Gunter Kleist

Margo Warden

Margo Warden sits in her office, her chair seat half of a yoga ball, and pulls off her winter boots. Her eyes are tired, even as they crinkle slightly with her laugh, and she is ready for her morning coffee. A pair of glasses are perched atop a head of half-pulled-back grey hair and visible only when she leans far enough forward. Her body is in a constant state of motion as she talks. Her hands make large arcs in the air, visible articulations of her thoughts, before being brought together again. The sleeves of her shirt, bright red with widely spaced floral patterning, swish slightly as her arms swing back down to her lap.

Her office is a small pocket of creative chaos, which is reflected by the assortment of art on her wall, especially the 1918 print by Paul Klee that is displayed prominently. In her periphery stands an overflowing bookcase, with white and green binders competing for room with an assortment of books ranging from “Jane Eyre” to “Becoming a Student Ready College” to “A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge.” The top of the bookcase is jam-packed with framed photos of her sons, Cooper and Abel; a photo in the center of her husband, Paul; cards from her family and an art print that states, “Life is Short.”

This is what is important to Warden: family. It is reflected in her office, in her home life and in her job at Johnson State College as the director of First-Year Experience. “I’m most passionate about family. I have my two sons and my husband, and I also think about JSC as my family,” Warden says. “[Family] is about relationships and connections and what comes from that, which is conversations and trust.”

Before working at JSC, Warden was the dean of students, as well as a teacher in the sciences department, at a small private school for grades seven to 12 on Cape Cod called Falmouth Academy. She worked there with her now-husband before they decided to get married. She had originally started working at the school just to finish out the term, only to end up staying on.

At the start of her time at Falmouth Academy, she certainly had her hands full. “I was teaching life science, physical science, earth science [and] phys ed., driving the school van, and coaching the boys’ basketball team,” Warden says. “I could really understand why that other teacher might have left, but I loved it.”

Paul and Warden ended up in Vermont when Paul decided to pursue his master’s at UVM and she took a year-long leave of absence from Falmouth Academy. She began looking for a job for that one year while she was in Vermont. Instead, Warden found JSC and the rest is history. “I remember my tour of Johnson State really well, and it was the students and the feeling you get walking around this place. And then one year turned into 30,” Warden says.

During her time at JSC, Warden has spent a lot of it working with first-year students. She pushed for first-year seminars and Creative Audience, all while trying to fill a need that she saw in both the students and the college. Creative Audiences in particular are important to her because they are a way to make students engage and reflect outside of the typical classroom space.

“There is so much going on in this world that isn’t talked about or brought into our classes,” says Warden. “Creative Audience, and other campus event programming, is meant to fill in some of those spaces and maybe even blow up some holes to create a dynamic campus environment that can engage and transform students’ lives.”

Aside from first-year seminars and Creative Audience, one of the projects she is most proud of is the Student Concerns Committee, which was born out of her graduate work in 1997. This is a weekly meeting that is meant to take the pulse of the campus. The committee includes faculty and staff and works as a form of outreach for students who have shown up on the committee’s radar as needing a little extra help. “It is a way to see where we are as a campus, how our individual students are doing, and then to provide outreach, support and conversation to support and engage [students],” Warden says. “It provides a place for us to pause in our daily work and really take a breath and just be aware.”

Warden herself has had a significant impact on many students’ lives, not just those directly involved with the Student Concerns Committee. She is someone the majority of students interact with either daily or in their introduction to the college. A common theme runs through students’ accounts of the importance she has for many: compassion and connection.

Desiree Penrod, a senior at Johnson State College, considers Warden to be someone who has forever changed her life. “Margo loves Johnson and she proves that every day, because she puts the students first,” she says. “She never asks for anything in return. Margo has always been there for me. Even if something seems so small and not important, Margo makes sure you feel special . . . She has definitely made my experience at Johnson one of a kind [and] one I will never forget. Having Margo in your life makes it that much better, no matter who you are or where you come from.”

