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Top Professors

Denise T. Ogden , Ph.D at Penn State - Lehigh Valley

Denise T. Ogden , Ph.D at Penn State - Lehigh Valley

Photography by Kelly Ann Shuler

Without a doubt, the Lehigh Valley is rich with opportunity for quality higher education, and this month, a fresh crop of cap-tossing, degree-in-hand college graduates will venture forth with the hopes of making his or her mark on the world, each carrying with them lessons taught by talented, skilled and truly accomplished professors.

In recognition and celebration of the outstanding professors who make our region’s schools, colleges and universities so exceptional, Lehigh Valley Magazine asked four area institutions of higher learning to recommend one top-notch teacher who exemplifies the societally vital position of professor.


Donna Acerra, MA
Professor of Communications,
Program Coordinator Communications Studies Program at Northampton Community College

With nearly 100 transfer and career programs, Northampton Community College (NCC) has been serving students of all ages and backgrounds in the Lehigh Valley for nearly a half-century.
Donna Acerra, MA has been at NCC for 26 years – nine as an adjunct professor and 17 tenured. Her husband, Mario Acerra, is also a professor (media production) at NCC.
Even though Acerra enjoys an impressive career in academia, she admits that she did not set out to become a professor.

“I studied documentary filmmaking at Temple University,” recalls the Bethlehem resident. “After I graduated, I taught a filmmaking class at NCC and realized I liked teaching students how to make films more than actually making them, so I went back to Temple for a master’s degree in communication and got some experience as a teacher’s assistant. I had three children before I returned to NCC to teach.”

Acerra was not initially acquainted with NCC as a professor; she first stepped foot on campus as a student fresh out of high school. As it was then and now, she points to the culture of NCC that attracted and kept her at the Bethlehem school.
“A focus on global awareness and diversity, which encourages innovation in the classroom, including taking students out of the classroom to learn,” she says of the NCC culture. “NCC has a diverse student body, and being able to teach students from all over the world together with students from all over the region is very exciting. Traveling with students and seeing them apply what they’re learning is the icing on the teaching cake for me.”

Who and/or what inspires you as a professor?

My passionate and talented colleagues at NCC continually inspire me.

What makes an outstanding professor?

An appreciation for the individuality of each and every student sitting in your class; for what you will learn from them and how you’ll connect with them in order to teach them.

What makes an outstanding college student?


An openness to new ideas and a willingness to make your education a priority and do the work to really learn and apply what you’re learning to your life experiences and future aspirations.

What’s the most significant lesson you’ve imparted to a student?

My mantra is something my grandmother used to say to me – “Ride loose in the saddle.” I try to impart the need to be flexible and to embrace change in college and in life.

What’s the most significant lesson you’ve gained from a student?

There have been many students who have broadened my capacity for empathy and patience. I’ve gained the understanding that I’m here to learn just as much as I’m here to teach.
What impact do you think higher education has on the lives of students?

A broader awareness and understanding of cultural, social and personal values; hopefully enhanced critical-thinking skills; and the ability to be an effective contributor to whatever they chose to put their energies into.

What is your opinion of the financial cost of earning a college education in the U.S.?

The extraordinary cost of higher education and the ridiculous amount of debt incurred puts students at an impossible starting point post-graduation. My advice is to go study in Europe.
Pinpoint a moment as a professor when you felt like all of the hard work and time was entirely worth it.

I have those moments at least once or twice every semester. But if I have to pick one, it’s watching students learn outside of the classroom. From 2010 to 2014, I led a cultural exchange between students from NCC and Diné College on the Navajo reservation in Arizona. Being part of the excitement for learning about each other’s cultures by living with host families in each others’ community was worth the enormous effort that went into bringing our two colleges together and planning each exchange.

In the current political climate, do you see students more involved/invested in politics? In your opinion, what is a professor’s role in that involvement?

Absolutely. To give the students the space to express their ideas and learn to accept that others will have differing points of view, and to listen to those.

There seems to be countless opinions about the current generation attending college. As a professor, what do you see in the more recent classes?

I see students interested in making a difference in their world but working too many hours outside of the classroom to pay for school. This robs them of time to fully invest in all that the experience of college has to offer.

Final thoughts?

I realized a few years ago that the storytelling aspect of my undergraduate filmmaking studies fit very nicely with my work as a communications professor at NCC in helping students learn to create their personal narratives, tell stories effectively and to be audience-centered in the many ways we communicate with each other.

Denise T. Ogden, Ph.D.
Professor of Marketing at Penn State Lehigh Valley

Prior to embarking on her career in academia, Denise T. Ogden, Ph.D. arrived at Penn State Lehigh Valley with a background in public relations from working for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in Alamosa, Colo. as well as D&B (formerly the Dun & Bradstreet Corporation).

