The wife of the George Washington University president says her time at GW will be informed by her history as a first-generation college student and her husband’s priority to improve the student experience.
By Keith Harriston
Call it fate. A coincidence. One of those things in life. That’s how Anne and Tom LeBlanc first met.
She was an earth sciences major at Kean University in New Jersey. He studied computer science at State University of New York in Plattsburg. They both applied to a summer sciences program at Iowa State University in Ames. She also applied to a “really cool” program at a nuclear reactor in Idaho.
The Ames, Iowa, program offered her a position first. “I didn’t want to risk losing my opportunity at Ames, while waiting for an answer from Idaho,” Mrs. LeBlanc said.
So the then-Anne Sulen and 29 other successful applicants— 26 men and 4 women in all—filled the summer science program residence hall. She met Tom LeBlanc the first day.
“We hit it off right away,” Mrs. LeBlanc said. “At the end the first week, we were a couple. Later that summer, he asked me to marry him. I thought he was kidding.”
At the program’s end, she headed back to New Jersey to finish her undergraduate work. Tom headed off to another science program at Argonne National Laboratory. “He called me every night,” she said. “I thought, ‘this guy is serious.’”
The two have been together ever since, through graduate school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison—where she earned a master’s degree in satellite meteorology and he earned a master’s and Ph.D in computer science—and moves to Rochester, N.Y., to Miami and now to the George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where her husband will soon be inaugurated as its 17th president.
First-Generation College Student
Mrs. LeBlanc was born in Euclid, Ohio, an eastern suburb of Cleveland along Lake Erie. She describes her family as lower-middle income. Neither of her parents had attended college.
“I was a first-generation college student,” she said during an interview with George Washington Today at the F Street House, where the LeBlancs live. “My dad never talked to me about going to college. My mother was the one who insisted I go to college.”
She enrolled initially at Ohio University in Athens. She dropped out after a year, in part because of the costs, which she, herself, was paying. “I had no idea what college was about or what you could do,” Mrs. LeBlanc said.
She did take classes back home the following year at a local program, but considered abandoning the idea of higher education altogether after securing a job as an assistant buyer for a department store. “I thought I had it made then, and I was going to drop out completely, but my mother and my aunt—her sister—said I should go back to college,” she recalled.
At the women’s urging, she moved to Union, N.J., to live with the aunt and enrolled in Kean University there. “When I went back, I did what we now tell students all the time to do: take courses in things you find interesting, and see what speaks to you.”
For her, that meant outer space.
“I had always wanted to be an astronaut,” Mrs. LeBlanc said, thinking back on her time at Kean. “But I was a woman. I was tall. I’m very nearsighted. I knew there was no way I was ever going into space. It never occurred to me that I could be an engineer and work in the space program. I just didn’t even think about it.”
At Kean, she took courses in astronomy, meteorology, and introductory physics. She was hooked. Supportive professors at Kean, she said, “changed my life.”
It was a professor at Kean who convinced her to apply to the summer program where she would meet her future husband. It was professors who guided her toward studying sciences and math at a time when she would frequently be the only woman in a class.
That preparation and support built her confidence, she said, and led to a research assistantship in graduate school, and a position working on an early version of the now-common graphic weather maps seen in weather forecasting. In Rochester, she was a computer programmer who worked on the project that first computerized directory assistance in the United Kingdom.
“My professors encouraged women involved in math and science,” she said. “Without their support, I believe I never would have succeeded. I would go to office hours and ask questions, frustrated and unsure of my ability. They kept telling me I could do this. It made all the difference in the world to me.”
Mrs. LeBlanc’s GW Initiative
Since arriving at GW in August, Mrs. LeBlanc has focused on “getting us settled” in F Street House and in the District of Columbia. She said she would like to get more involved with the students in early 2018.
“I hope they can find a place for me helping first-generation students,” she said, noting that both she and her husband are first-generation college students.
“Maybe it’s being someone who they can talk with about their experience. I know that there is information on the Internet. But if you don’t know what questions to ask, the available information won’t be much help.”
She remembers feeling adrift during her year at Ohio University. Her high school graduating class had numbered 1,000, so she never talked with her school counselor about college and what courses she should take in high school to prepare for college. As a freshman at the university, she said, “I was lost and fell through the cracks.”
“I know that GW already has programs in place for first-generation students,” Mrs. LeBlanc said. “I want to help those students succeed at GW.”
The Student Experience
In meetings with students, staff and faculty, Dr. LeBlanc has listed improving the student experience among his priorities. Mrs. LeBlanc said that both their backgrounds influenced that notion, as did their time at the University of Miami when Donna Shalala was its president.
“We both have seen how important a role education plays in social mobility,” she said. “We want students to feel like they are part of the GW family. We want them to have a good experience, for them to feel like they are part of something special.
“To me, Donna Shalala was an incredible mentor,” she said. “The student experience was so important to her. But that experience for these young people can be overwhelming. All students, not just first-gen students, need to feel included.”
“This is a great university. We have really smart students. They are part of our GW family. But you are not going to feel like part of this family if you feel disconnected. The fundamental thing about education is expanding your horizons. That increases your self-confidence. That connects us all.”