Joe Bertolino: From Cookies to Curriculum

Joe Bertolino stands in front of Stockton University

Joe Bertolino is not your average Joe. As the new president of Stockton University, he prefers to be addressed not by his title of Dr. Bertolino, but simply as President Joe. On any given afternoon, he can be found strolling the grounds of the campus greeting students and staff alike. He relates naturally to people and in return, people relate to him. As an openly gay university president, President Joe makes it a point to create an inclusive campus that creates safe spaces not just for the students and faculty but for the neighborhoods that surround the school. 

I read that you’re a Camden County native.
Yes, I’m a South Jersey boy, born and raised in Glendora, N.J. In fact, my father still lives in my childhood home.

Why was it a good place to grow up?
It was a very traditional suburban neighborhood from the 1970s. Quiet streets and cul de sacs. 

Who was your best friend on the block?
Oh goodness, well, not on the block but I had two cousins a couple of years older than me who lived in the area, so we spent a lot of time together. 

A favorite thing to do?
I don’t know if you remember this but back in the day, when Jerry Lewis and the Muscular Dystrophy Association would have their telethons, they had backyard carnival kits that you could send away for. You’d get a packet filled with instructions on how to create a carnival in your backyard and you would raise money to send back to them. I would do that kind of stuff all the time. I don’t know if that’s what most kids were doing, but they’d all come to our house and have fun. 

Describe your household.
It’s just four of us: My parents who are both from the area. They met during high school, though they went to different schools, and then there was my younger sister and me. She also lives in N.J. with her husband and two boys. We’re both educators. She’s a retired pre-K special ed teacher. 

Were your parents teachers as well?
No, my father was a laborer. He graduated from Camden Catholic High School and spent the bulk of his career with Bell Telephone, which is now AT&T. He was in the shipyards of Philadelphia at first and then he became an apprentice to become a switchman for the phone company. My mother went to St. Agnes nursing school in Philadelphia and she was a nurse for Cooper Hospital.

What were some of the extracurricular things you enjoyed in school? And what were the challenges?
I was a chubby, awkward adolescent. Not good at sports and not particularly social. But my parents were both musicians. My father was a trumpet player and every weekend, he’d go out and play with his band. My mother played the piano. And I played the accordion! As you can imagine, playing the accordion did wonders for my social life! [Laughing] I still play it to this day. 

What got you into the squeezebox?
My grandfather played, so I wanted to learn too. The bulk of my social life was around music. One night a week and all day Saturday, I would go to the Acme Accordion School in Westmont, N.J. So there was that, and in high school, I went to Paul VI High School. I was in the band briefly but the sister in charge made me play the tuba, which wasn’t good for my social life either. But most of my time was taken up with debate. I was on the forensics debate team and we’d travel to different schools to compete. 

When did you start to transition from shy, awkward tuba Joe to campus-striding President Joe?
The pivotal moment for me was when I graduated high school and left home. I was an undergrad at the University of Scranton. [Laughing] It’s funny. I was planning to go to LaSalle, but my mother knew a boy from a very faith-based family going to Scranton and studying with the Jesuits. I had NO interest in going there, but my father came into my room and said, “You’re going to apply to Scranton. You don’t have to go but your mother is driving me crazy.” So I applied and I got in. We went to visit the school and on the way home, driving down the highway, I leaned up from the back seat and said, “That was great, I think I’ll go there.” My father was perplexed. My mother was delighted. It was the best decision I could have made. It was a life-changing experience in many ways. I met people in the music community there — bands and singers — and I was even able to play my accordion! I made friends and had an amazing experience and really started to break out of my shell. 

The other thing was my summer job. I didn’t want to go home for the summer so I got a job at the YMCA Pines in Medford, N.J. I saw an ad for camp counselor in the Courier Post and thought, “I’m a psych major. I can do that!” I was talking to a friend and he said, “Um, have you ever been to summer camp?” “No.” “Do you like the outdoors?” “NOOO!” When I went for the job, it was the same, “Do you swim?” “No.”, “Row?” “No”, “Arts and crafts” “Maybe.” Finally they said, “Why are you here?” And I responded, “I’m good with kids.” I got the job. Little did I know that working there was going to be just as influential for me as going to college. I worked there for the next eight summers and actually became a teacher because of my experience there. I eventually became the board chair for the camp and I’m still connected 40 years later.

Wow! [Laughing] Did your arms get tired from having to do the YMCA dance moves?
Well, I was 40 years younger back then with lots of energy. 

Did you go back to school to study education?
Well, for a brief period, I entered the seminary, but that didn’t stick, so I took a leave of absence and was assigned to teach at a small parochial school in South Jersey and I loved it; loved it so much, I never went back to seminary. I decided to become a guidance counselor so I went back and got a Masters of Social Work degree from Rutgers in Camden. It was a degree that had a lot of flexibility to do different things. While going to school, I got a graduate assistantship in residential life and housing. It was like, “Wait, so you’re giving me a place to live (getting me out of my parent’s basement), giving me a meal plan, giving me free tuition and paying me a stipend!?!” It was incredible. A few months into it, my director said, “I think you should do this for a living.” I responded, “Wait, this is a real job? You can get paid a real salary for this?” And that began my career in higher education 34 years ago. 

