Fred Gardaphe grew up in an environment where education was not valued. He was mocked and belittled in high school for his commitment to his schooling, knowing all along the true value of an education is priceless. Gardaphe graduated with an associate’s degree from Triton College in 1973 and transferred to the University of Wisconsin in Madison to earn a Bachelor of Science in English and education. He began teaching at high schools in Sun Prairie, Wis.; Mason City, Iowa; and Chicago, before taking a position at Columbia College where he stayed until 1998. Currently, Gardaphe is a distinguished professor of English and Italian-American Studies at Queens College of the City University of New York. He’s well-versed in Italian American studies – a subject he helped to develop through published books and articles and public speeches. He lives in Bellport, N.Y. on Long Island, where he also works with the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute in Manhattan.
What awards or accolades have you received since attending Triton?My most recent awards include the Leonardo da Vinci Award for Education and Man of the Year from the Order Sons of Italy in America in May 2010 and 2002, respectively; Person of the Year from the American Italian Cultural Roundtable in 2001; and the President’s Innovative Teaching Award for “The Virtual Piazza” with Philip Baldwin in fall 2000. I’ve also won numerous grants at the various schools at which I worked and served as a visiting professor at the University of Sassari in Sardegna, Italy.
What have been some obstacles you've had to overcome in pursuit of your educational and career goals?I am the oldest son and one of four children of a mother who was widowed when she was very young. When I was ten, I became “the man” for my family. And while I didn’t think much of it back then, when I look back, I realize it was a major obstacle to my emotional development. I worked and paid my own way through all of my education, which, while it taught me much about the value of hard work, kept me from devoting full concentration on my studies.
What has served as a source of inspiration both in your career and in your life?One of my earliest inspirations was my confirmation godfather, my uncle Pasquale Rotolo. He encouraged my reading and inquiry into Italian culture when others did not. Also, a priest at Fenwick High School, Father Tamburello, who was a counselor, helped me to see that there was a purpose to my education beyond what I was learning in the classroom. At Triton, my biggest influence was an English professor named appropriately, Joe English. He taught me how to think outside my neighborhood and how to interpret literature beyond the literal. Another influence was my employers – Thomas Eboli and Joseph Bronge – who had faith in me. I can’t forget about Danny Coglianese, who showed me that you can use your brain to move away from manual labor. Finally, my mother taught me that you don’t need schooling to be a great human. Only when I became a parent, did I realize and appreciate all the sacrifices she made to raise four children by herself.
What would you describe as your strong suit?I think my sense of working for the good of those beyond myself, and my ability to connect the classroom to the streets would be the foundation of my career. Also my communication skills, nurtured by my neighborhood and honed by my teaching jobs, have served my writing and public speaking.
How has Triton College impacted your life?I attended Triton because I really didn’t know what else to do. I had dropped out of college because my experience at Circle Campus, now the University of Illinois at Chicago, made me feel distant from what was being taught. Even though I had gone to Fenwick, a great college preparatory high school, I needed Triton to help ease my way into becoming an intellectual during a time when I could not leave my home. Triton was a great stepping-stone out of my neighborhood and into the world beyond Melrose Park. It enabled me to take care of my family, to work and to study. What I learned at Triton, both in the classroom and through my friendships, helped me to overcome my early prejudices I had toward those who weren’t Italian and to understand that the more I learned about others, the more I could know about myself.
What advice would you give to someone who would like to pursue a career in your field?My advice is to never stop studying life, never stop reading and learning about those things that interest you. Try to understand all aspects of life, especially those outside your major focus of study. Some call this interdisciplinary; I call it learning how all things are connected, so make all the connections you can. If you want to be a college teacher, take some time early in your career to teach high school, so you will never forget where your students are coming from. To be a professor, you don’t just need book knowledge; you need to know people and how to communicate with them.
What are your words of wisdom for current Triton students?Make the most out of your early years of education as they form the way you approach your future. Mark Twain said that "Training is everything," so don’t be afraid to do the work you need to do to become better at what you want to do. Fear is based on ignorance — literally on "not knowing" – so strive to understand everything you encounter. Learn to share your thoughts and fears with others. For whatever problems you have, there’s someone nearby who can help you get through them.
What are your plans for the future?As you get older and you reach many of the goals you made for yourself, it’s easy to rest on your achievements and forget about creating new goals. You should always extend yourself by creating new goals once you’ve reached the ones you made earlier. My future plans include taking more risks with my writing, writing a novel about growing up in Melrose Park, writing more books about the changing nature of ethnic identity through Italian-American culture and spending more time with those whom I love and those who challenge me to continue to change and evolve as a human being. I also want to travel more and lecture to today’s college students about the responsibilities an education places on each of us to make life better. I also plan to spend more time in Italy, my ancestral homeland and the source of much of my happiness.
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