On a rainy Sunday afternoon, while most high school students are enjoying what’s left of the weekend or doing homework, Jason Gongaware arrives on the scene of a serious car accident. He and the others in the ambulance split up to help the seven victims involved in the two-vehicle collision that just occurred on U.S. Route 22 in Greensburg, Pa. Gongaware concentrates on an injured woman whose two children are being treated nearby. He gets the panicked mother out of the rain, putting to use what he recently learned in his emergency medical technician classes. He checks for neck and spine injuries, makes sure the woman is breathing properly, monitors her pulse and blood pressure, and stabilizes a broken bone that has come through her skin. He also tries to keep her calm amidst the chaos.
Gongaware isn’t so calm himself. The high school senior earned his EMT certification just recently. This is his first major call, so his nervousness—in addition to the adrenaline rush—is understandable. What surprises Gongaware a bit, as he works along the rain-soaked highway, is the sense of accomplishment he experiences from helping someone else.
It’s no surprise that Gongaware pursued a nursing career after graduating from high school in 1990, becoming a trauma nurse in Nashville, Tenn. Once he got married, though, his perspective changed. Irregular hours and the worry of early burnout, common among trauma nurses, prompted him to consider careers that might be better suited to starting a family. Finance always appealed to him. In high school, he followed the stock market while he studied emergency care, and once he became a trauma nurse he found himself paying attention to the business side of the hospitals where he worked. Switching careers made more and more sense. In 1995, he started the change. He moved from Nashville to his hometown of New Alexandria, Pa., and enrolled at the nearby Pitt-Greensburg campus, with the intention of one day getting a job in finance.
Gongaware had no intention, though, of forgoing his volunteer work. When he began his studies at Pitt, he was already a volunteer firefighter, an EMT, and a trauma nurse. Helping people through immediate crises was nothing new to him. But he credits his professors at Pitt with teaching him to think about complex social problems that don’t always have an immediate fix. Classes in economics, politics, and history made him aware of the help that communities need. Lessons often continued outside of the classroom as many of his professors became mentors and friends.
“While it’s important to literally put out fires, I wanted to have a bigger contribution to the region as a whole. And this is how I get involved with Pitt [as a volunteer],” he says.
Today, Gongaware—a father of two boys—is vice president of Greensburg-based Chapel Hill Investment Analysts, where he manages investment portfolios. As for his volunteer work, he is president of the Pitt Greensburg Alumni Association, which he joined after earning his BA in 1997. Two years ago, he started serving as chair of the Pitt Alumni Association scholarship committee. He is also on the boards of ParentWISE, an organization to strengthen families and prevent child abuse; the Hempfield Rotary Club; and the Pittsburgh Urban Magnet Project. He finds time to volunteer with the Crabtree Volunteer Fire Department, too.
Nevertheless, Gongaware still wonders, “Man, what have I been doing all my life?” when he reads some of the essays sent in from scholarship applicants. “They really are awe-inspiring.”
In his role as chair of the scholarship committee, Gongaware is trying to find ways of attracting even more “awe-inspiring” students to Pitt. He has been investigating how other universities use their alumni associations and alumni scholarships to do so and hopes to implement a mentoring program in which the alumni association helps “flip the switch” for incoming alumni scholarship students. He gives an example of a Pitt alumnus physician getting to know a student interested in medicine, perhaps even inviting the student to alumni functions during the school year.
Gongaware also hopes to convince more than a few of the “awe-inspir-ing” graduates to remain in Western Pennsylvania. He believes that the area needs a group of dedicated, younger people “who are thinking of ways to improve the region.” Trying to help—whether alongside a rain-soaked highway, in a classroom, or at work—is nothing new for Gongaware.
What Were You Thinking?
See if you agree with a representative sampling of University alumni who participated in the alumni association’s most recent Alumni Attitude Study.
When asked what most affected their opinion of Pitt, alumni cited public recognition of Pitt’s academic status, including school rankings and the publicized accomplishments of faculty, students, and alumni.
Key areas in which alumni believe they could fill important University-related roles included the following: identifying job opportunities for graduates, providing feedback to the University regarding community perceptions, serving as ambassadors, mentoring students, recruiting students, and providing leadership by serving on various boards and committees.
As for funding issues, academic improvement is the area that is perhaps most important to alumni. Their funding priorities included: student financial aid, campus laboratories and equipment, faculty recruitment or retention, and library resources.
The Big Buzz
There was electricity in the air during the second annual Pathway to Professions networking reception that the Pitt Alumni Association and Career Services cosponsored for more than 500 alumni and students. Nuclear analysts to bankers to engineers to educators shared their wisdom with students ready for the working world. Among the alumni volunteers were James West (KGSB ’93), Ellen Roth (EDUC ’82), Jack Smith (MED ’73, CAS ’69), Dorothea de Zafra Atwell (GSPIA ’65), Michael Shusko (KGSB ’06, CAS ’01), Marguerite Bryce (SOC WK ’51, ’49), Michael Zernich (MED ’57, CAS ’53), Karl Gibson (SHRP ’83G, ’76), Angela-Marielle Maile (CBA ’00), Mark Villasenor (CGS ’94), Pam Toto (SHRS ’96, ’89), father and daughter Brian Generalovich (DEN ’68, CAS ’66) and Alyssa Generalovich (SOC WK ’96, CAS ’94, ), and M. Perry Jones (ENGR ’59). Patty Mathay (KGSB ’92) said she was impressed with the dedicated Pitt students.
The Big Tent
The Homecoming pregame tent hosted displays from 22 schools and clubs. Pitt’s Swanson Center for Micro and Nano Systems showcased an application of its radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, which will replace bar codes. Alumni also wrote down Pitt memories. Twins Jim (ENGR ’54) and Jack (EDUC ’63, ENGR ’54) Mihaloew remembered brainstorming ways for Santa to arrive on campus. Calvin LaSmith (CAS ’78) jokingly recalled that Pitt alumnus and star running back Tony Dorsett stole his girlfriend. And Warren Sordill (DEN ’69, CAS ’68) remembered great days on campus. Mary Ellen Callahan (CAS ’90) spent time at the membership table.
Also during Homecoming, the association held a reception for association scholarship recipients. Since 1992, the number of association scholarships has grown from four to 84. Representatives from national Pitt Clubs include: Tim Pecsenye (LAW ’87, CAS ’84) and Denise Dunyak (SLIS ’86, SHRP ’81) from Philadelphia; Susan Ellsweig (EDUC ’68) and Ron Hornak (KGSB ’70, ENGR ’67) from New Jersey; Gary Brownlee (KGSB ’78, CAS ’74, ) and Larry Holleran (EDUC ’56) from Chicago; Tony Massoud (ENGR ’63) and Carlos Reisen (CAS ’70) from the Columbus/Cincinnati/Dayton Club; and Joe Mills (CBA ’99) and Eric Sonnett (CAS ’66) from Boston. When freshman roommates Jessica Kocian of Chicago and Emily Mahar of New Jersey ran into one another at the reception, they discovered that they both had won Pitt Club scholarships.
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