Suzanne Del Gizzo, PhD is poised and always conveys thoughts and ideas with the utmost articulation. She shows passion and enthusiasm through hand-gestures, and rises and falls in her vocal inflections. Her appearance is put-together in the way that only a literature professor can manage, with the confidence and elegance of the dancer she was in her youth. Her confidence is exuded through her upright posture, as well as her purposeful use of speech and language. She holds the same sense of effortless self-assuredness whether standing in-front of a classroom teaching the literature of Hemingway or Whitman, or discussing trying times in life sitting behind the desk in her comfortably decorated, dimly-lit office, eating a microwaved pasta meal.
In front of a classroom, her hair is pulled back into a soft but wavy ponytail that looks in no way childish. She is clearly a fan of chunky sweaters which balance out her small frame. While she looks younger than she is, there is no denying that she conveys the wisdom she has attained through years of study and experience. Once you learn that she had been a ballerina, you cannot mistake the elegance learned through this practice.
When I interviewed Del Gizzo, we met after an American Literature class of her favorite era, the modern, in her office in the antique and beautiful St. Joseph’s Hall at Chestnut Hill College. Her office holds many portraits of famous American writers, Hurston, Fitzgerald, Nin, Stein, Hemingway, Miller, and an abundance of art, including the paintings of Zelda Fitzgerald while she was committed in an insane asylum. The wood paneling, the window behind the desk, and the books in the room make it feel as if it would be a nice place to sit down for a cup of coffee or tea, and curl up with a book for hours. Surprisingly, this room is not her favorite work space. She prefers her home office, with its orange walls, wooden desk, and, her favorite aspect, absolute silence. There, she sits with a cup of coffee, and ensures the she wears absolutely no restrictive clothing or tights, as she ruminates and works on scholarly essays, but only after devoting each afternoon and evening to her young daughter who she raises alone.
When Dr. Del Gizzo was a child, she grew up in a large family which she referred to as both “unorthodox and orthodox.” She lived in a small town in New Jersey and went to Catholic school her entire young life, until her third year of college. The “orthodox” aspect of her childhood lays in her all girls’ Catholic education. About her family, Del Gizzo says that “on the one hand it looked very normal: regular house, regular kids. But on the other hand we were very unusual the second you got in a little deeper.” Her mother married and divorced a number of times, leaving her in a “hodge-podge of a family,” with a mix of Catholic and Jewish step-brothers and step-sisters. She found it exciting and interesting. Throughout her youth, she knew she wanted to take a step away from the small, religious aspects of her upbringing.
Before Del Gizzo devoted herself to a “life of the mind,” she lived and learned a “life of the body” through the ballet she practiced diligently. She took ballet seriously, and most likely would have pursued it further, except that she had to have an urgent and rare eye surgery which incapacitated her for an entire summer. “I had a big scar on my face and I didn’t like to go out so I used to just hang out in my house and I got into reading, and writing, and painting during that time, partially, I think, to survive,” Del Gizzo said, reflecting. That was the turning point for her, and from then on, she was defined by intellectualism.
Even in the mix of such a huge family, the person closest to her in life is her sister Meredith. “She’s my soul mate in the world and it’s not easy to live closely with people throughout, and you know your siblings longer than you know anybody else in your life,” Del Gizzo said fondly. She wants to replicate this beautiful relationship in her bond with her daughter Hadley (named after Hemingway’s wife), to the extent possible in a mother-daughter relationship.
Also, while she admits she is greatly shaped by men and the male authors she predominantly studies, whom she learned her sense of professionalism from, she was greatly molded by her grandmother. Her grandfather died at a young age, leaving her grandmother to raise her young mother alone, at only the age of 28, and “she did it with elegance,” according to Del Gizzo. “She did something that was incredibly difficult, and she suffered tremendously at a very young age. I’ve always found that incredibly inspirational, that there was this little Irish girl from New Jersey who thought she had a happy marriage and a perfect life and her husband dropped dead.” This mix of important men and women in her life has led her to become a strong woman. Sally Simons, a student of Del Gizzo’s, said that she “seems to be a feminist who wants and believes other women should be empowered.” This aura must come from the strong men she admires and from her outstanding grandmother.
As an Undergraduate, she went to Holy Cross University for her first two years, before deciding she did not want to attend such a religious institution, and transferred to NYU. There, she studied Philosophy and Literature, and learned and comprehended the importance of diversity and follow-through. She was always disappointed with herself when, because of a time constraint or lack of energy, she did not give her all to an assignment or project, and from that, she learned that she needed to “try as much as possible, if it is a project that mattered to me, to step back, dig deep, find the energy, and do it right.” That lesson has served her very well throughout her life. This realization reflects one of her favorite quotes, “Never confuse movement with action.” While she learned all of these tough life-lessons, she finds humor in her most difficult accomplishment during college, passing her math class.
Del Gizzo has always been a woman of many trades, with widely varying interests. She knows as much as one can learn about American literature, its important figures, and its background, but also knows a great deal about the disciplines of philosophy, art, history, and film. On the other hand, she loves to keep herself up-to-date on what is happening in the world of neuroscience, delving into the non-fiction of the topic for enjoyment and learning about something she doesn’t have a vast wealth of knowledge on. She devotes her entire focus to whatever her task of the moment may be.
Before becoming a college professor, she had worked for a short time in the publishing industry, but found no passion or fulfillment in the cubicles and fluorescent lights that come with those professions. “I just found it really soulless and really hard to relate to,” she said. She had felt so alienated from the sense she had developed of who she was during her Undergraduate years, which compelled her to enroll in Graduate school at the University of Chicago and a PhD program at Tulane University in New Orleans. She loves teaching, despite its daily challenges surrounding the changing atmosphere of the higher-education system, nation-wide. She becomes very excited about material she loves and covers in class. “She always has enthusiasm for her classes and wants her students to be equally as excited about the subject matter that is up for discussion,” Simons said. She is proud that she has organized a Hemingway conference in Switzerland, which took a massive amount of hard work and dedication to her subject of study, and edited two books. She also feels greatly accomplished in raising her daughter on her own.
Lamenting the lack of preparedness in teaching she failed to gain through higher-education, she had to teach herself classroom skills. In her opinion, higher education is in the process of a great change, along with the current changes in our culture and class divides. If she could teach any other topic, she would love to challenge herself with a film class, but for now, she is a shining professor of American literature at Chestnut Hill College, who revels in living an intellectual life.