Gina Foley

Gina Foley

3/15/24, 7:23 AM
Gina Foley

Faculty Spotlight

Gina Foley

Environmental and Life Sciences

my Nature

When Gina Foley grew up on the Long Island town of Bay Shore, New York, hiking and outdoor exploration were not part of her everyday life. She likely didn't envision herself one day living in the green surrounds of Berkshire County, and even less likely pictured herself teaching biology.

But today, decades later, she lives in Pittsfield with her husband Steve, two rescue dogs and a "house full of rescue plants." Their children have flown the nest, Emma an actor and Peter a graduate student in molecular biology. Gina, the department chair for Environmental and Life Sciences at Berkshire Community College, is the first to admit she landed here via a circuitous route often peppered with luck.

When I graduated from high school, I wasn't sure what I wanted to do. I wasn't really comfortable in my own skin at that time. I decided to stay home and do two years at Farmingdale Community College. That's where I realized that biology was the area I loved so much.

Gina earned her associate degree and transferred to the College of Environmental Science and Forestry, a State University of New York (SUNY) school located on the campus of Syracuse University. There, she completed a bachelor's degree in environmental and forest biology. Once again, she wasn't sure what path to pursue.

"After I graduated, I returned a book to a faculty member at Syracuse University. I had taken this class called 'How to Teach College Biology' with a professor named Dr. Marvin Druger. I said, 'Dr. Druger, I've graduated, but I don't really have a job. I'm going back to Long Island.' I handed him the book, and he said, 'You're going to be a great biology teacher someday.'"

Gina was surprised. She had been the only female in Dr. Druger's class and the only undergraduate — all the others were Syracuse PhD students studying biology — and had simply enrolled in the class at the recommendation of her advisor. "I told him maybe someday," Gina says, adding with a laugh that at that point in her life, her main interest was counting birds in the woods every day.

"He said, 'Hold on.' And literally, at that second, he said, 'I have a slot open, and I would like you to teach my Intro to Biology class as a TA.' It still gives me the chills thirty years later!"

Dr. Druger helped Gina get a full ride for the graduate degree program at Syracuse University, where she taught for two and a half years. "I got my degree, and the rest is history. I owe everything to him," she says.

Gina has never forgotten Dr. Druger's profound effect on her, and she strives to convey the same level of care for her students. Most days, her office is a revolving door for students who want a collegial place to study or just a person to talk to.

Recently, she asked to speak to one of her students who was struggling and learned he had been living in his car. "My mom hat went on," says Gina. She immediately consulted with Celia Norcross, Dean of Students, and within a few weeks, the student had housing.

"This student is thriving at BCC and just presented at our scholars' conference. It makes me so proud," Gina says. "I have students who have gone through the most challenging life experiences I could ever imagine, but they can talk to us and get the resources they need. That is what we do here at the College."

At BCC, the Environmental and Life Sciences Department has two components: Environmental Science and Natural and Physical Sciences. In addition to serving as department chair, Gina is the program advisor for the Natural and Physical Sciences program.

"When we're talking about life science, we mean the nature of the way in which structures function, whereas environmental science often refers to the interaction between those organisms and the environment in which they live," Gina explains.

Students who matriculate into Natural and Physical Sciences earn an associate degree in science. This meta-major style program allows a student to choose among four pathways: biology, biotechnology, chemistry or physics. The benefit is that a student can experiment in several different pathways, without losing credits if they change their pathway. "So, if you started in biology but wanted to go into biotechnology, the credits you used while you were in the biology pathway still function in the biotechnology pathway," says Gina, noting that until this degree program was formed less than a year ago, there was no pathway for chemistry or physics students.

We are careful to tell students exactly what courses to take, so when they transfer – say, to UMASS Amherst as a chemistry major – they have everything they need to transfer as a junior. That is our goal.

Now nearly 20 years into her career at BCC, Gina looks back at the beginning with gratitude. Her husband had lost his job in New Jersey after the company he worked for shut down, but he quickly got hired at Onyx Specialty Papers in South Lee.

"We moved here with a three-year-old and a one-year-old. I loved being a stay-at-home mom, but I wanted to go back to work," Gina remembers. "I saw this posting that BCC was looking for adjuncts in biology, so I sent my resume to Charlie Kaminski, who was the dean at the time. He immediately responded and said he wanted me to come in for an interview. I was so nervous I said, 'Never mind.'" But after a pep talk with her husband, she called Charlie back the next day, got the interview and was hired immediately for the next semester. She began teaching in January 2005 as an adjunct until becoming full-time in 2012.

Gina is continually amazed at the quality of teaching at BCC, as proven by the success stories she often hears from former students.

"I have students who come back to me and say, 'I was in this junior-level biology class, and I was literally the only person who knew how to design an experiment.' At BCC, if you're in the BCC biology department, you are required to design and execute your own experiment," Gina says. "We know that our level of rigor is spot on. There are so many faculty I'm just in awe of here at the College. They are so good at what they do. We also care deeply about our students, so we do anything we can to help them succeed."

Because many students at BCC are nontraditional students, she says, faculty often go the extra mile to be accommodating.

"What we do so incredibly well is recognize that students want to work really hard, but they might they have multiple jobs, children, school. All of those things can make it challenging," Gina says. "If a student says, 'My child is sick and I can't come in,' we put them into a different lab that week. We're always trying to make it accessible for them so they can be successful. We are rigorous, and we have high expectations, but we also recognize the need to be flexible for our students, because they have lives."

Gina gives thoughtful advice to those who may be on the fence about going to college.

"Talk to faculty and advisors and get the real story about what it means to be a student at Berkshire Community College. What is the time commitment? What is the cost? What careers can I go into after receiving a degree here?" she suggests. "If a student decides to enroll, and it becomes difficult, seek out help and support. That's what we do best here. Come talk to us and let us help you figure out how to be successful."