Graduate School Alumni
Alumna's Career Path Shows That 'Pure Exchange of Ideas Is Invigorating'
Catherine Frank revels in the view of Mount Pisgah from her office window, and it's a view that can take her mind as far away as Chapel Hill. Even though she has lived in Asheville since 2010, Frank values her enduring connection to her former home.
That image might bring to mind one of American literature's most enduring characters: Eugene Gant, of Thomas Wolfe's novel “Look Homeward, Angel.” In fact, Frank has spent considerable free time in the past two years tracing the strong connections between the Wolfe and Horace Williams, a member of the UNC-Chapel Hill faculty from 1890 to 1940. Williams taught Wolfe — and Wolfe based a character in his novel “Look Homeward, Angel” on Williams.
“Horace Williams is recognized for creating an environment where people have the time and opportunity to think big thoughts,” she says. “I hope the university never loses that as one of its goals.”
After receiving her bachelor's degree, master's degree and doctorate in English from UNC-Chapel Hill, Frank served as executive director of the Preservation Society of Chapel Hill from 2001-2006. The organization is housed in the Horace Williams House.
Frank says her graduate education at UNC-Chapel Hill gave her confidence that she could always learn what she needed to know about a subject, and this skill was crucial in helping her forge a unique career path: From English doctoral graduate to executive director of the Preservation Society to director of Duke University's Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. “Right after I finished my Ph.D. [in 2000], a friend asked me if I would like to teach because sharing literary discussions was something I loved to do.” Frank began teaching lifelong learning courses at Duke — learning all she could from older students in the process — and later made the transition to institute director.
“In these programs, there are no tests and papers but a wonderful quality of discussion. People bring their life experiences to the table and also hold their performance to a high standard.”
In 2010, she was named executive director of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at UNC Asheville, and she continues to teach lifelong learning courses. In her leadership role, she encourages older students to bring their wealth of life experience into their classroom experience, promotes inter-generational learning, and works to break down any barriers that may discourage people who have never taken a university course from pursuing higher learning opportunities.
“We want to remind them of all those things they've experienced in a high school course — there's great wisdom to gain and thought to be provoked in the classroom.”
Frank knows what the classroom experience can inspire, from the professors who encouraged her at Carolina and from her own ongoing work in teaching Victorian literature. She recounts a lifelong learning course she taught on Thomas Hardy while at Duke: One woman in her class would regularly question Frank's assertions, however respectfully. During this time, a friend of Frank's just happened to mention one of her most important mentors: Gerda Lerner, a pioneer in university graduate studies focused on women's history.
Gerda Lerner was the name of the student in Frank's class. “I thought, ‘There are probably not that many people with that name…’” She was right. “There she was in my class every Monday morning, and never once did she tell me who she was. I might have been intimidated had I known. She reminded me that the pure exchange of ideas is invigorating.”