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The doctor is out: Saying farewell to Porterfield
On Friday afternoons, Dan Porterfield’s office in Healy Hall becomes an informal salon where students stop by to discuss classwork, mull over career concerns, or simply to partake of the ice cream that constantly fills his freezer. The tradition spans years, an emblem of the welcoming, receptive persona Porterfield’s colleagues and students consistently describe.
Johnny Solis (SFS ’11), a student of Porterfield’s, has been a frequent Friday afternoon visitor.
“The vibe was very festive,” Solis said. “His door was always open for ice cream, advice, etcetera.”
Porterfield’s knack for connecting people made his office a forum for meeting other students.
“He really fosters a sense of community,” Senior Vice President of Federal Relations Scott Fleming said. “He prompts people to think outside the box, which leads to lots of creative and exciting things on this campus.”
Since his undergraduate days in the Georgetown College in the early 1980s, Porterfield’s career at Georgetown has been characterized by continual dedication to students and an unparalleled drive to further social justice both within and beyond the Georgetown community.
But Porterfield recently accepted a post as President of Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania which will begin on Mar. 1—a departure which leaves a gap that will be difficult to fill.
As the senior vice president for strategic development, Porterfield’s role on campus has been just as wide-ranging as his title suggests. Tall, bespectacled, and forthcoming, Porterfield is known as a consensus-builder and bridge between the many different facets of the University.
“He is irreplaceable,” University President John DeGioia said in a January question and answer session with student press. “We will do our best to ensure that the functions he has provided can be most appropriately addressed, [but] we will not do a search to replace him.”
When Porterfield graduated from Georgetown, his initial focus was on social justice-oriented non-profits in the District.
After graduating in 1983, Porterfield founded the D.C. Schools Project, a tutoring program for recent immigrants to the D.C. area. Having studied at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, he returned to Georgetown to start the After School Kids program, which allows college students to tutor at-risk youth—what he calls “kids who have been given up on.”
“What I love is working with young people as they are developing their own interior freedom,” he said. “It’s the combination of seeing individual people develop that sense of freedom and of knowing the integrity of their own hearts that they form by creating meaning. That meaning involves both creating experiences of joy and learning from successfully dealing with moments of difficulty.”
Both programs facilitate relationships between Georgetown students and those they tutor, and both have roots in several formative experiences from Porterfield’s time as an undergraduate. Working in the Big Brothers Big Sisters mentoring program, combined with his experiences as a residence assistant in Darnall Hall, he said, afforded him a “grasp of the tremendous potential that every individual has, at any age, to make a big difference now.”
“What motivated me was the realization that college students could do a huge amount, could play a role that maybe no other group could play quite as well with pre-adolescents and early teens,” he said.
Porterfield’s passion for the D.C. Schools Project was born out of a Georgetown-sponsored trip he took to Nicaragua in 1984—his first trip outside the U.S. He says the experience allowed him to see the disorientation and confusion that often makes it difficult for immigrants to assimilate into a new culture.
“To be myself a newcomer, I just remember very vividly how challenging it was the first time away,” he said. “The experience made me realize that many recent immigrants in the United States were having that same disorienting feeling of cultural loss and cultural confusion, only with fewer resources than I had.”
Upon his return to the U.S., Rev. Harold Bradley invited him to develop a program to help District public schools accommodate a recent influx of immigrants, primarily from El Salvador. He designed the D.C. Schools Project to address that problem, allowing students to be tutors and welcoming friends to recent immigrant schoolchildren and their families.
The D.C. Schools Project now features programs in elementary, middle, and high schools, as well as its One-to-One Program that sends tutors to the home of an immigrant family, where they serve as a resource for the entire family two nights a week. Maria Rocha (COL ’11) tutored for a semester in the middle school program and has since been a coordinator in the One-to-One Program.
“The kids really look up to the students in Georgetown who help them learn English, not only as tutors but as mentors,” she said. “It’s a chance to make a lasting impact.”
After his work with DCSP, Porterfield received a PhD from City University in New York and served for four years in the Clinton administration as a senior aide to the U.S. Health and Human Services secretary. It was in 1996 that then President Leo O’Donovan recruited Porterfield to come back to Georgetown.
Porterfield said his current job entails helping Georgetown realize its strategic goals. In practice, that means teaching classes in the English department that feature a community service component and a vigorous social justice theme. But Porterfield’s involvement on campus stretches far beyond the classroom. He has been involved with projects all over the University, even serving as interim athletic director from June 2009 to April 2010.
