Who We Are – Creating Opportunities for Others

Capitol Ridge resident’s lifework was giving others a leg up

Senior woman posing for photo

Long before the term “breaking the glass ceiling” was coined, Dr. Dorothy Pieniadz was taking a hammer to the invisible barrier that existed in the male-dominated arena of 1950s higher education administration. Along the way, she was mentoring and seeking opportunities for other young women as well as urban youth.

In 1956, she was named the first female dean of students at what was then the Rhode Island College of Education. The Buffalo native and Columbia Teachers College graduate helped lead RIC from what was then a small teacher preparation college to the liberal arts institution it is today. By 1959, the “normal school,” founded in 1854, had moved to the current Mount Pleasant campus and was renamed Rhode Island College.

“It was not easy,” said Dorothy, a resident of Capitol Ridge at Providence. Most of her college staff were in their 20s and charged with coming up with “fresh, new ideas.”

Black and white photo of womanA founding mother of Big Sisters
Part of her role as Dean of Students was to get involved off campus in local organizations, so she joined as many boards as she could during the 1950s and 60s. She was also involved with the Zonta Club, an international professional woman’s organization. After about 10 years, the dozen or so women decided that rather than supporting the national organization and their scholarships, they wanted to use their talents and resources to help women and girls in their community.

In 1965, while visiting family at their summer home in Canada, Dorothy saw a Big Sisters’ sign and learned a little about its program. She discovered that there was a Big Sister Association in Boston. After a phone call, a representative came to meet with Dorothy and the other members of the Providence group. This led to the start of Big Sisters Association of Rhode Island in 1966.

At first the women had no funds, so they used space where they worked: the college, banks, and other locations and convinced a social worker to volunteer. In the early days, they raised money through bake sales and other efforts to provide mentors and scholarship support. Local radio and television interviews helped considerably, she added.

“We realized how important education is,” she said. “If you don’t have an education, your future is bleak.”

After some resistance, the Big Sisters joined the national Big Brothers and Big Sisters organization. That opened the door to more funding opportunities and to additional support. “Collaboration is the key,” she stressed.

Opening doors to global education
Another passion of Dorothy’s was and continues to be international studies. Drawing on her Polish roots and that of her late husband, Edward, as well as her ability to speak German, she was an early promoter of global studies and worked to forge partnerships with post-World War II nations that were working to stand up to Communism. These included West German, Poland, the Soviet Union, Hungary, and the Czech Republic.

Thanks to her connections, she was able to bring Rhode Islanders and other students to Poland for a month, many of whom never left home. Dorothy’s New York and international contacts resulted in professor exchanges, art exhibits, speakers, folk musicians, dance groups and other groups to the region. She is also credited with bringing international education courses and programs to RIC.

“We brought a tremendous amount of culture to the area,” she recalled, adding that this benefited and enriched not only RIC, but Brown University, Providence College, the Rhode Island School of Design campuses, as well as the general public.

Still concerned about today’s youth
To Dorothy, education and mentoring are more important today than ever before. Despite the concerns about online learning, Dorothy stressed that the “book learning” part of education can be done virtually and, in some cases, fairly quickly – if students have the technology and resources.

What is missing are the personal connections that happen in schools and in programs like Big Brothers and Big Sisters. She cited a recent New York Times article that pointed to the number of teenagers who commit suicide or who contemplate it, as well as the increased violent behavior and gun violence by young people.

“It’s very serious,” she said. She said not enough attention has been given to this issue. “It does concern me.”

However, she remains optimistic. Dorothy looks back on a lifetime of successes with students who just needed a little help from a mentor or via a scholarship. During the holidays, she received several letters from appreciative young people. As she looks forward to turning 97 in May, the notes still make a difference.

“That’s what keeps me going,” she admitted.

Group of associates with senior living home

Capitol Ridge at Providence