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For Earth Systems associate director, students come first

L.A. Cicero Deana Fabbro-Johnston

In recognition of her commitment, her devotion to students and administrative expertise, Deana Fabbro-Johnston has been named one of this year's Amy Blue Award winners. She shares the honor with Mary Nolan, supervisor in Grounds Services, and Mary Morrison, director of funds management in the Financial Aid Office. Each will receive a $3,000 prize and an "A" parking sticker for the next year.

BY MICHAEL PENA

The problem with taking things personally is sometimes you cry.

For instance, when parents approach Deana Fabbro-Johnston at graduation to thank her for being their child's West Coast mom, she takes that very personally. Just ask her about it—and then watch her eyes.

"It's not an insult when I have parents come up to me at Commencement," Fabbro-Johnston said recently, pausing for a moment as tears came when she recalled this compliment: "Thank you for taking care of my son for two and a half years."

Fabbro-Johnston is one of two associate directors of the interdisciplinary Earth Systems Program. She and Julie Kennedy, a senior lecturer who teaches in the program, both work on the curriculum and advise students on a drop-in basis. Fabbro-Johnston also handles administrative duties such as the budget.

"If students come by at 4:30, I may end up leaving at 7 o'clock because this is urgent to them," Fabbro-Johnston said. "These are real problems, and they need to be dealt with right now. So no matter what I'm doing, most of the time, they take precedence."

In recognition of her commitment, her devotion to students and administrative expertise, Fabbro-Johnston has been named one of this year's Amy Blue Award winners. She shares the honor with Mary Nolan, supervisor in Grounds Services, and Mary Morrison, director of funds management in the Financial Aid Office. Each will receive a $3,000 prize and an "A" parking sticker for the next year.

Earth Systems is second only to Chemical Engineering in terms of units required to graduate, and students who come to see Fabbro-Johnston have general questions about how to declare or apply to the co-term program. They also turn to her when they are stressed about class schedules or have serious doubts, such as whether to drop out of honors midway into the sequence.

Then there are the many real-world conundrums that have students flocking to Fabbro-Johnston, like locating a good dentist, a trustworthy tire salesman or a chocolaty snack to tide them over for an hour or two.

"We've created an environment within the Earth Systems office that is like a little hub for undergraduates … and there's generally always food in this office," she laughed. "If you're not an Earth Systems major, I don't care. You need something we can do for you, be my guest."

Fabbro-Johnston first came to Stanford in 1980, as a receptionist in the Program in Human Biology. She became an administrator six months later and spent about a dozen years in HumBio. Laid off briefly when Stanford went into budget-crunching mode, she returned to campus two months later to develop the infrastructure for Earth Systems after it was given degree-granting authority in 1992.

For the first year, she worked part time. But that wouldn't remain feasible. The School of Earth Sciences never had an interdisciplinary undergraduate program before, and when word spread of its fascinating new program, enrollment grew from 17 majors in the fall quarter that Earth Systems started to 60 by spring quarter of that academic year.

There are now 110 undergraduates and 35 co-terminal students in Earth Systems, which Fabbro-Johnston described as a program in environmental science, technology and policy. She said graduates go on to professional schools in law or business, earn doctoral degrees or work for nongovernmental organizations.

Fabbro-Johnston herself was a teacher before coming to Stanford and has a lifetime credential, as well as a master's degree in educational counseling. But beyond her educational background, her motherly instincts seem to be why students are so fond of her.

"I don't treat these kids any different than I treat my own children," Fabbro-Johnston said. "I know how things work at Stanford, and the normal undergraduate, 18 to 22 years old, sometimes needs a little help figuring out that path and the system, and that's what I do."

She is quick to acknowledge that the undergraduates who work with her in the office are indispensable. But as for fostering a welcoming environment for students in the program, "it starts with us, the grownups," Fabbro-Johnston said. "It's definitely not going to start at the bottom. You have to make it happen."

Here's how Alex Markham, an Earth Systems major, explained why Fabbro-Johnston deserves to win the Amy Blue Award:

"There is something incredibly special about being able to come to someone when life is at its worst academically and socially, and to have them literally drop everything, give you a gigantic hug and then devote the next hour or two entirely to you—this is what Deana brings to Stanford that I have found no place else."