Donna Weimer, Thornbury Professor of Communication and Department Chair of Communication and Theatre Arts, answered the call to teach—but not before hanging up a few times.
“I never thought of myself as a teacher. We had such limited choices back then; as a woman, you either saw yourself as a secretary, a teacher, or a nurse,” said Donna. “While I didn’t know what I wanted to be, I didn’t want to be in one of those boxes. Here I am 43 years later very passionate about teaching and advising.”
In her undergraduate program, Donna pursued her passions, exploring subjects like Latin, psychology, and science. Ultimately, she earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Penn State University. She continued to earn her master of arts degree and Ph.D. in communication at Penn State. Afterwards, Donna achieved several years of experience as a communication consultant and instructor. Now, she has been teaching for 43 years, 29 of those at Juniata.
“It’s hard to explain why or how you choose a path where you have to risk yourself every day in front of other people, keep up with the constantly changing worlds of culture and technology in communication, and strive to help your students be the best they can be every day when your best changes every day,” says Donna. “I realize that teaching is a calling, and it chose me.”
Donna credits the endless support she received with bringing her to where she is today. Her family believed in education, which encouraged her and her siblings to find a way out of poverty and improve themselves. Her professors at Penn State were instrumental in helping Donna understand who she was as a teacher, as a scholar, and as a person. Her mentors and colleagues at Juniata showed her how to appreciate the process of learning how to teach well.
“There are no rulebooks on how to be a professor; you learn from your mentors and get advice from people who you think do the job well,” says Donna. “My colleagues in the Communication, English, and Theatre Arts department were instrumental in helping me become the Juniata professor I would become.”
In 1990, Donna received a call to create a communication curriculum and a designated Program of Emphasis (POE) in Communication at Juniata. Donna appreciates the immense freedom she was given to design and develop the program, exploring numerous opportunities and looking at other departments across the United States. Her goal was to create a program that would offer both an exploration of communication theory and skills as well as practice through internships and study abroad for students. Donna’s vision recognized the value of forming a department that encouraged compassionate, trustworthy, and authentic communication
Donna was dedicated to finding the right people to achieve that vision. Grace Fala, professor of communication, was hired in 1992 because the program was growing quickly and she taught Donna so much about how to love the world and the people in it. As the department grew, she hired Lynn Cockett, professor of communication, in 2001 to strengthen the department with her strong belief in the social sciences that looks at communication through a different lens than the humanities.
In collaboration with her colleagues, Donna created what was once known as the Digital Media POE (now Integrated Media Arts) through the generosity of the John and Irene Dale Endowment in 2001
Donna reached out to her former student, Sarah Worley ’00 in 2004, who is now associate professor of communication and director of community-engaged teaching and learning. As an undergraduate, Sarah always planned to run for president, but Donna says she’s glad Sarah chose to be her colleague instead. Neal Utterback, associate professor of theatre arts was hired in 2012; Donna thought he brought a strong perspective on wellness in all aspects of performance and life. Most recently, Donna welcomed Jared LaGroue, an instructor in communication hired in 2018, because of his strong teaching and advising abilities.
“My colleagues are wonderful. I am privileged to work with them every day,” says Donna.
Donna received the Lindback Teaching Award in 1993; Juniata’s Woman of the Year Award in 1994; and the Beachley Award for Service in 2007. She received the Distinguished Carroll Arnold Service Award in 2002 and the Harvey Kelly Excellence in Teaching Award in 2007 from the Pennsylvania Communication Association (PCA). In 2017, she received the Robert T. Oliver Lifetime Achievement Award. Then, in 2019, Donna received the Distinguished Carroll Arnold Service Award for a second time. She is the only person in PCA history to win this award twice.
“Donna is the pivotal key to the Pennsylvania Communication Association,” says Dr. Ronald C. Arnett, executive director of the PCA and chair and professor at Duquesne University. “When others are tired, she leads. When others have lost heart, she reminds us of the sacred task of education. When others have lost hope, she holds us up. Donna is the saint of tenacious hope.”
As a result of her contributions to the PCA, she has been recognized on the floor of the Senate of Pennsylvania in 2017 and 2019 and recognized by Governor Tom Wolf as well in 2017.
“As an organization, PCA understands that Dr. Arnold was an inspiring mentor for the field and me in particular. He truly crafted my spirit for what it means to be a teacher and a scholar,” says Donna. “Carrying this award has so much personal significance to me. To be given the award twice leaves me speechless.”
However, Donna’s main focus in life isn’t fancy titles or prestigious awards; instead, Donna lives her life focusing on how to best teach and advise her students. Her favorite times at Juniata have been working with students—whether that be in a designated classroom, a coffeeshop, restaurant, or her office. Donna loves creating spaces that invite discussion, encourage creativity, and challenge perspectives.
“Over the years, I aim to help students find their purpose, even if it’s just for four years,” says Donna. “Finding purpose lets you ask the big questions. What I love best about my job is that students allow me to keep asking questions every single day.”
Donna explained that at the intersection of teaching and advising, she gets to see her impact on individuals. She learns their strengths and weakness, hopes and dreams, burdens they carry and sacrifices they make, and much more. By getting to know someone on a personal level, Donna is able to help each individual find a path that will challenge them in a way that will not crush them.
“Whatever happens here, and it’s different for everyone, we learn how to care about the community and not just ourselves. We embody the values of being global citizens,” says Donna. “I find the people of Juniata to walk the walk in kindness and caring for others; we have a simple and humble approach to make our corner of the world a good place to live. I have found it to be so.”
In life, Donna sees her greatest accomplishment as having the chance to raise her son. “In raising Wes, I have enjoyed watching him discover the world, his great sense of humor and love for others,” she says. “My ability to share in all of those life moments has been by far the most meaningful and helped me to be a better colleague and mentor.”
In the end, Donna says, “I want the people I interact with to find their purpose that leads them to living meaningful and productive lives. I hope they are happy more than they are not, resilient within a world with no straightforward easy path, and open to change and growth. I hope that their education at Juniata and the time they have spent with me has helped them to face that uncertainty and make those difficult choices, so they can trust in themselves and accept their calling—whatever it is and wherever it may lead them.”