Blue Devil of the Week: Helping Doctoral Students and Faculty Find Their Footing

Maria LaMonaca Wisdom of Duke Faculty Advancement coaches faculty and graduate students

Maria Wisdom, who coaches faculty members and graduate students in her roles at Duke, sits out on the West Campus quad. Photo by Jack Frederick.
Maria Wisdom, who coaches faculty members and graduate students in her roles at Duke, sits out on the West Campus quad. Photo by Jack Frederick.

Name: Maria LaMonaca Wisdom

Position: Director of Faculty Mentoring and Coaching Programs in Duke Faculty Advancement and Director of Coaching and Mentoring Programs in Interdisciplinary Studies

Years at Duke: 5

What she does at Duke: As a coach certified by the International Coaching Federation, Maria LaMonaca Wisdom coaches and supports faculty and doctoral students as they navigate careers in (and sometimes beyond) academia.

Through individual and group coaching sessions, Wisdom listens and helps them find answers to questions related to productivity, adapting to professional transitions, building mentor networks and managing workloads.

“I love helping to build supportive communities where people feel safe, they feel nurtured, like they can really grow without being judged or evaluated,” Wisdom said.

As a former tenured English faculty member at Columbia College in South Carolina, Wisdom became interested in mentoring as an early-career academic. That passion led her to receiving a small grant from the Lilly Foundation to establish a faculty mentoring program among young faculty members like her at Columbia College. Eventually, she realized she wanted to continue the work full-time, which led her to leave her position in 2012 as an associate professor of English for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she was executive director for the Institute for the Arts and Humanities for three and a half years before coming to Duke.Maria Wisdom, left, speaks with Duke graduate students during a coaching session before the pandemic. Photo courtesy of Maria Wisdom.

Wisdom now supports and provides resources to graduate students and faculty at Duke. In February, she wrote about how the Duke community can rebuild relationships in the post-pandemic environment.

This spring, Wisdom is working with 30 faculty members who have been split into small groups for in-person and virtual group coaching. Each group meets throughout the semester to help each other navigate professional challenges and opportunities.

“Coaching doesn’t just help people in the moment,” Wisdom said. “It helps people to build up those leadership, executive, relation-building functions that are going to help them later in life as well.”

First job: Wisdom’s first job came as a teenager when she worked packing peaches at her grandfather’s farm, Pine Pleasant Farm, in the summers in Hammonton, New Jersey.

At her aunt’s farm, down the road, she also packed blueberries, earning 25 cents per flat she packaged.

“I learned a deep appreciation for people who work with their hands,” Wisdom said. “And gratitude for being able to get the education that would allow me to hold different sorts of jobs.”

Best advice received: When she was a post-doc, Dr. David Morgan, now Professor of Religious Studies at Duke, offered Wisdom encouragement when a journal article she authored was initially rejected.

“He said, ‘There are two kinds of scholars: there are those who get rejected and keep trying and then there are those who stop trying,’” Wisdom said. “I really took that to heart, and I resubmitted, revised and I got accepted and went on to publish more. And really, that advice transfers to just about everything in life.”

What she loves about Duke: Wisdom values that Duke has invested in resources to help graduate students and faculty establish and build careers.Maria Wisdom, in green, sits around the table and listens to conversation during a recent coaching session. Photo courtesy of Maria Wisdom.

“I love the fact that Duke, it never settles for the status quo,” she said. “Duke is an amazing place; it’s a top University with star faculty. It’s got so much going for it, but I love that in five years I’ve been at Duke, I’ve had the opportunity to be in a couple different positions where I spent a lot of time working with people thinking about ways to make Duke even better.”

Something unique in her workspace: Starting her career as an English professor and moving into coaching and mentoring, Wisdom said she has “a very strange book collection” representing eras of her career and expertise areas.

“On one side of the bookshelves, I’ve got all these Victorian novels and books on literary critical theory,” she said. “And on the other, I’ve got books on coaching and leadership. I don’t know that there’s any connection, but it’s kind of funny that I have that as my library.”

When she’s not at work, she likes to: Wisdom enjoys time with her husband, John, and their two children, Robbie and Ceci. One of their favorite activities is  riding bikes on Rails-to-Trails in Virginia and North Carolina, including the Virginia Creeper Trail, a 35-mile trail that runs through southwestern Virginia.Maria Wisdom, left, with her daughter, Ceci, and son, Robbie, at the Virginia Creeper Trail. Photo courtesy of Maria Wisdom.

“Frankly, it’s nice that my husband and I can keep up with the kids,” Wisdom said. “I don’t know how much longer that’s going to be the case, but I think it’s a point of pride for my husband and me that we can still get on bikes and go for miles and enjoy it.” 

Lesson learned during the pandemic: The pandemic helped reinforce the value and importance of patience, not a new lesson but one that allowed her to apply patience as she adjusted to new circumstances.Lessons in patience are intertwined with the Wisdom family getting a puppy, Oliver, during the pandemic. Photo courtesy of Maria Wisdom.

“When I saw the painful transition everybody was going through to adapt to life under lockdown and working from home, I knew it was part of the process. And I knew it was going to pass, and I knew it was OK to feel stressed,” said Wisdom, whose family also adopted and trained a terrier puppy mix named Ollie during the pandemic. “We’re seeing this situation in reverse now. People are stressed out because things actually are starting to improve.”

Is there a colleague at Duke who has an intriguing job or goes above and beyond to make a difference? Nominate that person for Blue Devil of the Week.