Mother Theresa once said, “Let no one ever come to you without leaving better and happier. Be the living expression of God’s kindness; kindness in your face, kindness in your eyes, kindness in your smile, kindness in your warm greeting.”
Given the fast-paced, programmed lifestyle of the modern world, it is quite uncommon to encounter an individual who truly inspires us to slow down, possibly even pause and reflect; those extremely rare, extraordinarily passionate people have something inexplicably magnetic about their presence. They radiate kindness and exude compassion. It seems as though their poise and assuredness could quiet a stadium of people.Dr. Julia A. Upton, RSM, University Provost, is one of these people.
Upton wholeheartedly devotes herself to every task she takes on, remains unfailingly open-minded, and gives of herself continually as a mentor, an author, an educator and, most notably, as a humanitarian.
“Despite the many plans we may make for ourselves, life may have something entirely different up its sleeve, something better than we could have ever planned out or imagined for ourselves,” Upton said.
As a member of the Institute of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, Upton holds a doctorate in contemporary systematic theology from Fordham University, master’s degrees in English and theology from St. John’s University, and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Ohio Dominican University. Quite surprisingly, during her first year of undergraduate study, Upton had explicit plans to enter the field of medicine.
“My high school yearbook quote read, ‘R.M. or M.D., which will it be?’ I wasn’t sure of what aspect of the field I wanted to pursue, but I was sure I wanted to be a healer,” Upton explained.
As a pre-med student, however, she soon began to feel that the intensity of math and chemistry was draining all the pleasure out of the pursuit, so she resolved to switch her major in order to study something she truly enjoyed – language and literature. After receiving her Bachelor’s Degree, Upton set out to teach, which eventually grew to be her passion.
“I’ve always loved teaching, because being involved in my students’ lives allows me to reach into the future through them,” she said.
After spending a number of years as an elementary and secondary school teacher, she began to attend graduate school part-time and continued to teach full-time.
“In grad school, I took a course entitled, ‘history of the liturgy’ and I learned things in that course that I never had been presented within 12 years of Catholic education,” Upton explained. “I thought to myself_ ‘nobody is teaching this…this is what I need to teach.'”
Upon the completion of her graduate degree, she immediately went on to pursue her doctorate and received her Ph.D. in 1980. That same year, Upton joined the St. John’s University family and became a full-time professor in the theology department.
However, at 35 years old, and despite her many exemplary achievements, she began to feel that something was missing from her life. She had not been opposed to marrying; her life just simply had not led her in that direction. However, a constant and resolute factor in her life had always been her faith, so she began to wonder if the relationship she was meant to have was one with God. In 1981, Upton joined the Sisters of Mercy and became Julia A. Upton, RSM, Ph.D.
Since then, she has been involved in countless projects and has written a number of books. When asked to pick her favorite, she proclaimed, “That’s sort of like asking a parent pick to a favorite child!”
In 1994, she launched the creation of the University’s Center for Teaching and Learning, whose primary objective is to investigate ways to improve teaching.
“This represents everything I believe about education,” she said of the program.
More recently, she directed the construction of St. Thomas More Church on the Queens Campus, which she said Rev. Donald J. Harrington, C.M., now calls, “Julie’s Church,” because of her steadfast contributions.
Upton is currently serving in her seventh year the as Provost of St. John’s, overseeing all of the academic programs of the University’s six colleges on five campuses. Ironically, she had only intended on serving for a year.
“I loved teaching and never wanted to give it up, but I when a new challenge or opportunity presents itself, I am always open to it!” she said. “I don’t really have a plan. As long as there still seems to be things I can contribute to improve the University, I will continue to serve it.”
A trait that seems to persist in Upton’s character is self-assurance. By never allowing herself to be plagued by hesitation or self-doubt, she was able to persevere at every stage in her life. She recognizes how many students today feel that they must have a definitive plan, and if whatever they have imagined for their lives is not working out, they become overwhelmed and frustrated. The best advice she can offer to these students is to understand that this search is part of our existence. “This is what we are presented with,” Upton said. “If I had had a distinct plan, I could have missed out on my life.”