Dr. Jack Varsalona visits more than 300 classrooms each year. The Wilmington University president says that talking directly to students helps him make sure the school is meeting their needs.
“I learn what students are experiencing and what they need,” Varsalona said. “And I tell them to call the president’s office anytime.”
The feedback from students can lead to real change, whether it’s a request for a sheltered bus stop on campus or an idea for a new degree program.“If you’re an adult learner, or even traditional age, you’re balancing family, work and now education. So things have to be easy, other than coursework,” Varsalona said.
That philosophy is clearly paying off. Wilmington University is a New Castle-based, privately held, nonprofit school that offers affordable tuition and caters mainly to adults looking to further their careers. Nearly all of the university’s funding comes from tuition, and enrollment has climbed steadily.
Varsalona began working at Wilmington College 28 years ago, long before its accreditation as a university. In 2006, he was named the school’s president, succeeding Dr. Audrey K. Doberstein.
His predecessors had set the bar high. The school’s founder, Dr. Donald E. Ross, was only 27 when he created the college in 1968, originally holding classes in a converted motel and gas station off U.S. 13 in New Castle. Doberstein, during her tenure as president from 1979 to 2006, grew the enrollment from a few hundred to more than 10,000 and opened campuses across the state.
The school has continued to thrive since Varsalona took the helm nine years ago. Soon after he became president, the college became a university and began offering doctoral degrees in business administration.
“We’ve created two new colleges: the College of Technology and the College of Online and Experiential Learning. The growth has doubled—we’re over 20,000 students,” Varsalona said. “Graduate school is half the enrollment, so we’ve become a major graduate school. We’ve expanded into New Jersey with three campuses. And we have a new campus planned in northern Wilmington.”
Varsalona hopes to break ground on that last project—which involves three new buildings on 41 acres at the intersection of U.S. 202 and Beaver Valley Road—within a year. The classrooms and labs will have the latest technology, he said, but the aesthetics aren’t being overlooked. “That’s the gateway to the Brandywine Valley. It’s going to look nice,” he said.
Satellite campuses and online learning are two more core factors of Varsalona’s approach to education. It’s smarter for one teacher to travel, instead of a classroom full of students.
Varsalona grew up in “the Italian section” of Trenton, N.J. His father was a plumbing contractor, and his mother was a housewife. He had no siblings, but plenty of cousins, he said. It was his experiences at St. James Elementary and Notre Dame High School that laid the foundation for his career in education.
“I really was blessed by great teachers growing up,” he said. “People took part in your education. They really cared about you. They really wanted you to succeed, and they had high standards.”
After studying economics and history at the University of Delaware, Varsalona worked as a teacher and a football coach at Middletown High School, and later became principal of Ursuline Academy. He returned to the University of Delaware as director of development, earning his master’s and doctorate there, both in education. He served as education adviser to Gov. Pierre S. du Pont IV before Doberstein brought him to Wilmington College.
On May 8, he’ll receive the Goodwill of Delaware and Delaware County Community Leadership Advocate of the Year Award.
“Because I came from an inner city, I really enjoy watching kids from Wilmington, Trenton, Camden—kids who would normally not go to college—go to college,” Varsalona said. “Watching them succeed is my biggest thrill.”