When did you come out?
My first higher ed job was at East Stroudsburg University. I always knew that I felt differently, but I’m a child of the ’70s and college student to the ’80s and had 16 years of Catholic school. We never talked about things like that…ever. So anyway, we were doing a training session on diversity and the trainer started talking about what was then just the LGB community. I vividly remember sitting there and thinking, “Huh, well this seems to resonate…” It was like a lightbulb went off. Until then, I’d always felt like a square peg trying to fit into a round hole, but as she spoke, I started asking questions to myself and things started to click. It was a process, but once I started figuring it out, things moved quickly. I was 26 and had a lot of catching up to do! 

How did the family respond?
We are a faith based family, but I would say they’re pretty moderate. A good thing about coming out late is that I was pretty well set up already. I had a roof over my head and a good job with a supportive staff. I didn’t need to worry about getting kicked out. So I went home for the holidays, said, “Mom and Dad, I like boys.” My sister was excited and said, “Well, we finally have something in common, guys!” It’s funny. I expected my mother to be accepting right off the bat and my father to be the challenge, but it was the other way around. She was supportive, but it was harder for her. Most of my friends were just happy for me that I figured out what they’d known all along. I used to joke, “Well how come no one told me?” I’ve been very fortunate. 

That’s great, and now you’re a married man!
Yes, and I met my husband Bill a little over 30 years ago and we’ve been together ever since. He’s the vice chancellor for involvement at Rutgers in Newark. We met on Halloween in 1993 and we’ve been celebrating that as our anniversary ever since. 

Congratulations! And speaking of things to applaud, you’re in your first year as president of Stockton! Congrats on that as well. What’s something about being here that gives you joy each day?
The students. When I walk around campus, it’s all about them. This is my third presidency and I love interacting with students and community members. I’m proud that the students know who their president is and that they feel free to stop and chat with me and I will listen. That doesn’t happen in a lot of other places.

I heard that you are known to hand out cookies on your walk, do you bake them yourself?
[Laughing] No! No! But we’re always trying to do something fun. I have a great team who gets me out and about. I’ve scooped a lot of ice-cream and this year, we handed out cookies with a big Stockton logo on them. 

And now you’re a bit of a sports star. I read about your time on the basketball court!
Ha! Well, not exactly a sports star. At my previous institution, I would run up and down the football field when the team scored. I’m getting a little old for that now, but I did pick up the giant school flag and run around the basketball court here at Stockton. I think it’s important for students to see the leader of the institution having some fun and being a real person. I can and am serious when it’s warranted but I prefer to be more informal. That’s why I like to be referred to as President Joe. It’s warmer and more personal. 

It’s funny the way things are cyclical. There was a time when people were discouraged from getting more than a grade-school diploma, then a college degree became status quo and now people are starting to move away again. How do you counteract that?
The data shows, pretty conclusively, that individuals who have a degree make about 30% more than folks who do not. I try to remind people that even folks who go into a trade, which is great, at some point may not want to or be able to do the physical aspects of the job, but might want to run the company that provides the service and that might benefit from a different level or type of education. So we can help you have the best of both worlds.

And why Stockton?
If people are looking for a smaller school — where you can really find community, where we’re focused on individual support of our students and is located in the beautiful Pine Barrens or at our Atlantic City location — come check us out. Our health sciences programs are some of the best in the Northeast. I’m particularly proud of our work in the environmental sciences and our coastal resiliency center. About 40% of our students are first-generation college students and are proud of it just as we are. This is the first place I’ve ever worked where students actually introduce themselves as first generation. I think that speaks to who we are. We have students from all types of backgrounds. 

Has there been any pushback from having an openly gay president at the school?
Not really. I’ve never found my sexual orientation to be a problem. I think my position starts with I’m not going to work where I’m not wanted. But frankly, most people don’t care. As long as I’m good at my job. I think the bigger hurdle was not being a traditional academic, since I came from the student affairs professional side. I think people respect that I’m authentic and that I’ve been in a long-term, committed relationship. People just want to know that you support them and that you care and want the best for them. Both here at the school and in the surrounding communities, I feel responsible for and committed to our mutual well being. I try to be a social-justice presence in the school and in the neighborhood around here. We have a multicultural center here, which serves as a welcoming place for the community. I try to treat everyone with the five pillars of my ethics of care — dignity, kindness, respect, compassion and civility.

Beautiful. OK, let’s wrap up with some fun stuff! You wouldn’t know from looking at me but I‘m really good at __?
I’m a championship accordion player. My favorite piece to play is the Waltz Allegro.

A song that feels like it was actually written for me is __?
“Go the Distance” from the Disney animated movie “Hercules.” It’s about the struggle to fit in with your peers and a plea to figure out where you belong.

If I could switch places with one person for a day, it’d be __?
The Pope. I would love to have all access to the Vatican and see the archives, art and history of the Roman Catholic church.

What movie could you watch over and over?
I love B-rated horror films and I could sit and watch a “Twilight Zone” marathon over and over again.

What’s your guiltiest pleasure?
Any kind of cookies — and buttercream icing!

Well, hopefully someone will bring you cookies this semester!

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