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Graceful Teacher

By Jon Reidel Article published February 7, 2007

Stokowski
Patricia Stokowski, associate professor in natural resources, skates with student Mark McAvoy, whom she has coached to national-caliber status. (Photo: Bill DiLillo)

When Catherine Donnelly, professor of nutrition and food sciences, was seeking a coach for her daughter Lauren, a nationally ranked ice dancer, she wanted an educator who inspired students to love the sport and reach its upper levels. In some cases, parents move across the country to find such an instructor. Fortunately for Donnelly, Patricia Stokowski, associate professor in the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, was just one building away in the Aiken Center.

“We could have chosen anyone, but we knew Patricia was a professional educator with a passion for the sport. We’re so lucky to have her living so close to us,” says Donnelly, an expert on food-borne illness. “She’s a gifted educator and an incredible coach and person. Most coaches don’t give this kind of time and attention to their students.”

Since her arrival at UVM nine years ago from Texas A&M (where the nearest skating rink was more than 100 miles away), Stokowski has established herself as one of the top coaches in the Eastern United States. “When I moved here I’d go to the local rinks in Burlington, and people would ask me if I would coach them,” Stokowski says. Pretty soon, she was rising at 5 a.m. to teach some 25 students ranging in age from eight to 55. Then, it was on to the university, where she teaches and conducts research on recreation and tourism planning; rural and resource-dependent communities; social impacts of development; community social networks; and nature rhetoric. “They’re not really jobs because I love them both,” she says.

Much of Stokowski’s academic work is captured in her 1996 book, Riches and Regrets: Betting on Gambling in Two Colorado Mountain Towns, which focuses on gold-rush mining towns turning to tourism and gambling in hopes of a return to their glory days. It won the 1996 Eugene Kayden Award, given by the University of Colorado for best manuscript in humanities/social sciences submitted to University Press of Colorado. She and Bob Manning, professor in the Rubenstein School of Natural Resources, are working on hosting what will be the first major conference to be held in the Dudley H. Davis Student Center: The International Symposium on Society and Resource Management, which is expected to draw 600 people in June of 2008.

On the ice, Stokowski is enjoying her students' success. Lauren Donnelly and Matthew McAvoy placed sixth in the 2005 U.S. Junior National Championships in the Juvenile Dance category. They also placed third in the ice dance competition at the prestigious Lake Placid Ice Dance Championships. McAvoy’s twin brother, Mark, who was adopted along with his brother from Honduras at the age of three, placed 10th at nationals with his partner Anni Maheux. They all skate for the Champlain Valley Skating Club with Stokowski as their coach.

Olympic dreams
Stokowski’s love of the sport started as a child skating on the ponds around her native Tewksbury, Mass. Peggy Fleming was all the rage, but after realizing she couldn’t perform some of the jumps and spins required of an Olympic-caliber figure skater, Stokowski turned to ice dancing, which draws on the model of ballroom dancing. She dreamed of making the inaugural ice dancing team at the 1976 Winter Olympics, but due in part to amateur rules requiring one of the dance partners to be an amateur, Stokowski and her partner never got the chance. She continued skating into her college years, however, and eventually mastered all 24 dance routines of the sport.

Today, Stokowski still skates with a partner in Boston and puts her own hopes and dreams into her students. “Everyone has big aspirations,” she says. “Parents see the star in their own child. It’s a very hopeful sport. Our Olympics happen every day on the ice, it seems to me.”

As Stokowski continues to pursue her passion as a natural resource sociologist at the university, where she’s currently establishing a professor exchange program between UVM and Petrozavodsk State University in Russia, and as a skating teacher, she continues to draw parallels between the two with a desire to become a better teacher.

“They’re quite different,” she says of her two teaching professions. “In skating you are totally physically and mentally engaged. I’m standing on sharp metal blades on ice, which is over cement and I’m teaching lifts to kids who have never done one before, so I can’t lose my concentration. I think about how to capture that same level of engagement in the classroom when primarily students are sitting there and it’s cerebral. I want to draw out students in the classroom the way I know I can draw them out on the rink.”