Early in her 25-year career at Buffalo State, Sister Charlene Fontana had the perfect perch to interact with students. Four days a week, she sat at a table in the middle of the Campbell Student Union where students stopped by to share snippets from their days. Some students liked to discuss religious philosophies; others relayed their worries over money, classwork, or faltering relationships.
In her role as campus minister and religious education coordinator for the Newman Center Catholic Campus Ministry, Fontana said she loved the connections she made with everyone—from the custodians to the administrators. But it was the students, the meek and the feisty, the happy and the tearful, that she connected with the most. Sometimes her only interaction with a student was to compliment a piece of clothing or a thoughtful gesture.
“To me it’s important to give comfort to a stranger, to give an affirmation,” said Fontana. “And I love to see a student break out into a smile when I take notice of him or her.”
Although she wasn’t sure if her time “loitering with intent,” as she described it, was making an impact, students soon made it clear that it was. One student told her, “You don’t know what you do just by being here.”
That observation reflects a motto that Fontana lives by—both as a Sister of St. Joseph, the religious order she joined in 1964, and as a spiritual adviser to the college. “As Sisters of St. Joseph we say, ‘The quality of our presence is the essence of our ministry.’ We live it.”
Fontana, who joined the Student Life Office in 2005 as assistant to the director, has made a point to be present in the lives of students in another way. Every spring she contributes to Buffalo State’s Faculty and Staff Appeal, which supports a plethora of campus scholarships and funds.
“I feel like it is part of my responsibility to give back to the college because it’s been a gift working for Buffalo State and the SUNY system,” said Fontana, who is retiring in May.
Even with a modest income, Fontana has given what she could to at least one fund. She began with the Fontana Family Scholarship, which was established in honor of her brother, renowned television writer and producer Tom Fontana,’73. Later, she added the television and film arts program scholarship to her annual donation.
“It’s important to remember that what we do here is for the students,” she said. “Sometimes people lose sight of that. And when they do, I think they’re missing the boat.”
Fontana, who is 71, reflects on a fulfilling career working with students in different capacities, which included being a fellow classmate. She earned her master’s degree in student personnel administration at age 58, which she noted was no small feat.
“The students helped me improve my computer skills and learn about higher education,” she said, “They were always so sweet and encouraging.”
From chatting with students in the Union to working the day-to-day operations of the Student Life Office, Fontana said her love for Buffalo State has continued to blossom.
“I’ve always done my best and felt I was being of service,” she said. “To me, the philanthropic piece of my work on campus is truly another part of that service.”
To contribute to any of the numerous funds included within the 2016 Faculty and Staff Appeal, contact Mario Hicks at (716) 878-3467.
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