In 2001, Ogden joined the Nittany Lion family and was twice the recipient (2003 and 2013) of the Lehigh Valley Campus Teaching Excellence Award. This year, she won the George W. Atherton Award for Excellence in Teaching.
Penn State Lehigh Valley (PSU-LV) offers what they call the “2 + 2 program,” which allows students to begin a Smeal Business degree in Lehigh and then finish it at University Park in State College. PSU-LV also offers a Bachelor of Science in business administration, which can be completed in Lehigh, that has a marketing/management and individualized option. Recently, PSU-LV began offering another related major called “project and supply chain management” as well as a popular initiative called “Lehigh Valley LaunchBox,” which is billed as the school’s “innovation hub for budding entrepreneurs.”

As a marketing professor at PSU-LV, Ogden fulfills an integral role among the many business-degree offerings, and she truly relishes her work.

“I really love my job, and sometimes I pinch myself because it’s a dream come true to be working at Penn State,” she says.
While it may be hard to believe of such an academically accomplished individual, Ogden points out that early on she was at risk of dropping out of high school.

“I grew up poor, so graduating from high school was a major accomplishment,” explains the Allentown resident. “As a first-generation college student, the goal of obtaining a college degree seemed a long-shot. I am of Mexican descent, and my mom’s family were migrant workers. Many, including my mother, dropped out of high school to take care of family. …Fortunately, I have some innate intelligence and caught the attention of several high-school teachers who mentored me to stay in school and get involved in leadership activities.”

Ogden’s natural smarts and hard work earned her a full scholarship to college.
“For me, education was the answer for a better life,” she says.
Who and/or what inspires you as a professor?

I’m inspired by teachers and professors who taught me. About seven years ago, I was contacted by a former professor, Dr. Marvin Motz, from Adams State University. While in college, he encouraged me to get involved in campus activities, and I loved his classes. He died shortly after our contact but not before he told me how proud he was of what I had accomplished. It struck me that his legacy lives on in me and in all the students he taught. There are many other grade-school, high-school and college educators who have greatly impacted me and how I teach. I get emotional thinking about how much my life has been impacted by faculty members who went beyond expectations to help me succeed.

What makes an outstanding professor?

I believe an outstanding college professor makes course work challenging but rewarding. An experiential-learning and student-oriented approach stimulates students’ motivation and desire to learn. I am a strong believer in diversity and inclusion and how outstanding professors should strive to create an environment that allows everyone to contribute. Outstanding professors provide out-of-class opportunities. Activities, such as field trips, case competitions and working to help improve nonprofit organizations,  provide opportunities for students to grow beyond the classroom.

What’s the most significant lesson you’ve gained from a student?

One of the most significant lessons I’ve learned is to become more creative and to have fun. As a business person, I tend to be more structured, and over time, students have helped me gain a balance between structure and spontaneity.

What is your opinion of the financial cost of earning a college education in the U.S.?

I believe college education is an investment in one’s future. The return on investment in terms of better careers and personal growth are worth the cost. That being said, I also believe financial costs are high, and many families struggle to afford higher education. Public investment and governmental support for higher education should be increased to subsidize costs.

In the current political climate, do you see students more involved/invested in politics lately?  In your opinion, what is a professor’s role in that involvement?

I see a subset of students who are more involved, but I would like to see more. The professor’s role is whatever he or she decides. It’s important for students to get exposed to different philosophies. I attempt to remain neutral when it comes to discussing politics in the classroom. I challenge students to hear different perspectives. I also challenge them not to believe everything they hear or read. It’s important to conduct research on both sides of an issue. The idea that we can disagree, and still respect and accept each other, is important.

There seems to be countless opinions about the current generation attending college.  As a professor, what do you see in the more recent classes?

I see a lot more students working full or part-time while attending college. There also seems to be more students taking shortcuts, such as waiting until an hour before an assignment is due to start, because they are so busy. Finally, I see that students seem to be more interested in quality of life and a balance between work and leisure than in previous years. 

Final thoughts?

I want to express my appreciation to my family, colleagues and especially students. One of the joys of teaching is to witness a student develop from a shy, insecure student into a confident, knowledgeable and mature graduate. Each time a student achieves their goals is precious because I know first-hand the value of education. Students have made me laugh, cry, cheer and smile. They have taught me to fully appreciate diversity and to hear all voices. Because of them, I will be forever grateful.

