When Thiel College’s first female president, Susan Traverso, and her husband, Kent Taylor, were helping their daughter Linden research which universities would be a fit for her, they had not yet looked at Thiel, a small, Lutheran, liberal arts college in Greenville, Pennsylvania.
Although it is closing in on its sesquicentennial celebration, Thiel is often overlooked. As the 20th president of the college, Traverso wants to get the message out that the highly regarded school indirectly located between Cleveland and Pittsburgh could be the ultimate match for students who want to be known by their name and not a number. With financial aid and scholarships available to most students, a private school education may be a viable option — particularly for first-generation students.
“Some people say they can’t go to a private college because the tuition is so high, but we want to get the message out to say, you should apply because all of these schools offer scholarships to students,” says Traverso, whose daughter is a sophomore at the College of Wooster. “You have to apply. Don’t just rule it out. If you are ready to do the work at a smaller college, you will finish in four years.”
What about the debt a student is hit with after four years? Is education really worth the price? Traverso’s answer is a resounding yes.
“Most students who emerge from an undergraduate program have an average of about $26,000 in debt,” Traverso says. “You could buy a car for that, and it would depreciate the minute you drive it off the lot. If you are carrying $26,000 of debt for an undergraduate degree, it may allow you to earn approximately $800,000 to a million more in your lifetime. It’s the single-best investment you can make — even if you have to make it with some debt. There are a lot of ways to repay it.”
In her own experience, education has played a vital role in Traverso’s life. She holds doctoral and master’s degrees in history from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a bachelor’s degree in history and communications from Simmons College in Boston, Massachusetts. Her father and his brother went to college on the G.I. Bill. Her father attended Harvard and her uncle went to Brown. Their father was an Italian immigrant who worked as a plumber.
“In one generation, that is my family’s narrative — that through education, you can be fully engaged in all the richness America has to offer,” says Traverso, who also spent time in the Peace Corps. “I’m motivated by a deep belief that education is a root for upward mobility for students. It’s the route for a fulfilling, educated life.”
Stephen Lazowski, Thiel’s vice president for enrollment management, has worked for four presidents during his career in higher education. He believes that what separates Traverso from the others is her commitment to the students themselves in their journey from the first day on campus to graduation.
“She has a humility about her that I have not seen in a president,” Lazowski said. “A lot of presidents come in and want to raise money and build enrollment — and yes, she wants to do all of those things. But student success is really what she has built her first year on. She is making sure our first-year students stay for the second year and go on to graduate in four years.”
Third-year student Samantha McLaughlin, an accounting major, is confident she can succeed once she earns her degree from Thiel and enters the business world.
“There is so much one-on-one with the professors,” McLaughlin says. “They all know who you are. There is that connection there that they really do care. I know they will help me search for internship opportunities when I’m ready.”
While Traverso is proud of the caring atmosphere on campus, she is equally pleased with the way students are challenged to push their limits. She wants students to think about their potential to be leaders and whether they have chosen meaningful career paths for their futures.
“Going to college is a big investment for a family,” Traverso says. “We want parents to know their kids aren’t just taking a list of courses, but they are people who are growing and maturing. Soon, they’ll be ready to be productive members of our society, perhaps in the workplace or if they go on to graduate school.”
As her son Kent approaches his high school graduation, Traverso and her husband have once again found themselves in a position of trying to help her child find the right college. Traverso is now an authority on Thiel and its rich 150-year history. She believes it’s a college that’s worth a visit and possibly a four-year stay.
“More than ever, I know picking the right college is about being in an environment in which a student can grow.”