Jo Wrzesinsky: Mercersburg's First Female Dean of Students
The 2019-2020 academic year celebrates so many milestones for Mercersburg Academy: 55 years of black student integration, 50 years of coeducation, and 30 years since the founding of the Black Student Union. It also marks another important moment for the school and for faculty member Jo Wrzesinsky. Wrzesinsky is in her first year as dean of students, the first woman to hold this role in the school’s history.
“I think it’s interesting because in general, people see the role of the dean of students as a disciplinarian,” Wrzesinsky says, noting that, even in 2019, the stereotype is still to see women as the nurturers and men as the disciplinarians. “I have both of those sides to me, and it’s interesting to blend both of those and have a female in a position that is primarily seen as a disciplinarian. We’re trying to change that view. It’s really exciting, it’s an honor in a lot of ways, and it’s nice to have two former deans of students [Tom Rahauser ’74 and Chris Howes] here to go to if I have questions or need someone to be validating of how things are.”
In this role, Wrzesinsky approaches her work as a combination of providing that traditional disciplinary response while also creating a space in the Office of Student Life where students can come and find support in any form. “We are trying to factor in social-emotional learning for students and not necessarily deliver a consequence, but help them learn and grow from the choices they make,” she says. “The current structure of our office allows us to do so much more for the school and effect change in a positive way and to really help the kids understand that it is such a privilege to be here and that this is their home.”
Wrzesinsky credits Howes with starting this approach when he joined the faculty as dean of student life in 2017 and the Office of Student Life formed. As Wrzesinsky assumes the role of dean of students, Howes moves into the position of assistant head of school for student life and culture, and the role of the Office of Student Life continues to evolve as a place for both disciplinary responses and student support.
“I couldn’t be happier to have Jo step in as the dean of students,” says Howes. “She has committed much of her professional life to Mercersburg, and Mercersburg is lucky to have someone like her guiding our students in this position. She is caring, thoughtful, fair, and restorative in her approach and is a perfect fit for our students and families as they navigate this stage of their lives.”
Wrzesinsky comes to her new role after holding a number of other positions at the school. She joined the Mercersburg community in 1999 as an assistant director of annual giving in Mercersburg’s Office of Alumni and Development. In 2002, she moved to the school’s Office of Summer and Extended Programs and became director in 2015. In 2017, she was appointed associate dean of student life.
“I enjoy getting to work with kids in different aspects, which is what’s been nice about the different things that I’ve done,” she says.
A graduate of Blair Academy (one of Mercersburg’s Mid-Atlantic Prep League rivals), Washington College, and the University of New England, Wrzesinsky has also served as director of Inbound, Mercersburg’s new-student orientation experience, for three years; spent five years as head girls’ lacrosse coach; and was the stats coordinator for the wrestling team for three years. She lived in Fowle Hall for 10 years before serving as the dormitory dean of Swank Hall from 2010 to 2017, and she and her husband, Jason Frey, continue to live in Swank with their two children.
As Wrzesinsky looks to the future and her own goals in this position, she underscores her desire to get the fullest picture of any situation that presents itself and to work closely with all communities—students, faculty, staff, parents, and friends of the school.
“This is a partnership,” she says, “and we all play a role in that partnership. We all want what’s best for the students, and we want to support them. Sometimes they may not see what we’re doing as supporting them, but we all want what’s best and that connects into the partnership.”
When asked about her own Mercersburg moment from her 20 years with the school, she is quick to deflect attention from herself and point to the bigger picture. “It’s not about me,” she says. “It’s about the place. Everyday I am living my Mercersburg moment because I am so fortunate to be here. We are really fortunate to be here, and we have to give back to others.”
Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in the winter issue of Mercersburg Academy magazine. To access the full issue and additional online content, visit mercersburg.edu/magazine.