Wendy J. Robb, Ph.D.,
Associate Professor & Chair of the Nursing Department, Hazel & Walter May Endowed Chair for Excellence in Nursing at Cedar Crest College

At Cedar Crest College, 927 students have graduated from the nursing program, and it continues to be among the most popular majors at the Allentown school with 475 undergraduate students currently enrolled.
Wendy J. Robb, Ph.D., RN, CNE has been an integral part of the nursing program since the late 1990s when she signed on as a clinical-instruction adjunct professor, and by 2000 she had accepted a full-time assistant professorship position. Robb then went onto to become the school’s Director of Graduate Nursing Programs eight years later. In 2012, she took on the role of chair of the department and, two years later, the Hazel and Walter May Endowed Chair.

At 50, the Orefield resident has achieved much in her time as a professor. As a student, Robb was the first in her family to earn a college degree, something she says proved to be an important motivator for her success.
“I have always been drawn to higher education,” she says. “I believe that education is a key to success, and I have been driven to advance my education, to learn more, to be better.”
Cedar Crest’s mission, as a women’s college, has inspired Robb through her career there.

“I have stayed at Cedar Crest because of the strong commitment to women’s education,” she explains. “As a new educator, I did not fully understand the impact that women’s colleges have on young women and ultimately society. I love Cedar Crest’s mission to educate the next generation of women leaders. Repeatedly, I have been witness to the successful enactment of this mission and how it can truly impact lives.”
Who and/or what inspires you as a professor?

I am inspired by great leaders who can bring people together to accomplish a goal. It is easy to be divisive and exclusive to those who don’t agree with you but much harder to find common ground and work in an environment cultivating respect for differences and alternate views. I am inspired by people who create space where everyone feels valued and empowered to speak freely from the heart and experiment with innovative approaches, without fear or trepidation.

What makes an outstanding professor?

An outstanding professor is one who can bring out the best in a person – and support them to accomplish what they did not believe they could accomplish. Finding the right balance between being a motivator, a nurturer, a coach and a teacher can be difficult. It is important to have high standards and to hold students to these standards – asking them to give more than they thought they could and strive for excellence. However, it is equally important to provide students with the support necessary to be successful. Striking the balance between holding the line, demonstrating tough love and providing the appropriate amount of support is a talent of outstanding professors. These professors seem to know just what the student needs at exactly the right time that they need it.

What’s the most significant lesson you’ve imparted to a student?

I try to impart to students that being a nurse is an honor. Nursing is an honorable profession that has been voted, by the public in recent Gallup polls, as the most trusted profession. When you choose to become a nurse, you are invited into the most private and sacred parts of a person’s life. You are present for births, the news of a difficult diagnosis or a wonderful outcome and the passing of the physical life into the next dimension. There are not many professions or people who can attest that they are truly present for these most private moments of life. The most significant lesson that I try to impart to my students is that this is a privilege that requires reverent responsibility and is not to be taken lightly. People entrust nurses with their most intimate details and invite us into their lives at vulnerable times. The lesson is that you can be an expert and adept nurse at the “science of nursing,” but if you do not realize and honor this privilege, you have not truly understood the “art of nursing.”

What is your opinion of the financial cost of earning a college education in the U.S.?

The financial cost of earning a college education in the U.S. is devastating. As a parent of three sons who are either in college now or have just graduated within the year, the debt that they have accrued is overwhelming and destructive. I understand many of the costs associated with institutions of higher education. Speaking from the perspective of a terminally degreed nurse who moved into higher education after a career in the private sector, I can attest to the reduction of salaries for professors in some professional careers when they move from the private sector into academia. The consensus is that professors are overpaid, but this could not be further from the truth. Academicians in higher education should be compensated for the enormous responsibility that they carry in educating the talented leaders of the future.

There has got to be a better way. We need a viable solution to offset the cost of higher education with fair compensation for skilled educators, while salvaging the financial responsibility of the generations of students who will bear the burden of the debt of higher education for the better part of a lifetime.

In the current political climate, do you see students more involved/invested in politics lately?  In your opinion, what is a professor’s role in that involvement?

My observation of this current political climate and the students whom I teach is that I cannot say that I have seen students more politically active recently. What I can share is that students overall do not have a good perception of the value of their political activism considering the government representation and their causes. I am always surprised at the comments that students share after our trip to Harrisburg for a nurses’ day on Capitol Hill. Yes, we repeat the field trip most students went on in fourth grade to tour the Capitol and take time to meet with their legislators. It is amazing how energized they are when they return after touring the site and conversing with a representative. They feel motivated to become active and make changes to influence policy. I have not seen a change in this with the current political climate.

