Catholic-School Alumni ‘Come Home’ to Work at Their Alma Maters
Many Catholic-school alumni who return to work at their school find much that’s familiar as they step into new roles.
When Kristin Urbanski was a fourth-grader studying English Language Arts (ELA) at St. Joseph School in Fullerton, Maryland, in the late 1990s, she couldn’t have imagined that 25 years later she would be teaching the subject to fourth- and fifth-graders in the same classrooms — or that her instructional assistant would be her own first-grade teacher.
Urbanski, 35, is one of many Catholic school alumni who return to work at their school and find much that’s familiar as they step into new roles.
“I think being in the same physical space, as well as being around many of the same people that I grew up around, has really helped me to keep that idea of what it was like to be a child and what it was like to be in fourth grade — sitting in the same desks and looking at the same view out the window,” said Urbanski, who for four years has taught ELA and religion at the school she attended from first through eighth grade.
In the classroom with Urbanski again is Donna Visalli, 54, her own first-grade teacher, now an instructional assistant. As a pupil Urbanski was “smart and sweet,” Visalli said, and transitioning to a colleague relationship hasn’t been hard, she said.
“At first I didn’t know if she was going to call me by my last name or my first name, just that respect, but we got over that very quickly,” said Visalli, noting that they now call each other by their first names.
“We just moved past it, I think, because I have my teaching skills, and she has hers; and so I know what she’s doing. I know what she’s expecting, so I can chime in with her. It’s been pretty easy. I don’t think it’s been awkward at all.”
Whether they return to a Catholic school they attended to be teachers, counselors, administrators or staff, alumni interviewed for this article said they felt comfortable in their new roles fairly soon because they were coming home to a place where, in some cases, they and their family and friends have deep roots.
Alumni said they wanted to pass on the education, spiritual foundation and inspiration to find their life’s calling that they received at their Catholic schools to new generations of students.
Former Catholic-school students who come back as staff and faculty have a strong understanding of their school’s mission, which helped shape their values and understandings, said Laura MacDonald, director of professional learning at the Leesburg, Virginia-based National Catholic Educational Association, which provides professional development, formation, leadership and advocacy to Catholic schools.
Often, she said, they’re very dedicated. “Alumni may see an opportunity to play a critical role in our schools and the future life of our communities,” MacDonald said. “They are proud to come home and give back to the community that formed them.”
Five years ago, when Wes Logsdon, 42, saw that his alma mater, Cardinal Newman High School in West Palm Beach, Florida, was looking for a dean of students who would also teach, he said he was ready to return to a place that felt like home, a feeling shared by seven other alumni faculty and staff members at the school.
“Coming back brings back a flood of memories, good memories and stories and things they hadn’t thought of for years and now obviously are incredibly relatable,” he said. “They’re able to use those to their advantage, whether it be in the classroom or in their particular roles in which they hold.” Now the school’s principal, Logsdon said the school formed his whole person and prepared him academically for college, law and graduate school.
During his two years as dean of the school’s 600 students, he also taught world history. Returning to be both administrator and faculty member was “fun and exhilarating,” he said. But coming back “also brought some nerves because not only do I hold myself to a high standard, but I felt that being back at my alma mater and helping to be an administrator to those who taught me led to some nervousness in wanting to be as good as I could be for them.”
Logsdon’s nervousness didn’t last, and he said he now works with his team to help students succeed with the values of a faith-based education.
Faith is most important, agreed Donald Voorhies, 77, who has taught at Catholic High, New Iberia in New Iberia, Louisiana, for more than 40 years. Students haven’t changed since he was a senior at the school in 1963, but the world has; and Voorhies, known at the school as “Doc,” discusses Catholic values in the math and physics courses he has taught to several generations of Catholic High students.
The mentoring Voorhies received from a Catholic High teacher when he was a student and a new teacher made him want to pass on what he received.
After earning a doctorate and gaining some teaching experience, he returned in 1976 to teach at the school he had attended from third through 12th grade.
Apart from a brief “retirement” from 2009 to 2015, he has taught there ever since, he said, “because I love it.” Voorhies currently teaches algebra, advanced math, probability and statistics.
The Brothers of the Christian Schools who were present at the school until 1995 had a firm, dedicated and involved teaching style Voorhies has tried to emulate.
“We had Christian Brothers who were wonderful people, wonderful teachers; but they were the old-style teachers,” he said.
He added, “Despite [the fact that] I’m a ‘dinosaur,’ I work to make class fun. As a student, I don’t remember it not being fun.”
Another high-school teacher’s passion for biology inspired Maria Schmitz to think about a teaching career when she was a student at what is now St. Mary High School in Neenah, Wisconsin. The school is part of the St. Mary Catholic Schools system in the Green Bay Diocese. Schmitz attended schools in the system from kindergarten through 12th grade.
“Whatever she had to do to help connect with us, she did,” said Schmitz, 31, of her past teacher. “As I considered education, that really stuck in my mind, as someone who was a wonderful educator who inspired me to want to do it also.”
Schmitz is in her second year of teaching seventh- and eighth-grade religion at St. Mary Catholic Middle School in Neenah. The school building was new to Schmitz when she returned, but she saw a familiar face: One of her former teachers was still teaching there.
“It was a strange experience at first, to be talking to her as someone who could be my colleague versus my teacher.”
Jennifer Minvielle, 43, now sees her former teacher, Voorhies, in a different light as she works as Catholic High’s development director. She said she better recognizes what he does for students, including her own children, who are students at the school.
“He was very challenging always, and he pushed you definitely to the limit, but he always taught everything so well,” Minvielle said. “He was always there for you. He was there for tutoring. He was always there for extra help.”
A 1997 graduate, Minvielle said she is one of four generations in her family who have attended or are attending Catholic High. When she returned to work at the school in 2010, she joined the 38% of faculty and staff who are alumni.
As many as 15 of Voorhies’ former students now teach at Catholic High, he said, adding good-naturedly, “I have ‘grand’ students. I don’t think I have any ‘great-grand’ students yet.” This year, Voorhies was named Catholic High’s “Teacher of the Year.”
For her part, Urbanski was named “Elementary School Teacher of the Year” for the Archdiocese of Baltimore last May. The best part of coming back to her former school, she said, has been the chance to be part of her students’ development, just as her teachers were for her.
“When you come to work, you want it to be a place where you are comfortable and a place where you can feel like you’re accepted and where you know what’s expected of you; and so that was another piece of it for me, as well.”
As Schmitz also helps her students learn and develop, she said she’s contributing to their formation as disciples and sharing with them her love for mission work. Along with leading student groups on mission trips to Peru, she spent three years teaching in Belize during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now at a school where she was also taught the faith, Schmitz is finding mission work closer to home.
“I see that working at a Catholic school is a mission field,” Schmitz said. “Even though I am being paid now, it is a mission field, in the same sense that these are souls too that need to come to know Christ and know him on a deeper level.”