Grateful: Alumna who believes in the power of public universities gives back

Yvonne Condell stands before her collection of paintings, drawings, watercolors and wood carvings by Minnesota artist Charles Beck, which she loaned to the Plains Art Museum in North Dakota for a special exhibit. Dr. Condell proudly owns the largest private collection of Beck’s work.

When 81-year-old Yvonne Condell entered the University of Connecticut in 1956 to begin work toward a master’s of Education, African-Americans like her “weren’t welcome everywhere.” Despite what then were improved U.S. civil rights laws and changing attitudes, segregation still existed in many restaurants, parks and schools, but not at UConn, Condell asserted.

“From the first day, my experience was nothing but wonderful,” said Condell, who after completing her master’s in 1958 spent four additional years at UConn, first teaching there and then earning a doctorate in education with a concentration in biology. “I earned my bachelor’s degree at Florida A&M and knew I wanted to also do my graduate work at a public university, where the student body would be diverse, the atmosphere dynamic, and I felt sure would be an opportunity to learn about not just my interests, but myself.”

UConn was ideal, she said, because it was large enough to offer a broad range of educational and social experiences, but small enough to ensure that her professors not just knew her name, but had a desire to help her achieve her dreams: “The Storrs campus is also just so picturesque. But most importantly, I received a high-quality education from professors who were truly interested in helping me succeed. Looking back, I think of how fortunate I was to choose UConn, and how fortunate students are to have UConn as an option today.

“It was a top school when I attended, and it’s even more of a top school now,” Condell continued, referring to UConn’s many national rankings, which include the Neag School of Education being chosen as the No. 28 graduate school of education in the nation and No. 17 among all public graduate schools of education in the nation according to the U.S. News & World Report.

The Neag School of Education also houses the nation’s No. 1 doctoral program in kinesiology, as ranked by the American Academy of Kinesiology and Physical Education.

“Those of us who’ve benefitted from receiving the kind of quality, affordable education UConn provides have an obligation to make sure that public universities not just continue to exist, but that they provide even better opportunities to the next generation,” Condell said.

Toward this end, Condell has made a point of giving to UConn for each of the past 27 years, becoming one of the school’s most faithful and generous donors.

Her belief in public education—coupled with a desire to be the kind of passionate, knowledgeable and enthusiastic professor she worked with at UConn—also led her to spend 30 of her 40 years as a life science and biology teacher at the public Minnesota State University, Moorhead. She retired in 1995.

“Not too long ago, I looked back at my life and realized that from age 4 to 63, I was always in school, either as a student or teacher,” Condell laughed. “But it was at UConn that I learned the most, because there I saw what it takes to be a great teacher.

“Over the years, at various places, I’ve met a lot of Ph.D. students, from a lot of different universities, who knew everything about their subject area, but nothing about what it takes to teach it. They didn’t get the kind of wisdom, attention and care that I got at UConn, where the professors teach by example. Being a professor is about more than knowing what to teach. It’s about knowing how to teach. It’s about being reliable, dependable and caring. It’s about being an exemplar for the practices and values you believe in.”

Today, giving—of time and finances, when possible—are among the practices and values she strives to live by, and that she encourages others to consider as well.

“State budget cuts have put many public universities throughout the United States in very difficult straits, which means that other ways of raising funds are needed, especially if we want to make sure our flagship universities stay great and become even greater,” said Condell, adding that she gets excited each time she sees UConn earn a new title or ranking, such as its recent listing in Kiplinger’s Personal Finance as one of the 25 best values in public colleges in the U.S., and its election into Universitas 21, an international network made up of the leading research-intensive universities from 16 countries.

“Justice, equality and fairness come from education, and without public universities, many people wouldn’t have educations today,” Condell said. “Public universities play a vital role in our world, and it’s the responsibility of all of us who benefitted from them to support them.”