Joanne Benica has been in a certain state of mind since meeting her husband in high school.
“When I first met him, he said, ‘I have to take you to Maine. You’re going to love Maine,” she shares. Remembering how the two went on a spring break trip to the northern state, she says, “I loved it.”
Now, after more than two decades together, the couple and their two children will fulfill a life-long dream. They’re moving to Maine.
For Benica, director of Disability Support Services, the move doesn’t come without some heartache. She’s laid deep roots during her 9 years at American University.
“AU, I love it here. It’s hard to leave a place you love. It’s hard to leave your colleagues. It’s hard to find a place to work where you really just like everybody,” she says. “Maybe that’s just my style, I have to get along and collaborate with people with what I do...but AU’s made that very easy.”
The Pennsylvania native came to AU in 2003, but her work with the university – as she recalls – started a month before she even got to campus.
“Two days after I accepted the job, I got a call from Kathy Schwartz, and she said, ‘Can we consult about this student?’ I was like, ‘Gheesh, I’m not even there yet. What’s going on over there?’ We had this great conversation. We just really connected as colleagues and then as friends,” she says.
From that point on, Schwartz – director of the Academic Support Center – worked closely with Benica, together building new services and opportunities, like helping students with disabilities study abroad in Europe. It’s something Benica notes as one of their most important accomplishments.
“That’s the best collaborative thing that ever happened for me at AU, as far as two offices coming together and trying to figure out how to really make some change for students with disabilities,” she says. “We shared the same kind of passion for, you know, people think this isn’t going to work and we’re going to figure out how to do it. We just really connected on that.”
A Baltimore resident, Benica also looks fondly at her long rides in commute with director of New Student Programs Tiffany Sanchez. For the past 8 years, the two have carpooled to work each day – typically a three-hour roundtrip ride.
“We always joke that we could have learned multiple languages by now, heard countless books on tape. We could have listened to music. We have done none of that,” she says. “We just talk.”
Beyond the long car rides, Benica and Sanchez share something else – an enthusiasm for knitting and crocheting. In fact, they started a weekly knitting group with other AU staff members that have included Schwartz and others. The “Knitwits” have knitted caps for mothers of newborns in developing countries, and they’ll be pursuing a new charity project as Benica moves on.
In the end, however, Benica’s passion for supporting students with disabilities will be what defines her time at AU. It’s led her to establish strong services and assistance for AU’s students with disabilities, which in turn have helped create strong relationships with those students.
“When you work with students, you get involved in their lives,” she explains. “You want to see how it turns out, and when you leave, you don’t get to do that. I have so many students that I feel so connected with. The student piece is really hard for me. I guess that’s why I do what I do.”
Benica – whose mother was a special education teacher and grandparents were both deaf – had originally planned to be social worker assisting the deaf. When she discovered disability support in higher education 12 years ago, she knew she had found her field.
“It’s a very broad look at disability. I still got to do the deaf and hard of hearing, but I had all these other new skills, and I loved it. I loved the counseling, dispelling myths that people think about disabilities, making people feel more comfortable, and the advocacy – I like all of it,” she explains. “It’s a good fit for me.”
Benica will continue pursuing her passion for helping students with disabilities as she moves north, but the move itself will final satisfy another life-long pursuit: raising her family in a place she and her husband have dreamed about for so long.
“I love it here. I really do. Again, it’s just a hard to place to leave when you really enjoy what you do,” she says. “Of course, Maine is calling. Maine has been calling me for years. The universe answered my call, and I’ve got to do it.”