, WJAR-TV reporter Cierra Putnam cited Pieniadz for her contributions as the first dean of students at Rhode Island College, as well as five decades of volunteerism. She co-founded Big Sisters of Rhode Island in 1967. She volunteered with United Way. She was president of the Camp Fire Girls and president of the board of the Federal Hill House. She co-founded the Rhode Island Polonia Scholarship Foundation and established the Dorothy Mierzwa Endowed Scholarship Fund at Rhode Island College.

WJAR TV Anchor Patrice Wood noted that Pieniadz “has dedicated more than 50 years to making Rhode Island – and the world – a better place.”

In an interview at Rhode Island College, Pienadz said, “Who I am is the result of the influences in my life.” She said those influences have primarily been her teachers from elementary school through college.

A native of Buffalo, N.Y., Pieniadz earned a BS degree in education in 1945 from the State University of New York. She earned an MA in education in 1947 and EdD in student personnel administration in 1953 at Columbia University Teachers’ College in New York.

She said one of the things she learned at Teachers College was that public service is an integral part of being a teacher. “The administration had two questions of its teachers,” she said. “One was, ‘How many evenings a week will you set aside to be involved with your students?’ And the second was ‘How much time will you give to the community?’

She also noted that numerous faculty members “gave every last penny of their prolific earnings in writing and research to set up scholarships for students.”

Pieniadz carried these ideals with her into her teaching and administrative career. She taught elementary school in a few communities in New York from 1945 to 1948. After completing her doctorate in 1953, she was hired as dean of student activities at Glassboro State College in New Jersey, serving from 1954 to 1956. When William Gaige, then president of Rhode Island College, heard about Pieniadz through professional colleagues, he offered her a position as the college’s first dean of students in 1956. 

As dean of students here, Pieniadz immediately set aside a few nights a week at her home to get to know members of the freshman class. That desire to know her students extended to the community from which they came. “When I came to the college, I felt that the community needed to know what our institution was doing; therefore, I knew I had to get out there. I needed to get to know people,” she said.

Pieniadz began by becoming active on the board of Federal Hill House in 1964, a social service agency that had originally been a settlement house designed to help Italian immigrants become acclimated to the New World and assimilate into the community. She served first as secretary, then as vice president and finally as president of the board. Today, the organization has evolved into a multi-ethnic, social service agency, meeting a wide range of needs.

In 1964 she was also elected chair of the board for Camp Fire Girls of the Narragansett Council. Three years later, in 1967, she co-founded Big Sisters of Rhode Island, a mentoring program that matches at-risk girls between the ages of 7 and 15 with one-on-one relationships with adult volunteer mentors. (It is now known as Big Brothers, Big Sisters of Rhode Island.) The following year, she co-founded the Rhode Island Polonia Scholarship Foundation, which awards graduating high school seniors of Polish American descent with funding for college.

Meanwhile, in 1969 Pieniadz left the office of the dean of students to join the faculty of Rhode Island College. She taught courses in the Department of Philosophy and Foundations of Education.

“When I returned to the classroom after being dean, I would tell my graduate students, ‘I don’t want to hear ‘I’m just a teacher.’ The role of a teacher is a pretty powerful thing. It’s not only what a teacher does inside the classroom, it’s what he or she does outside of it as well," she said.

Pieniadz has had a long record of interest and involvement in international education, having been a recipient of a Kappa Delta Pi Foreign scholarship for a year of study to Europe in 1953. Fluent in German and Polish and a scholar of Sovietology, she had been leading groups to countries in the Soviet bloc since 1959 as a member of the Experiment in International Living.

In 1973, she became involved with the Kosciuszko Foundation based in New York, which promotes Polish and American cultural and educational exchanges. Pieniadz was made director of Kosciuszko’s study abroad program to Poland, which she opened up to RIC students and the Rhode Island community in 1974.

From 1974 to 1982 she led groups that studied at Jagiellonian University in Cracow. Participants ranged in age from 16 to 87. She also engaged in teacher exchange programs, where teachers from other countries came to the United States for experiences and were hosted by Rhode Island College.

Living in a foreign country and hosting those from other countries is important, she said, because it builds cross-cultural understanding. “Sharing the foods, sharing the customs, sharing the friendships and sharing the values of another culture bring an appreciation of that culture,” she said. “It will never be a better world, until we have that kind of respect and interaction.”

After a 31-year career in education at the college, Pieniadz retired in 1987. In 2004 she established the Dorothy Mierzwa Pieniadz Endowed Scholarship Fund at Rhode Island College to celebrate her devotion to higher education and to helping others improve their lives.

Pieniadz also continued her community involvement. She remains active on the board of Federal Hill House and Big Brothers Big Sisters of Rhode Island. She also continues to travel to Europe.

“My life has been a good life,” she said. “I’ve been both professionally and personally enriched because of my diversified involvements. I also remain very grateful for my educators. I would never have been able to achieve what I have without my formal education.”

Pieniadz has received numerous accolades over the years, including the 2012 Legacy of Service Award by The Federal Hill House Association and the 2010 Legacy Award by Big Brothers, Big Sisters of Rhode Island. She has been listed in “Who’s Who of American Women (1961), the “Dictionary of International Biography” (1966), “Who’s Who in the East” (1967), “Leaders in Education” (1971), the “Directory of American Scholars” (vol. IV) (1974) and “Who’s Who in Polish America” (1996-1997).

Pieniadz, who will celebrate her 89th birthday on Sunday (May 12), said she feels honored to receive the 2013 Jefferson Award. When she heard that she would be receiving the award, she said, “I’m embarrassed, because, after all, I’m on this earth for a reason and it had better be a good one.”

She said she realized early on in life that it was her responsibility to give back in return for all that she had been given. “Just as I have had good things in life, I would hope for even better things for future generations.”

Over the years, she often runs into former students from Rhode Island College, and she said it’s wonderful to find out what they’ve done with their lives. “I admit I feel even better when some of them say to me ‘You’ll never know what you meant to me in my life.’”

“Truthfully, in the end, anybody who engages in community service knows that you get more out of it than what you put in,” Pieniadz said. “There’s something about seeing the end results that enriches your life.”