Toni Messuri calls her recent honor "fruitional," which is an uncommon word. Yet, it's an uncommon recognition: an endowed scholarship in her name, given by the family of a 2014 graduate, who made the gift to recognize Messuri's extraordinary and vital work supporting Saint Michael's students with learning differences.
"Helping students become more conscious about patterns that may be obstacles to success," is how Messuri, assistant dean for academic affairs and director of accessibility and academic support, describes her role, working with almost 200 students a year. "Ultimately we try together to find ways to get at the unimpeded joys of learning, which is exhilaration, really, at times."
From such exuberant and well-directed energy, cultivated and expended over many years, “comes a moment when you’re receiving something beyond what you’d ever imagined,” she says. “Buddhists talk of the ground and the path and then fruition -- and this gift made me think of that.”
Messuri’s work began when she was an English adjunct with a habit of coming in evenings to offer personal writing help to students with learning differences. In 2000 she was talking to a colleague and expressed the desire to make it her full-time work, “It was as if we’d somehow been touched by the Holy Spirit,” she recalled. Messuri was able to convey her vision to her supervisors and get the support to make the position a reality.
At first Messuri worked just with first-year students as a liaison for those with special needs, “to help them bridge the transition,” but with continued support from administrators alongside growing need and evidence that the work was helping students, she widened her scope to serve students from all four class years. Today her office handles nearly 200 clients at a given time, an accomplishment that she’s is keen to note is possible only through partnering with faculty, families and the support of her colleagues on campus.
From Day One Messuri resolved to be attuned to the daily challenges of faculty. As a longtime adjunct at several institutions, and still an occasional English instructor for Saint Michael’s, she understood that special needs advocacy must be approached with an eye to faculty needs as well as those of students. Having Saint Michael’s faculty so invested in her cause has been wonderful, she says.
Parents are the other vital link closing the student-support chain. “I always tell parents of the students we work with that I need them for me to do my job properly,” she says. “They’ve been the spokespeople for my students since the second grade and I don’t expect an 18-year old will be able to share everything I need to know. So I start out with my parents, with the permission of the student, and we work as a team.” It provides her indispensable information and helps families set aside anxieties, while building trust. “Parents have a lot of wisdom and a lot of energy to share,” she says.
The other key to the success of her work has been her colleagues and the distinctively supportive community at Saint Michael's, she says. Messuri praises professors who “teach to differences,” a “state-of-the-art Writing Center” directed by Tim Mackin, a “superior Peer Tutoring Center” with Krisan Geary and Mike Samara, and now “superior academic skills support,” thanks to the recent addition in her office of Heidi St. Peter ’96. Also, Messuri’s right hand for years has been Leslie Turner, who oversees testing. She also considers Jonathan D’Amore, associate dean, and David Barrowclough, associate registrar, as vital members of her support team.
Her office recently moved this summer to a new “Academic Enrichment Commons” in Durick Library. “I think it’s going to be great for students -- and that’s what is important. The library is a remarkable place, and the centralization of academic support services in the library really makes sense. I anticipate this to be a robust and active place for student learning, and our team is truly excited. We are deeply grateful for this opportunity.”
As for the recent major scholarship gift, which annually will benefit one or two sophomores who work with Messuri, she says, “it’s really knocked me off my feet with gratitude.”