The Student News Site of Simmons University

The Simmons Voice

The Student News Site of Simmons University

The Simmons Voice

The Student News Site of Simmons University

The Simmons Voice

Simmons without Joan Abrams

By Taylor Rapalyea
Staff Writer

There’s a common phrase said around the Simmons College Communications Department, usually said with a hint of fervor and a touch of awe:

“I want to be Joan when I grow up.”

“I think it’s more the pocketbooks and the shoes than anything,” said Professor Joan Abrams, amused.

But while she admittedly has a point (her handbags and heels are worthy of admiration), she’s also being humble.

Abrams has an enviable sense of cool, calm, and collected mixed with warmth, intelligence, and a wicked sense of humor,  the kind that makes for a fantastic professor.

Abrams has a connection to the college that few professors can match. She came here as an undergraduate student, drawn by the city, the prestige, and a 1964 article written about Simmons in “Seventeen Magazine.”

Next to the article was a sidebar about Simmons, detailing the fact that the college was set apart from its peers because it was founded by a man and on the premise that middle-class women needed to be equipped to earn their own livelihood.

“Back then, going to women’s colleges was the norm,” said Abrams.

But she chose Simmons over Vassar, Elmira, and Goucher because she felt that her other options were more to prepare students for married life and less to prep them for the real world.
It was at the college that she made some of “the best friends [she] had ever made in life.”

After working in the fields of public relations and marketing, she returned to Simmons as a graduate student, seeking her master’s in public relations at around age 40.

Abrams had been intrigued by an older classmate who returned to Simmons as a graduate student, so she decided to visit and meet with a professor.

She described herself as becoming “hooked” on the program, and having a strong desire to study under the professor she met with, Linda Beltz.

“I almost became more connected to Simmons as a graduate student than I did as an undergrad,” recalled Abrams. “I think in part because I took the time to become close with at least one of the professors, Linda Beltz, who I’m still somewhat close to now.”

Abrams also noted that she felt more connected to the college because she was more focused as a grad student and had a better sense of why she was going to school.

“The last reason is I was paying for it myself,” she quipped.

Her public relations professor, Beltz, would prove to be a major influence in Abrams’ life.
After getting her graduate degree from Simmons, Abrams got a second M.A. at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard in public administration, out of an interest in working for nonprofit organizations. In 1998, she was asked to return to Simmons as an adjunct professor to fill in for Beltz.

“I was here, walking around, at the end of the summer of ’98 with Linda,” said Abrams, smiling, “and she introduced me to this guy, who had really long hair, who was in the corner office, and [Beltz] said, ‘You’ve got to meet Jim.’”

Beltz had always encouraged her to teach, but the now-legendary Abrams never saw how that would become a reality.
“And then I met Jim,” she said.
That day, Department Chair Jim Corcoran asked Abrams to come to Simmons to teach adjunct. She said yes immediately, “not knowing at all what I would be teaching.”

Afterward, Abrams went on vacation with her husband to celebrate their 25 wedding anniversary and returned to a note from Corcoran that read, “Come on up, because we‘ve hired you.”

When she came to Simmons, Abrams inhabited Beltz’s old office, a small room on the fifth floor of the old library building. The space housed a desk, a sofa, and countless books. She came to the college from Rhode Island twice a week and hardly saw a soul in her corner of the building.

The first class Abrams taught was “Intro to Public Relations and Marketing Communications,” a course she still teaches today.

“I just totally loved it,” said Abrams. “I loved it, and it seemed as if the kids liked it.”

The second class she taught in that first semester was “Public Relations Seminar,” which is also still a popular course.

She went into her first classroom on a Thursday and decided that she wanted to develop a sort of story with each class, and not just a lesson plan.

Abrams remembers when students suddenly began asking her to be their advisor.
“I would say ‘Yes,’” she said, smiling slightly, “not knowing exactly what that meant. But I figured it out.”

At the end of her first semester teaching at Simmons, Abrams wasn’t sure what to expect, until one day, Corcoran stuck his head in her office door.

