Retiring Professor Maureen Grasso Leaves Lasting Impact on Wilson College Graduate Students
By Raymond Jones
Some people are content to spend their lives in just one place. They derive a sense of security from being “rooted.” At the other extreme are people who move so often they simply consider themselves “citizens of the world.”
Maureen Grasso, who retired from the Wilson College of Textiles on Dec. 31, is one of these “world citizens.” Her lengthy and productive academic career took her, literally, from one end of the country to the other. Even as an undergraduate she studied (by choice) at three different institutions – Winthrop University, Indiana University and Utah State University – while still managing to earn her degree in four years..
Grasso says the cultural differences among those particular academic communities were so pronounced that she learned early on “to adapt.” That life skill proved to be a blessing as she went on to earn a master’s degree at Cornell University and a Ph.D. at the University of Tennessee, before accepting a tenure track teaching position at the University of Texas.
She’s always loved large, complex universities
Her sense of wanderlust, however, didn’t end while she was living and working in Austin. With a strong ambition to teach at the graduate level, she later accepted a position at UNC Greensboro. She enjoyed being in “textile country,” but moved yet again after the University of Georgia recruited her to serve as dean of the Graduate School.
Georgia proved to be an ideal environment for Grasso, who was happiest working in large, complex university settings. It was no surprise then that she ultimately decided to finish out her career at an academic institution like NC State University.
The best thing about the move to Raleigh, she says, was “the chance to finally be surrounded by students and colleagues who understood what I did!” Her first love academically had always been textiles; so, when given the chance to serve at the Wilson College, she felt “home at last.”
‘Think and Do’ culture sets NC State apart
Grasso bought into the college’s “think and do” culture immediately.
“None of my previous institutions,” she says, “could match NC State for nurturing people who like to think up new ideas and find real-world solutions to real-world problems.”
While serving as dean of the Graduate School, Grasso took special pride in introducing the “Three Minute Thesis” or “3MT” program to NC State. 3MT is an annual competition that challenges Ph.D. and master’s students to present their research in just 180 seconds, without props or audio-visual aids, in a format that can be understood by a lay audience. This past year, three Wilson College graduate students were CMT finalists, and one won the competition’s “People’s Choice Award.”
Grasso looks back fondly on her association with the Department of Textile and Apparel, Technology and Management (TATM). She says one of her proudest accomplishments was encouraging more TATM faculty members to publish their work.
None of my previous institutions could match NC State for nurturing people who like to think up new ideas and find real-world solutions to real-world problems.”
– Professor Maureen Grasso
“I saw that they were doing great research,” she says, “and I knew they were deserving of greater recognition and visibility.”
She’s also proud of a “research methods” course she developed for graduate students.
“That course,” she says, “made a significant difference in helping students who were working on a master’s degree to get a good head start on their thesis.”
Advancing Ph.D. completion rates for women
One goal that she pursued throughout her career was enhancing Ph.D. completion rates for female scholars. When she first became a dean at Georgia, for example, Grasso was taken aback by the number of university policies that had a negative impact on female doctoral candidates.
In response, she promoted a new “stop the clock” policy. It enabled female Ph.D. candidates to drop out if necessary (often to attend to family responsibilities) and come back at any time without sacrificing credits or status. Another big key to success for women, she says, is effective mentoring.
Grasso remembered fondly by former student
Lonny Carter, who teaches fashion and textile management at the college part time, fondly remembers the difference Grasso made for her while she was pursuing her doctorate at the Wilson College. Carter, who also earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at NC State, says Grasso “was willing to mentor me, a stranger, with no teaching experience. We clicked immediately, and she quickly became the first person I wanted to call if something good – or bad – happened.
“She owed me nothing, yet spent countless weekend hours teaching me how to create learning materials and effectively communicate with students. She believed in me in a way no one ever has, and I would not be where I am today without her guidance and encouragement. She is a pioneer in every sense of the word. Dr. Grasso is who I want to be when I grow up.”
Family ties come first in retirement
Grasso enjoyed living in Raleigh; but, after being freed of daily responsibilities, decided to relocate to the western part of the state to be closer to family.
“The worst part of retirement has been losing daily contact with my students and faculty colleagues,” she says. “Nonetheless, I’m passionate about family connections and I didn’t want to miss out on a chance to be close to my two grandsons during their early years. I want to spend time with them while they’re still excited to see me!”