Another student who has also greatly appreciated Warden’s welcoming presence here on campus is Amy Nicewicz. “Margo is very busy, but she tries her best to check in with students about how life is going. One time during a really tough week after dealing with the passing of a friend, juggling school work, and managing my usual health issues, I had hit rock bottom,” says Nicewicz. “I felt alone and upset. I approached her and asked for a hug. I gave and received one without having to explain anything. I knew if I said anything else I would break down. On the days I am overwhelmed, she is there to listen and spread some encouragement.”

Even students who do not interact with Warden on such a personal level hold her as a positive influence in their life and the life of their fellow students. For Chelsea Bingham, Warden represents an asset to campus and someone who makes her feel welcome. “She made me feel like I made the right choice choosing Johnson,” Bingham says. “She always remembered who I am, and even as a senior, she stops to chat on campus.

For Warden, working with students provides a visible reward as she watches students find their path towards both wellness and graduation. “The barriers that might have been in the way, either personal or financial or academic, can be disruptive,” Warden says. “Then when commencement comes, and I see students walking across the stage and getting that diploma, I realize that I know the story, the perseverance and the dedication of that student.”

When Warden is not building on her JSC community and projects through the First-Year Experience office, she finds other ways to let her creativity flow. “I am known for making something out of nothing,” she says. “There is a creative side of me that I really try to pay attention to.”

She likes to take old furniture, photographs or art and turn it into something brand new. But the first thing that came to her mind is her secret talent as a champion whistler. “I am a very good whistler,” Warden says. “And I can share that with you if anybody wants.”

She also likes to listen to music, particularly that of the 1970s, with Steely Dan being her all-time favorite group. But that is not the only musical group she listens to. “I had the biggest crush on Michael Jackson when I was in sixth grade, so I really love Michael and the Jackson 5,” she says. If she is not listening to the music of the 70s, she might also be reading or cooking dinner for her family. “I love cooking Christmas dinner because that is just epic,” Warden says. “But, for regular meals, [I like to make] a really good pot of chili and cornbread and really good salad.”

Warden also has a very identifiable fashion sense and stands out on campus among the faculty and staff. She is a mix-and-match of bright colors and floral patterns layered on top of each other, scarves of competing patterns and, on occasion, pants with tasseled bottoms. “There is a saying that my mother shared with me. She was mother to seven kids, but she still kept it all kind of working, and she says, ‘Style is the problem solved,’” Warden says.

Warden is heavily influenced by the fashion of the 60s and 70s, as well as being without a lot of money growing up. Even today, she tends to buy most of her clothes from thrift stores instead of purchasing brand new. “I used to wear my mom’s clothes, I used to wear my dad’s clothes, and I would just kind of put it together. It used to take more time back then,” she says. “Another motto of the family was ‘make do or do without.’ That is one of those things that, man, sounds really hard, but those were the seeds for creativity.”

So what is next for Warden, especially as Johnson State College turns into Northern Vermont University?

“I am looking forward to the collaborations with Lyndon. And also to expanding the scaffolding of support in programing and resources that we have built for our first-year students into the second year,” she says.

For Warden, family, be it the one at home or here on campus, is what matters. For her, the students and the community at JSC are the important aspects of her job. That is obvious to Bingham, who considers Warden a very caring and compassionate person. “Her energy is always at its highest, which then transfers to those around her, bringing light and energy to a space,” Bingham says. “She is always there when you need her and has your best interest at heart.”

After all of her years in and around education, Warden has some thoughts on life after secondary education, words that offer some perspective for students who are faced with life outside of Johnson after graduation. “Whatever your job is — you could be teaching aerobics surrounded by lime green and pink shag carpeting . . . if you bring your best self to it, you just don’t know who you are going to meet or what doors will be opened for you,” she says.

Warden leans back in her chair, legs crossed while she tilts her head towards the windows on the back wall of her office. Her hands are finally still. Her fingers have stopped steepling in front of her face. They are no longer tugging at her black stud earing or brushing against her keyboard. Her colorful scarf is more prominently on display.

“I think everything connects. I really believe that,” she says.