Solis, who took Porterfield’s Those Who Teach Lead class, described him as a challenging professor, one who engaged in “differentiated learning” by creating group projects, checking on students’ service projects, and bringing in guest lecturers—including the occasional speaker who addressed the class via Porterfield’s iPhone.
“He’s always relying on students’ feedback so that he can become a better leader,” Solis said. “It speaks to how he carries himself as a leader … he was always available and honest with you.”
From immediate replies to emails sent at 3 a.m., to encouraging text messages, Porterfield is in almost constant contact with his students. Solis recalls Porterfield sending him a text at 12:30 a.m. the morning before an interview with Teach for America, wishing him good luck.
“You’re gonna kill it. Knock ‘em down,” he wrote in a text.
Another of Porterfield’s former mentees, Steve de Man (COL ’04), who taught at a school in Roma, Texas, with TFA before taking up the recruitment role with the organization that he occupies today, praised Porterfield for his interpersonal skills.
“I can say with confidence that he is the most effective recruiter in the country,” de Man said.
Beyond general advising, Porterfield mentored interested students by providing recommendations and conducting mock interviews. However, de Man said Porterfield never urged him into Teach for America—or onto any path, for that matter. Rather, his mentoring style allows students to arrive at conclusions independently, while he provides support and advice.
“Any caring and also objective adult brings to an emerging adult the lifetime experience, real study that may be relevant,” Porterfield said. “In my case a great respect for who that individual is and a desire express myself through by being in a helping relationship with another.”
Raymond Cooper, senior advisor to DeGioia and a colleague of Porterfield’s, sees a connection between Porterfield’s mentoring and his commitment to the overall Georgetown experience. According to Cooper, his reception of the Dorothy Brown Award for exemplary support of students in 2003 was well earned.
“He truly deserved that award, because he’s so focused,” Cooper said. “He believes that when students come through here, it’s not just about education, but their whole life experience.”
Besides working closely with students—advising them and keeping them happy with frozen treats—Cooper observed that Porterfield has remained unwaveringly dedicated to what he perceives as the Georgetown mission. The cornucopia of projects under his supervision included the LGBTQ Resource Center, the Cristo Rey Summer Experience, aimed at promoting higher education oppurtunites for students from low-income backgrounds, and the present reimagining of the Center for Social Justice.
“That kind of work is important because it’s helping us as individuals and communities realize what our promise is,” Porterfield said.
Porterfield’s colleagues attribute his success in realizing these goals to his uncanny understanding of the inner workings of Georgetown, coupled with his deft navigation of logistical details and a crystalized vision of the end result.
“He’s very intuitive and he has the ability to see opportunities in lots of different places and act on them.” Maggie Moore, a public affairs specialist who works with Porterfield colleague in daily operations said. “I think a lot of his projects often come from a single conversation.”
Rev. Joe Parkes, President of Cristo Rey High School in East Harlem, has served with Porterfield on the Board of Directors of the Cristo Rey Network, a group of Jesuit schools that provides educational opportunities to potential first generation college students. To Parkes, Porterfield’s unique combination of vision and pragmatism contribute to his know-how and ability to get things done.
Last summer, Porterfield orchestrated a program for approximately 20 rising Cristo Rey seniors to spend three weeks at Georgetown; trustees funded the visits, and students received a stipend to make up for lost time at possible summer jobs. Parkes said the program gave the students confidence that they can get in to even the most selective institutions—critical for students with no family history of higher education.
“He captures what we’re doing better than anyone,” Parkes said.
He traced Porterfield’s effectiveness in large part to his eloquence.
“He thinks and speaks in paragraphs,” Parkes said. “You know where he’s going, and he comes across as an incredibly authentic human being.”
For all of these reasons, it will be difficult for any one individual to fill the many roles Porterfield has played during his time at Georgetown. An administrator with a gift for connecting with students and faculty, Porterfield was an omnipresent figure at Georgetown, constantly interacting with students and participating in widely disparate projects on campus.
Porterfield sees his work in the LGBTQ Initiative and projects like DCSP and the ASK program as his most important achievements at Georgetown.
“I think the overriding theme is that we exist in relationships with one another,” he said. “We will find ourselves and know ourselves still better when we think creatively and act on the notion that we can strengthen those relationships.”
When he transitions to Franklin and Marshall, Porterfield will bring his signature mentoring style and attention to social justice. Meanwhile, the university and students he leaves behind will try to maintain the relationships he helped them build.
“The school is going to be missing an administrative official who has his doors open all the time … who connects with his students,” Solis said. “It seems that there aren’t that many administrative officials who students can always go to. And Dr. Porterfield was that. He was the bridge between students, faculty, Jesuits, and the administration. He did it all.”