“Next year, contract. Five six,” she recalls him saying.

“And I went, ‘Oh, okay,’” said Abrams. “No idea what it meant.”

Later, she discovered that Corcoran meant she was hired for a full year and was signed on to teach two courses in the fall semester and three in the spring. After that, things began to change for Abrams – she was able to meet other professors in the department and feel a sense of normalcy.

“That first semester was …” Abrams paused. “I love the teaching part, but it was–I felt a little bit like a floater, I guess you could say.”

Abrams is currently at the close of her 15 year teaching communications at Simmons, a sad – and startling – fact for many.

“I was extremely shocked and upset to hear that [Joan] had been let go from Simmons over the summer,” said Molly Hines, a senior.

Hines, like many at the college, invests a lot in her relationships with her professors. She said that it was Abrams who encouraged her to pursue a career in PR and can’t articulate how much she means to her.

Abrams received her notice of termination from Simmons immediately following the passing of a dear friend, the husband of a close friend whom she had met while working at Xerox.

“I was in the room with him, that morning, when he died in the night,” she said. “I was sitting, literally holding his head in my lap, and I got the call from here, and frankly I just said, ‘You know, it just isn’t that important in the grand scheme of life.’”

While Abrams is looking forward to pursuing other things, many of her students didn’t take the news as well. After word got out that she wouldn’t be returning next year, an online petition began circulating among students, alumnae, and parents, urging the college to allow Abrams and other professors who were let go to have another semester at the college.

Students who signed the electronic petition left heartfelt reasons why Simmons should keep Abrams on.

“I cannot imagine going back to school without Joan being there,” read one. “She was such an important part of my first year at Simmons.”

But Abrams never would have dreamt that she would have stayed this long to begin with.
“When I do leave, at the end of this semester, I will feel that everything I’ve ever wanted to have done here, I’ve done,” said Abrams.

When she thinks of Simmons College as a place of employment, Abrams recalls a place of warmth, satisfaction, and as a tremendously collegiate environment. She feels that she learned to say yes to things while here as an undergrad, even when she wasn’t 100 percent sure she could.

But Abrams won’t be taking it easy at the close of her final semester. She’s been approached by multiple organizations to do a variety of things, one of which is to help young people who are applying to colleges evaluate their choices.

She said she may choose to start a consulting firm with a friend who is retiring from a major corporation, and is definitely going to continue the nonprofit work that she’s famous for in Bristol, R.I.

“I’m going to clean out my closet, and all kinds of things I literally have not done in 15 years,” said Abrams. “Maybe that.”

She tells her friends that there are three things she has always wanted to do that are, for her, not outside the realm of possibility.

“I might become a makeup saleswoman,” said Abrams. “I’ve always been fascinated by these women that stand at these counters and make you over, and by the fact that when you’re down in the dumps that’s the first thing you do.”

“And secondly, I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of being a private eye.”
She said that while the first two options are completely serious, the third is a bit of a joke to her. If being a makeup saleswoman or private investigator doesn’t pan out, Abrams said she’ll become a golf pro.

Many professors are beloved at Simmons, but one can usually find one student with disparaging remarks to say about them. But few students, no matter how hard a day he or she is having, will say a word against Abrams.

“That’s nice to hear,” she said, smiling.

Joan tells her many admirers three pieces of life advice: “One is liking people – being around people you like. It’s almost more important than being around people you love, because love comes and goes in flashes, and I’m very happy to be married to someone I like so much.

“The other thing is to have respect. Respect for yourself but also the people around you.
“And also, kind of knowing where you fit.
“Sometimes I drive home after this long, long drive and I think, I completely fit in this town, with its little town center and its library, and I don’t mind driving to it, because I fit here,” she added.

Abrams thinks that her sense of “fitting” is what people pick up on when they say they to want to be her when they grow up.

“I’m excited because I feel like I did what I wanted to do here,” said Abrams. “In jobs, I think you can sometimes overstay your welcome.”

“Everything is going to be fine.”

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