Catherine Wanner: Barry Director Of The Paterno Fellows Program And Professor Extraordinaire
Not many can say they’ve earned a doctorate degree from Columbia University. Maybe fewer can say that they started learning Russian at the age of eleven. Add three more languages to this list of accomplishments — French, German, and Ukrainian — along with a host of academic honors and publications, and it’s really no wonder that Dr. Catherine Wanner leads the Paterno Fellows Program and is an integral member of three of Penn State’s academic departments.
Wanner has authored various academic works, often focusing specifically on eastern Europe and the social and religious institutions in that part of the world. She has been at Penn State since 1996 and has served as the Barry Director of the Paterno Fellows Program since 2013.
Wanner has always had a passion for different cultures and languages around the world, and is now a professor of History, Anthropology, and Religious Studies. She has spent time studying in France, the Soviet Union, and Switzerland, where she worked on honing her linguistic skills in the dialect of each country.
Yes, that’s correct – the Soviet Union. Wanner made her way into communist territory during her undergraduate days alongside other students, many of whom were hoping to work for the CIA. As a student abroad, she realized that there were all sorts of people living in Moscow and that her first impression in no way fit the standard American conception of Soviet life.
“In the early 1980s, [the Soviet Union] did not seem, at all, like it was failing. For me, that was my first recognition of how much American propaganda we get. It was not at all what I’d expected,” she said.
But there were certainly some oddities when it came to everyday life in the USSR. For one, the train system seemed to be about as advanced as imaginable to Wanner, and stepping off to see the People’s Palace in Moscow gave the impression of almost endless wealth.
“The transportation infrastructure struck me as fantastic,” she said, comparing it to her native New York. “In sharp contrast, in terms of communication, there was no functioning phone system. Are you kidding? You’re a superpower and the only option is TomTom-ing a message to friends.”
While abroad, she lived in a dorm with a single phone for the entire building. Incoming calls were broadcasted throughout the building until the phone was answered by its intended recipient.
Wanner’s interest in Russian was sparked at a very young age – a schoolteacher initially brought the language into her life when she was just eleven. The teacher came from a family of Jewish refugees that was forced to flee Russia during World War II. “She had very positive feelings about all things Russian, but very negative feelings about all things Soviet, which was typical,” Wanner said. The teacher’s parents were placed in a displaced persons camp in Germany before heading to the United States.
“I started off studying languages, and then from there I read literature to get a window into the culture and, of course, into the language and how the language works,” Wanner said.
As an undergraduate, she thought about pursuing majors in both French and Russian literature. When she saw two of her roommates magnetically attracted to a series of anthropology books, however, Wanner decided to give the subject a try. The various worldviews, lifestyles, values, and traditions that are emphasized in anthropology struck then-undergraduate Wanner as particularly interesting.
She moved on to study anthropology at Columbia University in a graduate program known for establishing the most influential anthropologists in American academia. The so-called ‘American school of anthropology’ underscores the importance of historical roots of ethnographic research. Wanner’s graduate coursework allowed her to move into both the history and anthropology departments at Penn State. Her research interests, such as the politics of religion in various parts of Europe, have also allowed her to join the department of religious studies – quite a combination, and a whole lot of work.
Those overlapping areas of expertise make her a natural fit as the Barry Director of the Paterno Fellows Program. Such a diverse academic background allows Wanner to see the usefulness of different approaches to academic work.
“I’m at once a social scientist and a humanist, so I recognize the value of social science methods and theories. With one foot in history and religious studies, I also understand the value that the humanities bring to the table,” she said.
Wanner buys into the belief that the skillset derived from a liberal arts education will be immensely helpful, regardless of the future profession of each Paterno Fellow. Training in more than one field, ethical thinking, global awareness, and civic engagement all help create thoughtful, creative, and enlightened citizens in Wanner’s eyes. The various aspects of the Paterno Fellows Program have been put in place to underscore the importance of having an understanding of the world beyond students’ immediate surroundings, as well as developing the ability to think and reason ethically.
“The Paterno Fellows Program is the highest you can go as an undergraduate at Penn State,” Wanner said.
Wanner explained that she conducted in-depth searches of honors programs throughout the country, but could never find an honors program that mirrored the openness of the Paterno Fellows Program.
“This is the only honors program I’ve seen where there’s no application, there are no committees, and it all depends on how a student performs as an undergraduate. I appreciate that openness,” she said.
Wanner believes that many high school students go through difficulties – whether they be personal or family related – that may stop them from hitting their stride. She also recognizes the inequality among high schools when it comes to aspects as simple as the number of AP classes a school offers. The Paterno Fellows Program, simply put, allows students to prove themselves in a new chapter of life.
“How a student performs is not a mistake. You can’t argue with success, and this is the means by which someone becomes a Paterno Fellow,” Wanner said.
Wanner is a very popular professor on top of all the other responsibilities she holds. She has a resounding 4.7 overall rating on Rate My Professor, a popularity score that likely comes from her passion for a wide range of subjects and her belief that students deserve to be challenged. When assigning work, she likes to go right to the original source. For example, taking a class on the historical background and communist movements means that students will be reading Marx, even though he’s not, as Wanner puts it, “writing for your average 18-22-year-old.” All in all, Wanner looks to design a class that has mixed assignments in hopes of allowing students to take on challenges in the areas of learning that they most enjoy.
Outside of her duties at Penn State, she volunteers as an election observer for elections that are hotly contested and for countries that are susceptible to illegal and unethical election circumstances. It’s a way for Wanner to use her knowledge of these different countries and languages, as well as give back to different people that often face immense struggles. Wanner also volunteers locally riding mustang horses, helping gentle feral mustangs so that they can be adopted.
But Wanner’s primary focus remains on her work as a professor, program director, and academic.
“I take kids really seriously, and I take their abilities seriously,” she said.