Delaware native Gail DiSabatino is Vice President for Student Affairs at Clemson University in South Carolina, overseeing a department of some 1400 full and part-time employees. A graduate of Immaculate Heart of Mary, Brandywine High School and the University of Delaware, DiSabatino has spent her career in higher education. TSD touched base with DiSabatino to talk about her family’s deep First State roots, the popularity of southern colleges, and her love of Grotto Pizza.
TownSquareDelaware: Tell us about the path that led you from Wilmington, Delaware to Clemson, SC.
Gail DiSabatino: As a youngster, I always thought I would be a teacher and enrolled in college as an elementary education major but quickly realized that wasn’t my niche. While a student at the University of Delaware I became very active on campus working as a Resident Assistant and other roles within Housing and Student Activities. It was through these experiences that I met Dave Butler, Ed Spencer, Divver Martin, Sue Drew, Ron Callahan, Rick Sline and all of them had a hand in helping me to find my way into higher education, specifically Student Affairs. I had an itch to venture beyond Delaware, so I used graduate school as my opportunity to head west to Colorado State University for my Master’s degree. From there I hopscotched all over the place…Germany (University of Maryland-European Division), West Virginia (Marshall University), Nebraska (University of Nebraska-Lincoln), Massachusettes (Emerson College), California (California State Polytechnic University) and Georgia gaining increasing responsibilities. While working as the Dean of Students at Georgia Tech I travelled up to the University of Pennsylvania for the Executive Doctorate program in Higher Education. All of these experiences weaved a fabric for my role today.
TSD: DiSabatino … that is one of the most familiar and prominent names in our state. Your family has been building Delaware for a century. Did you ever think of going into the family business?
GD: At times I thought I might be cool to be part of the family business…but every time I brought it up, everyone cleared away from the dinner table as my father and I would “discuss” how women did not belong there – in the field or in the office…I later learned that the company established by my great-grandfather only allowed the sons to be part of the business. I love what I do, so I think it was God’s way of making sure I headed down this path. I am very proud of the work of the DiSabatino family in Delaware, especially my brother Brian. I am especially proud that the current generation of “sons” have changed their old school thinking by embracing and enabling daughters to join in the fun!
TSD: What exactly are your duties as Vice President for Student Affairs?
GD: I believe that each student has the potential to make a positive impact in the world. The vision we have for all of the areas of student affairs is that we prepare students to successfully live and lead in their professions and communities. Ultimately it is my job to ensure that our students are safe, healthy, happy, engaged, and productive members of the campus learning community. As an executive officer of Clemson University I am responsible for just about everything that touches a student’s life outside of the classroom…orientation, housing and dining, physical and psychological health, recreation, activities, conduct, leadership and diversity education, alcohol education, family programs, and the bookstore. I am even responsible for our Municipal Services on campus – Police, Fire/EMS, and parking. Student Affairs has nearly 400 full-time employees and well over 1000 student employees. I also teach at the graduate and undergraduate level and raise funds for the university…which includes never missing a home football game!
TSD: Were there any experiences or teachers during your time in school here in Delaware that had a particular impact on you and your chosen career?
GD: Probably the teacher who had the most impact on me was my Brandywine High Home Ec teacher, Irene Talley. She really cared about me as a person and a student. She showed me how to impact student lives beyond the classroom through mentoring and hand- on learning experiences.
TSD: It “feels” as if southern schools are – no pun intended – hot these days. Are you seeing any noticeable uptick in applications from the north/northeast and if so what do you attribute that increased popularity?
GD: We have seen a noticeable increase in applications from the Northeast…from Delaware to Massachusetts (especially in New Jersey this year). Students seem to be drawn to the southern schools due to the warmer climate and a lower cost of living. In addition there is a greater awareness of life in the south…while it may be a slightly slower pace, it is also very progressive in many ways (especially along the I-85 corridor), and is coupled by the southern hospitality and warmth that is a part of the campus community.
TSD: How would you say Clemson differentiates itself amid other big state schools in the south? What is a selling point you’d like to share with Delawareans?
GD: One student put it well when she said, “I go to a small school with a lot of people.” One of our drawing cards compared to many of the others is all of the big school benefits (quality faculty, facilities, activities, services, athletics) without 30,000-40,000 students. Coupled with this small-town setting, the students feel a great amount of ownership and pride towards the University. Clemson is a family…our DNA is to care deeply about each and every student. While Clemson aspires to be a top public university, we work diligently to ensure that in the process of increasing academic quality, research and economic development that our students will always be the top priority. And there’s the campus. Lots of schools are beautiful with manicured lawns, greenspaces, etc. But how many are bordered by a lake and forest? As a Delawarean, I reach out to all the new freshman Delawareans and invite them to lunch. Now, what other college will you go to where you will get a personal invitation from the Vice President to have lunch?????
TSD: How often do you get back to Delaware and when you are here what are your favorite haunts?
GD: I try to come “home” a couple times a year – splitting my time between Wilmington and Rehoboth. I rarely miss an opportunity to go to Grotto Pizza or Cappriotto’s subs. I try to stock up on hot sauce with a visit to Peppers, cute jewelry at Sherri’s, and depending where I land, usually visit either Micheal Christopher’s or Bad Hair Day. My favorite haunts are really just wherever I can be with family and old friends. My husband, Anush Showghi, and children, Justin and Alexandria, love Delaware as much as I do, so it is always fun to take family trips up north.