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Alumna lives a life dedicated to volunteerism thanks to a lecture in 1959 at SXU


Back in 1959, the then Saint Xavier College (SXC) welcomed a priest visiting from Texas, Father Fred Underwood, CSC, to speak and make a plea for volunteer educators to work in low-income Catholic schools in Texas. For many in that audience, the presentation was fascinating, but for one Saint Xavier University (SXU) alumna, Joan Penzenstadler, it would be life-altering.

Penzenstadler majored in English and graduated from SXC in 1960. She has fond memories of her four-year experience on campus -- recalling ice skating on Lake Marion, studying in the Bishop Quarter Room and simply taking in the vast prairie landscape of the school. However, it wasn't until hearing Father Fred Underwood's presentation where she discovered her calling in life, working to serve a purpose.

She immediately wanted to go and work with Father Underwood, but her parents insisted she get an education first. Following SXC, Penzenstadler went on to receive her Master's in English from St. Louis University and later joined the Catholic Lay Mission Corps (CLMC), headquartered in Austin, Texas. She took to her new surroundings with enthusiasm and passion, even picking up Spanish quite quickly.

While working with CLMC, Penzenstadler met fellow volunteer Archie Gress, who was part-way through his Master's in Educational Administration. They fell in love and got married and pursued their careers as educators. Gress worked to turn a local Catholic school into a much-visited model with Montessori methods and a pilot bilingual program. Then, he founded and was director of Volunteers for Educational and Social Services (VESS), a successor to CLMC. While their two kids grew up, Penzenstadler worked to broaden her horizons by studying radio, TV and film, while also working part-time as a freelance writer and photographer.

Penzenstadler later went on to get her Ph.D. in English from Texas A&M before both she and Gress took teaching positions in Taiwan for eight years. While there, the couple developed a method of learning that they eventually named the "Discovery Approach," which Penzenstadler came to see as an implementation of Montessori at the college level. Although it had to be designed to operate within the traditional confines of 45-minute periods, it still gave students an array of options for active involvement and interaction both in and out of the classroom. Both Penzenstadler and Gress applied the materials and methods they used in this approach to subjects in literature, English as a second language, and education.

In 1998, the couple returned to the U.S. and retired; however, in 2002, both Penzenstadler and Gress decided to volunteer as educators in Honduras, where they started an educational resource center. The center called, Activiteca, is still operating at two Honduran vocational schools through the nonprofit, Activiteca International. The mission of Activiteca International is to increase local access for underserved populations to learn Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) subjects and analytic and creative skills, which are essential keys to educational advancement. Penzenstadler and Gress eventually returned to the U.S., but have continued to assist the Activiteca International with bringing awareness to their mission.

Last month, Penzenstadler came to SXU's campus and spoke with current students enrolled in School of Education (SOE) courses about the educational work she does with the nonprofit in Honduras. She informed students that they can help make a difference in the lives of those living in underserved communities through volunteer work or donations. The students were moved by Penzenstadler's life-long story, similar to how she was moved by Father Fred Underwood's presentation 59 years ago.

If you'd like to make a donation to help those in Honduras, please write a check to Activiteca International, 2610 Sherwood Lane, Austin, Texas 78704. Penzenstadler will send you a thank you letter, which can be used for tax exemption purposes.