Sarah Stanlick, Ph.D.
Professor of Practice, Sociology and Anthropology and Director, Center for Community Engagement at Lehigh University

Founded in 1865 and ranked among the top research universities in the nation, Lehigh University currently offers a world-class higher education to nearly 7,000 students.
At only 35, Sarah Stanlick, Ph.D. has accomplished much academically, from earning her doctorate at Lehigh University to teaching as a professor of practice in the Sociology and Anthropology Department as well as being the founding director of the school’s Center for Community Engagement.

“The Center for Community Engagement is a central hub for faculty, staff, students and community partners to be connected and supported in order to conduct community-engaged learning, projects and research, globally and locally,” Stanlick explains. “Our focus is to infuse values of reciprocity, ethics, sustainability, collaboration and humility in community-engaged work across campus.”

Stanlick was a first-generation college student, and she says that taking her education to the farthest reaches was important to her. She points to past mentors and teachers as integral motivators on her journey to a Ph.D. and professorship.
“I have had exceptional teachers in my life, and as a first-gen student, I know the importance of having teachers and professors who not only encourage you, but also call you into projects, research and opportunities that build your confidence and your skill set,” says the Hellertown resident. “It is with that in mind that I see our students as colleagues who are earlier on in their journey but capable of greatness.”

Stanlick has been teaching at the college level since 2010, and she has held her current position at Lehigh University for the past two years.

As for what brought her to and continues to keep her at Lehigh University, Stanlick identifies the character of the prestigious Bethlehem school.
“Lehigh is a place that enthusiastically tackles complex, multifaceted problems,” she says. “I love working in a place that gives you many opportunities to try new things, think and partner across disciplines and that emphasizes the public purpose of our work.”

Who and/or what inspires you as a professor?

I am inspired by my family, who instilled in me early a curiosity and love of learning that sustains me and keeps me making new connections to bring into my work. My husband is a management engineer in the health care field, and his dedication to making health care more equitable and accessible – and our discussions about everything from process improvement to politics – keeps me sharp and considering new ideas.

The current political state also inspires me, as we are seeing the importance of civic agency and civic voice in a way that I feel our society had taken for granted for too long. I am inspired by my students who are seeking ways to move the needle toward a more equitable, sustainable world, and who are pushing me to think about ways we can support their inquiry and growth to facilitate that change.

What makes an outstanding professor?

An outstanding professor is someone who has enough confidence to model humility and curiosity while at the same time expecting and facilitating the best in our students. I see in our students high-achievers who are seeking excellence and striving to have an impact in our world. I also see a lot of my own perfectionist stress in many of our students, and I strive to set an example of vulnerability and resilience so they learn earlier than I did that dreaming big, being bold and embracing uncertainty (and potentially failure) are all things within their capacities.

What makes an outstanding college student?

I have thankfully seen a good share of outstanding college students. I am not sure that there is one profile, but I can say that the brightest students I have had the privilege of working with have shared a few common traits: humility, perseverance, curiosity and thoughtfulness. They are the students who make connections, try new things and keep asking questions in search of what’s next. They are students who not only will start a club to support refugees, but will also harness 18 different departments to share in an ecosystem that affects positive change in the community. They are students who have a passion and, despite being told it is not a “traditional” topic or methodology, still will turn that passion into a master’s thesis that shines. The students who are outstanding are those who seek purpose and are constantly striving to honor that search.

In the current political climate, do you see students more involved/invested in politics lately?  In your opinion, what is a professor’s role in that involvement?

It is an incredibly tricky position to be in – to be responsible for facilitating student development of critical-thinking skills without impressing upon them your own political or philosophical framework. I want to be responsible for nurturing a process where students know how to think, not what to think. And, of course, when you are talking about current events and issues – like refugee resettlement – you have to be as fair in presenting the many sides of the arguments and allowing them to explore and come to conclusions for themselves. You also need to be keenly aware of the power dynamics within a classroom and the importance of providing a space where democratic and respectful dialogue flourishes, regardless of your own personal views and perspectives.

Professors are humans and citizens with their own opinions, lenses and passions, just like anyone else. Creating a space for democratic dialogue does not mean that one can never share their opinion. Rather, great care must be taken to create an environment in the classroom where you model the ability to effectively dialogue and hold the tensions of our many opinions toward a healthy society. So many of our issues as a society stem from discomfort with having difficult, necessary conversations across borders. If I can help support that skill set and those spaces, I hope that we are making the world a little bit better for it.

There seems to be countless opinions about the current generation attending college.  As a professor, what do you see in the recent students?

I see in our most recent crop of students a real desire to find purpose in their future work; not only to get a good-paying job, but to also make an impact in the world. Many are also choosing portfolio or non-traditional careers – including entrepreneurship – and that spirit is exciting and a positive challenge for higher education to rise to.

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