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Marquette University Alumni Association

College of Education Award Recipients

Distinguished Alumna of the Year Award

Donna HargensDr. Donna Knipple Hargens, Arts '79
Louisville, Ky.

"The classroom," Donna says, is the “center of the universe,” something she reminds herself of every day while serving as superintendent of the Jefferson County Public School District in Louisville, Ky., charged with ensuring the success of more than 100,000 students in 153 schools.

Under Donna’s leadership since 2011, the district has improved its graduation rate, doubled its college and career readiness rate, and increased the percentage of students scoring proficient or higher in combined reading and math.

Then there’s the recent innovative work her district has undertaken, a pilot program funded by benefactors: participating in the Compassionate Schools Project, which teaches students empathy and mindfulness and how powerful they are as individuals.

“We want to help kids who have to overcome countless barriers just to get to school every day, to help them take control of how they feel and choose to respond and take advantage of the opportunities they have to change their futures,” she says.

Donna’s distinguished career began in a classroom in the Lomira, Wis., school district, where she taught Spanish and English. The next step moved her to the Wake County (N.C.) Public Schools, where she was assistant principal for curriculum and instruction, principal, and, ultimately, chief academic officer.

“My leadership style is participatory and collaborative,” she says. “I believe the value of that mindset began at Marquette.”

Among many other recognitions and activities, Donna is a member of the American Association of School Administrators, Jefferson County Association of School Administrators, Kappa Delta Pi Honor Society and Phi Beta Kappa Honor Society. Donna serves on the board of directors of Greater Louisville Inc. and the Kentucky Association of School Superintendents.

Fun Facts
Hometown: Milwaukee
Favorite book or favorite quote: "You don't fix poverty. You fix education, and education fixes poverty." — Dr. Kevin Cosby, President of Simmons College of Kentucky; and "Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world." — Nelson Mandela
Someone (past or present) with whom you’d like to have dinner: I am a first-generation college student and a graduate of Milwaukee Public Schools. I received a four-year scholarship to Marquette. I would love to have dinner with the person who made my education at Marquette possible to thank them for the access to the life-changing opportunity and to let them know that I know that I have always felt a responsibility to make a difference given that opportunity. Marquette faculty or staff member who had an impact on you, and how: Al McGuire won the NCAA championship while I was at Marquette. Teaching and coaching are the same. I believe you can learn a lot about how to motivate, provide feedback and create a team by watching great coaches like Coach McGuire.
What is one of your favorite Marquette memories? As I worked at Marquette to prepare to be a teacher, I knew there weren't a lot of teaching jobs available. A professor told me to worry about preparing to be a great teacher and that there would always be a job for someone with great preparation. He was right.
When you were in grade school, what did you want to be when you grew up, and why? I knew from the second grade that I wanted to be a teacher. I always got that education was the key to your future. I know that I wanted to be for others what teachers had been for me — showing me the opportunities.
Who is your Marquette legacy? I am a first-generation college student. I am proud to have a niece, Margaret Campbell Kunisch, and a nephew, John Campbell, who attended Marquette.
Who has been the most influential person in your life, and why? There is not just one. I had two great parents, very loving and wonderful examples. My father had a tremendous work ethic, and my mother is probably the smartest person I know. They both grew up on farms and moved to Milwaukee. At that time, my mother and her sisters did not have the opportunity to go to high school. Access to high school was only for the males. So, for me, additional influential persons were my teachers — my first-grade teacher who told me I could be in the first reading group, my second-grade teacher who said she thought I could be valedictorian and an eighth-grade math teacher who said I could work for NASA. They all helped me see beyond what I knew was possible at key times in my life.