A Holistic Approach

by Carly Murray | May 30, 2024
A Holistic Approach
Joe Bertolino—or President Joe, as he prefers to be called—has devoted himself to community improvement with an emphasis on humanitarian efforts as an educator for approximately 30 years. In just his first year at Stockton, the Glendora native spearheaded partnerships with community colleges, high schools and organizations, developed career-connection programs, expanded the university’s nursing and teaching programs as a response to shortages in the fields, introduced heightened philanthropic efforts and established an on-campus arts residency. 

South Jersey Magazine spoke with President Joe to discuss his transition back to South Jersey, his experiences, and his hopes for the future generations he educates and inspires. 

 

As a Camden County native, what are your favorite aspects of living and working in South Jersey?

On a personal level, the fact that my father still lives in my childhood home in Glendora [and] my sister and her family live in Williamstown. One of my favorite places is the YMCA of the Pines in Medford; I have been affiliated with them for 40 years. I started there as a camp counselor after my freshman year of college and it’s an important place to me because it really set the stage for me to become an educator. … It’s just nice to be home.

 

You’re a strong advocate in the community. Can you expand upon what you’re most passionate about and some of your most memorable experiences throughout your career?

I am most passionate about what I call the five pillars. Centered around social justice, the five pillars ensure that every member of the community here at Stockton—and at any place that I’ve worked—are treated with dignity, respect, kindness, compassion and civility. That matters to me, particularly during a time of such disconnect and anger. I’m passionate about ensuring folks listen and learn from one another, treat people well, and are willing to hear and learn about a different perspective. That doesn’t mean they agree with it, but the respectful piece—that matters. 

I'm passionate about ensuring that individuals have access to education, access which then in turn provides opportunity. I don't take the responsibility of being a college or university president for granted, and I take very seriously my responsibility to lead an institution in a way that ensures that we're being good neighbors, and that we're connected to and serving the community in which we live. At the end of the day, I'm passionate about students and their success. They're the reason we do what we do. 

You know, when I think about a pivotal moment in my life or something that stands out to me… gosh, I've been very fortunate; there are a lot. In fact, my inauguration was on Friday [April 12, 2024], and I had so many past students from all over the country find their way to South Jersey to be part of the celebration. 

There are a couple of examples that stand out for me. I think one was articulated on Friday. A young man was a student of mine probably 15 years ago. He was an international student from Sri Lanka, and he was struggling a bit with navigating the university, even struggling with some issues at home after commencement, and as a result of that, I think I was able to provide mentorship and guide him in a way that allowed him to have a successful career in business. In fact, I flew out to Sri Lanka at the invitation of his family to visit and to be with them and to hear about and witness firsthand his successes. …The fact that I was invited was meaningful to me. 

I'll also share that there are some students over the years, and what's been powerful for me is we developed mentor relationships while they're students and I have been an administrator, and then a decade later their children are my godchildren. So, there are a lot of powerful moments in this regard. I have officiated a lot of weddings of former students. …It almost becomes part of an extended family.

 

Students are at such an impressionable age, someone with your values in a role model position is life changing.

It's been really wonderful. I will share with you, interestingly enough, I taught at St. James High School at Coney’s Point in New Jersey when I started my career. That school has since closed, but I was a 22-year-old recent graduate, and I actually have a picture by my desk that is dated 1987, and it is a picture of five high school seniors on their graduation day with me, Mr. B. I look younger than they do, actually, but I keep the picture because it's a reminder of where I started 35-36 years ago. One of the young men in this picture, his three sons are our godsons. And who would have thought— it's really been a blessing 

On the camp front, which has been particularly important to me, I was a 19-year-old camp counselor and a woman brought her son. …He was ten or nine, and he was in my cabin for years; year after year for many years. …I was the best man at his wedding, and his son, who is now 18, is my godson. So, when I think about impact and work and legacy…I mean, it's what motivates me. It's why we do what we do. 

 

What’s the secret to connecting with students beyond an authoritative position?

It’s important to just be authentic. I think I’ve been visible, accessible, willing to listen, that students know that I care and I think that they see me as approachable. But there are also boundaries that come with that. … Students want to know that someone cares about them, that someone’s willing to listen to their perspective. I may not always have the answers, they may not always be asking me for advice, but just showing up and being present matters.

What initially drew you to Stockton?

This is my third presidency. I was the president of Southern Connecticut State in New Haven. I was in my seventh year there, and as far as I was concerned, that was going to be it. Starting over again, particularly at this level, is not easy. … I felt good about where I was at, what we were doing, and then I got a call from Stockton and at first I wasn’t quite sure. I was familiar with Stockton; I knew it had a good reputation. 

My mother was a 1977 Stockton alum. She was a nurse at Cooper, and as a returning adult, non-traditional student, she came to Stockton on weekends and some evenings to go to school to get her bachelor’s degree in administration.

She passed a couple of years ago, and I spoke to my father, and I said, “Dad, I got a call from Stockton.” My father—a wonderful, kind man, who goes to mass before going to the cemetery to visit with my mother every day—said, “Well, I’m going to have to discuss this with your mother.” Later that evening he goes, “Your mother and I have discussed it and we agree it’s time for you to come home.” 

