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At 74, Sganga returns to school with a public health career in mind

by Chuck Gordon

As it did with most people, the Covid-19 pandemic threw Susan Sganga for a loop. Her son’s restaurant, which she helped run, shut down in the spring of 2020, and Sganga found herself with time on her hands.

Not one to simply sit and veg out, the 74-year-old wound up with a backyard worthy of a magazine photo spread. At community college, she learned to build a tiny house. She volunteered at the Heritage Room in Monroe.

Then she was reminded that, as the widow of a Vietnam veteran who’d died from complications related to Agent Orange, she was eligible for free college tuition through the Veterans Administration. Sganga, a two-time Wingate graduate, decided to flip through the University’s course catalog to see if anything looked interesting.

“The one thing that grabbed my attention was the master of public health,” she says.

So she signed up. Sganga is now one of nine students – and, by decades, the oldest – in the first cohort of Wingate’s two-year MPH program, which launched in August.

She intends to use her degree to forge a late-in-life career. “I just want to be involved with the community, and this seems perfect to me,” she says.

Sganga’s eyes have opened wide in the past two months. Public health, she’s discovering, is more than just keeping people safe from disease. Like dominoes toppling, one aspect of life can create problems later on in other areas. For instance, lack of adequate transportation in a given area can lead to greater incidence of obesity, heart disease and diabetes in the local population.

During the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control has even issued moratoriums on evicting renters from their houses, because of the potential health implications.

Sganga finds herself thinking of such things outside of class, tying the threads of different areas of life together in her mind. “I was at the convenience store the other day and I saw a sign in the window that said, ‘Nix the Tax,’” Sganga says. “It was talking about the tobacco tax. Of course, if you’re a convenience store you want people to keep on buying tobacco.”

Sganga is just getting started in the MPH program and doesn’t yet know where her latest master’s degree will take her. She only knows that service is in her family’s blood. Her daughter, Leah Sganga Schumacher (’02), served in the U.S. Army and is now a clinical therapist, working with a variety of patients, including prisoners and military veterans. Since closing the much-loved Stone Table restaurant in Monroe, her son Matthew has been working at Ground 40, a nonprofit that helps drug addicts turn their lives around.

Ready to make a difference

Sganga has had a varied career, both professionally and academically. She has already earned three degrees: On top of a bachelor’s in English from the University of Arizona, she has a bachelor’s in elementary education and a master’s in teaching from Wingate. For 11 years she worked full-time as a reference librarian at Wingate, before leaving to bake desserts, shop for supplies and help out with catering at Stone Table.

Now she’s back in learning mode, earning a degree that will help her help others. Dr. Shanta Dube, director of Wingate’s MPH program, says that not only is Sganga performing “phenomenally,” but having her in class is beneficial to the younger students.

“She is so engaged, so passionate,” Dube says. “Someone with her breadth and depth of life experience, and academic experience, brings a lot to the program. It brings a different perspective. And that’s important for all of our students, that they see different perspectives.”

“I ask the good Lord to give me a good 10 or 15 more years. You can do a lot in 10 or 15 years.”

Technology has changed a bit since Sganga stepped away from the Ethel K. Smith Library reference desk in 2007, but she’s learning how to study using digital tools (with a little help from physical textbooks and the current EKS reference librarians). All classes in the program are asynchronous, meaning that, on their own schedule, students view lectures recorded by their professors, rather than meeting in person or even via videoconferencing tools.

Even when Sganga got her most recent college degree (the master’s in teaching, in 2005), all classes were in person. Watching video lectures, typing comments on other students’ posts, helping create PowerPoint presentations – she’s getting the hang of modern learning. “It’s a culture shock, but I’m getting it, I think,” she says.

That flexibility and adaptability will be important when she earns her MPH degree in 2023 and, at age 76, embarks on a career educating others about public health issues.

Although knowledge for knowledge’s sake is certainly not a bad thing, Sganga is determined to put her newfound learning to practical use.

“I ask the good Lord to give me a good 10 or 15 more years,” she says. “I hope he will. It doesn’t seem like a lot, but you can do a lot in 10 or 15 years. I want to make a difference.”

Oct. 27, 2021