Deirdre Pettipiece raised two children by herself, worked dozens of odd jobs – including fork-lift operator – and earned her master’s degree and Ph.D.
And to think she had been a high school dropout.
All of these experiences led to her new job as dean of Lehman College’s School of Arts and Humanities, and help her identify with students, she said.
“I was eking out a living, so I started going to night school,” Pettipiece said in her office, which had pictures from her daughter’s recent wedding on the wall. “I resonate with this school. These students are me. Without an affordable college, I don’t know what I would have done.”
The animated, blond college administrator is the daughter of Irish immigrants who moved to California during the early 1960s, but couldn’t quite shake off their roots.
Pettipiece, who was born in the U.S., moved among California, Belfast and Manchester, England too many times to count, she said.
“My parents never really had meetings with us kids, it was just, ‘pack your bag, we’re going tomorrow,’” Pettipiece said, slipping easily into their Irish accent. College “wasn’t on my horizon,” she said, as no one in her family had gone.
At 19 years old, Pettipiece moved back to California with her British husband and their two children. The couple divorced, and at 28, Pettipiece decided to go back to school and earned her high school diploma and then her college degree.
She took classes at night and was a “yard-duty lady” at her kids’ Catholic school, among other things.
“I always had to work a few jobs to pay for all the stuff – karate, ballet, Little League,” said Pettipiece, now married again. “Then I realized the jobs I worked were just not going to pay. My kids’ standard of living was very important to me.”
Pettipiece pursued her master’s degree at California State Polytechnic University and her Ph.D. at Arizona State University.
“In my house growing up, we very seldom had any money, but we had books all over the house,” she said. “So it made sense to me to do an English degree when I had read everything on the syllabus already.”
Her dissertation on evolutionary language and its role in fiction – which landed her the title of “outstanding student of the year” – was dedicated to her father, a sheet metal mechanic.
“He didn’t understand a single word, but he liked seeing his name on the flyleaf,” Pettipiece said with a smile.
And now, Pettipiece is ready to bring her experience as associate dean at a Pennsylvania college to Lehman. Her top priority is to engage the community.
“I think, because of these weird life experiences, I’ve got a million problems,” she said. “But I’ve got a million and one solutions.”
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