The last 30 years of my career had been everywhere but New Jersey, so I decided to throw my hat in the ring and see what happens. And if it's meant to be, it's meant to be and I am one of those people who believes that I'm going to be where I'm supposed to be. I don't believe in coincidences.

[Stockton] is a great institution, it’s got a good reputation, it's on a beautiful campus, there's a lot of opportunity here, and I have a personal connection to the place and to the region—and the people that I care about and love are in the area. I really love working with public regional higher education students. It's a diverse community of students, mostly from working class families, students that are working their way through school—students that I could relate to because they came from families similar to the one I grew up in. 

The reputation for the curriculum here is also extraordinary given the interdisciplinary approach that they have here. I thought, you also get the best of both worlds here. You get to be in a rural setting and nature preserve and you also get to be in an urban setting in Atlantic City. I've got the woods and I've got the beach and I could list off all of the amazing programs that are here. What's not to like?

 

What are some of your hopes and plans for Stockton’s future?

My priority is to continue to provide access for students. [For] a number of our students, being here is a financial challenge for them and so, continuing to provide financial resources to ensure that our students can be a part of this community and then providing the resources necessary when they get here or support services to ensure that they will walk across the stage and get a degree because that certainly is our responsibility: to set students up for a successful career and more importantly, a successful life. My hope is that we will, as an institution, be good neighbors … and folks will see us and hear from us more often as a community partner.

We have 2,500 students in a dual-enrollment program with the numerous high schools that we’re connected to getting Stockton credit. My hope is that will continue to grow now that we've signed a number of agreements with the community colleges, and I hope to expand on those Atlantic City. 

In Atlantic City, it’s really important to me to really firm up our presence there and to be more integrated into the surrounding community. I think we built a great facility, but we didn't necessarily have a specific plan for the facility. So, I spent the year working with a series of teams to determine what our Atlantic City Campus is going to be…I also hope that we’ll continue to really provide students with opportunities that are going to connect them directly to a career even before they graduate. 

We’ve begun the process of a new creating a new strategic plan, the rubber will hit the road in the fall. We'll go through the process in the fall of 2025. We will introduce and roll out a new plan for the university—a three-to-five-year plan—so I’m excited about that. It's just a great place, it really is. 

And, I have to say that there are things here that folks don't even realize; they're always surprised when they come here. Like, “Oh, wow, I didn't know this place existed, this is beautiful…” We tend to be a hidden gem and I don't want us to be hidden anymore; that's, my hope. If folks are interested in, for example, marine studies, coastal resiliency, we take care of most of the beaches from Atlantic City all the way down to Delaware. Folks don't even realize Stockton students do that.

We just signed this year an agreement with Camden County College, because we have a world championship eSports team. And, we've just signed a dual-degree program with them where students can get a degree in esports management. 

I want students to leave here with a better sense of self and a better appreciation for others who are not like them and wheeling the skills necessary to listen, engage in good conversation and collaborate, and sometimes meet people halfway in the world where folks have gone to their corners and don't come together. I want folks at Stockton to come together, and then leave here and help others come together.

 

Not everyone in education, despite good intentions, fully grasps the struggles of first-generation students, mental health challenges and financial obstacles. Would you say throughout your career, the circumstances have become more dire? What inspired you to focus on these humanistic initiatives?

Absolutely they’ve all become more dire. The mental health challenges have been expanding for the last three years. If you had asked me before COVID if I’d seen increases in mental health issues, I would’ve said yes. Post-pandemic, it has gotten even progressively worse. Investing in the needs of students and faculty and staff is pretty critical. In addition to that, food and housing insecurity … I am a social worker by training, so these issues stand out for me. I can’t say they stand out for me more than they may stand out for others, but I have a sensitivity as a social worker to those issues.

Secondly, I was educated; I was fortunate enough to go to the University of Scranton, Pennsylvania, which is a Jesuit institution. In studying with the Jesuits, I learned about the concept of what is called cura personalis. That is care for the whole person, and a student can't be successful in the classroom—let alone get a degree and have a career—if they're holistically not cared for, if their health and well-being mentally, physically and otherwise are not grounded. It's not just about what happens in the classroom, or even the things that happen in the residence halls. Again, are we taking care of the whole student? 

Finally, I'll say that education has changed. I mean, there was a time where students came to university, they took their classes, they lived in their residence halls, and really that was the focus. But today, I think that we find ourselves as educators playing multiple roles, whether that role is educator, teacher, counselor, social worker—it's certainly not for the faint of heart. The needs of our students have grown, and taking care of our students is the right thing to do.

 

Outside of your work, what are some of your interests and hobbies?

When I have time, I am an accordion player, believe it or not. I played the accordion for about 40 years. And I’m a foodie, I would say. I like to explore different restaurants and spend time with friends over a nice meal. The other thing is that I like to interact with my nephews and our grandchildren. I mean, I feel very fortunate. My husband and I—we've been together 31 years—and he’s a vice chancellor for Rutgers in New Brunswick, so he's in the field. We’re kind of all over the place when there's time to do something, but I'm honestly just as happy being a homebody and binge-watching something. 

 


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Published and copyrighted in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 21, Issue 1 (April 2024)

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Author: Carly Murray

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