January/February 1997 WSU Alumni News

Call Her 'Mom'

LaVona Spender '71/71/74, WSU University College advisor and instructor, is the 1996 Distinguished Service Award winner.


She's "mom" to hundreds of Wichita State students. Even more incredible, she can name nearly every one of her kids.

LaVona Spencer '71/71/74, advisor and instructor in University College, has been counseling students for 25 years. She calls them all "my kids" and has built a sterling reputation for steering them toward success.

"I pride myself on remembering almost every name of my kids," Spencer says, her glance taking in the stacks of student files on her desk and the handwritten thank-you notes tacked to a bulletin board in her office in Grace Wilkie Hall.

"I do remember every face."

Each semester, Spencer makes contact with some 250 students, some of whom meet her in the classroom as the instructor of "Topics in Career Exploration." Others visit her in her role as academic advisor.

As advisor, Spencer walks students through the basics, going over the prerequisites for them to successfully begin and finish a degee program. She checks the information she passes along with several campus sources to affirm its accuracy. And she's not timid about delving into the sometimes troublesome aspects of academic requirements and timetables or the even more problematic miens of human psychology.

"I love to sort out problems," she says. "I take every phase ofmy work seriously. I love teaching classes, and I love academic advising. You have to really listen to students, to what they need and what they like. It's not your hopes and dreams that you're working with — it's theirs. I take that very seriously."

Spencer approaches her multifacted job one student at a time. She listens closely and adapts her responses to each student's unique circumstances.

"LaVona is probably the most effective communicator I've ever met," says Dr. James Rhatigan, vice president for student affairs and dean of students. "I've seen her boster people whose spirits were low, and I've seen her turn arrogant people to jelly."

Not all of Spencer's delings with students end up with happy endings. Despite her efforts, some students can't meet the demands of college and drop out of school. Most tragic of all, she sadly admits, a few have even committed suicide. But by and large, Spencer's work reaps success story after success story.

Kim Rowan '95 was studying to become a radiologist at St. Mary's of the Plains, Dodge City, Kan., when the college closed its doors. She was looking into pursuing her educaiton at several defferent schools when she went to see Spencer.

"WSU was a tthe very bottom of my list of possibilities," Rowan recalls. "I'd heard rumors that WSU was a big, cold, unfriendly place to go to school. I told LaVona I'd heard that, and she looked me in the eye and said, 'They lied. Give it a semester and see.' I'll tell you, she's the greatest promotional tool WSU has."

Spencer took Rowan under her wing and helped her land a job as a tutor as well as become active in a number of campus organizations. More importantly, she guided Rowan to discover her true professional calling by paing attention to what she excelled at and what she enjoyed.

"I was taking a lot of nursing classes," Rowan explains. "But some of the courses were real work for me. I learned from LaVona to listen to your instincts, to listen to what you really like. I ended up changing from nursing to social work. I love it."

Rowan earned her undergraduate degree in social work and now works for South Central Kansas Assistive Technology, an organization that locates adaptive equipment for individuals with disabilities.

"LaVona goes that extra mile for you," Rowan says. "There was a time when I almost dropped out of school because of personal problems, but I finished my degree largely because of her efforts."

The thought the undergirds Spencer's philosophy of counseling is this: "I'm one of those people who belive we shouldn't ever accept the status quo. We're all works of art in progress."

Spencer's brand of hands-on counseling has won her national recognition. In 1989, she was chosen as an Outstanding College Advisor by the National Academic Advising Association.

She came to counseling via a detour through anthropology and sociology. She had plans to teach anthropology at the University of Sydney in Australia after earning concurrent degrees in sociology and anthropology from WSU in 1971.

"I thought I wanted to be the black Margaret Mead," she says with a laugh. "But Walter Friesen, who was then dean of University College, talked to me about counseling."

Friesen had spotted Spencer's almost magical ability to listen and relate compassionately to all types of people — and was enough of an advisor himself to open her ind to the possibilities and the rewards of a career in student guidance. She decided to stay in Wichita and received her master's degree in student guidance in 1974.

Although her work at Wichita State takes pride of place in her professional life, Spencer's world isn't limited to career concerns. She enjoys reading, traveling, attending plays and concerts and collecting angels.

She also volunteers at the Women's Alcoholic Treatment Services and other organizaitons. For her community-service efforts, she has been named a 1997 Brotherhood/Sisterhood Award winner by the National Conference of Christians and Jews.

And she's the proud mother of four grown children — make that the proud mom of hundreds.

"Everyone," Rowan says, "should have a LaVona Spencer in their life."


A Printer's Printer

Edward W. "Pete" Armstrong '42, who earned his bachelor's degree in chemistry from the University of Wichita, is chairman and principal owner of McCormick-Armstrong, Wichita, and has been selected as the 1996 WSU Alumni Achievement Award honoree.

Good for WSU

E. George Fahnestock '69, the 1996 WSU Alumni Recognition Award honoree, is an avid Shocker fan.

A True Gentleman

Michael P. Tilford, former associate vice president for academic affairs at Wichita State and dean of the WSU Graduate School, is posthumously recognized as the 1996 WSU Faculty Recognition Award honoree.

Call Her 'Mom'

LaVona Spender '71/71/74, WSU University College advisor and instructor, is the 1996 Distinguished Service Award winner.

Most Likely to Succeed

Brian Wells '87 is the 1996 WSU Young Alumnus Award recipient.