Education dean recounts a continuing journey that started in health care

by Sara Woelfel

Dr. Freda Russell may serve as dean of Stritch’s College of Education and Leadership, but she has a surprisingly keen interest in the University’s new respiratory therapy program - the first students will be enrolled on August 12.

In fact, she knows a thing or two about the field, having worked as a respiratory therapist for the first 10 years of her career prior to making a drastic switch to become a teacher and, eventually, a leader in education.

“I’m excited to be able to bring my love and passion for health care to the table as Dean Dries (of the Ruth S. Coleman College of Nursing) grows and develops the College,” said Russell, who recently also assumed additional duties as the University’s interim vice president of academic affairs, a job she will share with College of Arts and Sciences dean Dr. Dan Scholz as Stritch conducts a national search to fill the position formerly held by Dr. Tia Rosati Bojar, '69.

Russell holds fond memories of her work in health care. Promoted to supervisor after just three years in the profession, she worked with patients of all ages in neonatal intensive care, hospice, cardiac intensive care, and the emergency room.

“I don’t miss the bureaucracy; I miss the people,” Russell said. “I miss the collaboration with the medical team, which included making medical rounds with the doctors. I miss the direct hands-on with children and families. I miss seeing immediate improvement in the patients’ condition after several rounds of therapy. One of the greatest rewards of the work was seeing a child who entered the hospital in respiratory distress eventually return home, healthy.”

Russell might still be working in health care if not for the jarring changes that accompanied the nation’s shift to the Health Maintenance Organization (HMO) system, which placed mandates on hospitals like St. Joseph’s in Milwaukee where Russell worked.

“We were told, ‘You will treat this person within this timeline with this amount of medication and this type of therapy, and you will do no more or we won’t cover the medical cost.’ This impacted how the Department of Respiratory Therapy interacted with patients. We were timed in each patient’s room and expected to move on to a new patient after a certain limit was reached. This was very disturbing to me, as my advocacy for patients’ rights took precedence over the work I was commanded to do. So I continued to do what I knew was right for the patients.”

Her supervisor noticed her unwillingness to work within the new guidelines and asked her to comply. Pregnant with her third child at this time, Russell decided that rather than compromise her principles, she’d stay home with her two daughters and her newborn son while determining her next career move.

Two years after the birth of her son, Russell enrolled at Concordia University to earn her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in teaching and her teaching license in elementary education with specialization as a K-12 reading specialist. Choosing to pursue a career in education enabled her to continue to help children and families improve their quality of life but in an entirely new way.

“I’m a natural teacher and a natural leader, plus this really fit well with my concern for social justice,” Russell said of her career shift.

Upon completing the program, her church approached her to serve on a feasibility board to determine whether the church should start its own school.

“I had a great time setting policies, practices and standards for a new school, including all the state mandates, looking at the curriculum and helping the church get started on writing for licensure and all the things you need to start a school.”

Once established, she taught 4- and 5-year-old kindergarten and first grade for two years at the new school when another local church asked her to help them start their own academy. While still teaching at the first school, New Testament Christian Academy, Russell shared her time and expertise with the Darryl Lynn Hines Academy, and then spent three years teaching there.

“Both schools are still operating very well,” Russell said with obvious pride. “I love to hear some of my early efforts really paid off.”

Then Russell received an unexpected call from the Mequon-Thiensville School District, inviting her to apply for an open position. She turned down their offer, convinced her current school needed her more as she served low- and middle-income families, many of them African-American. But the school district kept calling, and they eventually won her over.

“They said the reason why we need you is we have an increasing number of families of color and we don’t have teachers of color for the children of color to identify with and be the voice for their needs.”

She knew her presence had the potential not only to affect the students of color, but also the white children who would benefit from learning more about diversity and inclusion.

“The time I spent at the district was better than I expected. The impact I made on the school, and I think the district, was amazing.”

During her three years in Mequon-Thiensville, she taught third grade, but also served as her school’s curriculum advisor, giving her input into curriculum decisions affecting the district.

Then a colleague from Cardinal Stritch University called to tell her about an open position. Not ready to leave the school district but intrigued by Stritch’s mission, the opportunity to work in higher education, and the potential of enrolling in Stritch’s doctoral program, Russell prayed over the decision. The principal at her school eventually spoke the words she needed to hear to make her decision.

“She said, ‘I can understand why it’s important for you to move on to higher education because that magic that you do with families and children needs to be replicated,’” Russell said. “‘And if you can teach teachers how to do that, then you’ve impacted more than just this classroom.’ And it was that conversation that sealed it for me.”

Expecting to stay just a few years before moving on, Russell is now in her 11th year at Stritch and is a graduate of the doctoral program in leadership. Her rise through the faculty ranks included serving as director of student teaching placement, teaching in the undergraduate and Master of Arts in Teaching programs, helping to redesign programs, serving on accreditation teams, building assessment instruments to track the value-added of College programs, and eventually becoming Stritch’s first African-American college dean in 2010. Now she is set to take on new challenges as interim vice president of academic affairs.

“It seems like this is my life journey. I enter into work for the sake of being a part of bringing success to the work, and I end up rising to the level of leadership in the work.”

Russell said personal reflection and prayer guide her through each new transition, and she will turn down any opportunity, no matter how prestigious, if she doesn’t feel called to the work.

“I’m called to the work; I’m never called to the title. The president and the leadership in the University laid out what I believe is a very strong strategic plan and priority, and it aligns with who I am as a leader. I want to be part of moving the University forward and feel called to the work, so here I am.”

Thinking back to the lifelong lessons she learned during her days as a respiratory therapist, Russell believes her time in health care allowed her to discover early in life the importance of people helping people, especially during times of extreme crisis. She sees this as her life’s calling.

“It all started in health care, then grew into education, higher education, life. Honestly, I think I could do this same work in the business sect or in the political sect or anywhere.”

Having endured such a drastic change in her own career, Russell coached her children throughout their lives to help them discover their natural bent and understand how to make a living using those special gifts. But she acknowledges that professional shifts and mid-career re-examination is simply part of life.

“I taught my children that there are seasons in everyone’s life. For instance, my season in health care as a respiratory therapist is over. But sometimes people hold on to seasons that are over. And they are unhappy, because you just need to move on. So moving into education was just a new season for me. You’ve got to get a sense of where you are and when the season’s going to change and you have to go with it. You simply can’t expect to stay where you are forever.”