Trailblazing for Social Good: Mary Costantino ’90 on Career and Athenian

Ask Athenian alumna Mary Costantino ’90 about the medical procedure she pioneered in her region, and she’ll tell you it’s “pretty easy”—just fifteen seconds to route a tube from her patient’s wrist to their groin. An Interventional Radiologist with a specialization in women’s health, Mary was the first physician in Oregon to treat uterine fibroids using this less invasive method involving the wrist as a surgical entry point.  

During the six years she spent at Athenian, however, Mary did not consider herself to be a trailblazer. When we asked her how she became a medical innovator, she said, “I didn’t plan my whole trajectory back then and I still don’t have a plan.” Working in Interventional Radiology was not even something she immediately settled on while in medical school at UCLA. She arrived in her current field after seeing an ability to contribute in an area where health care equity was at stake.

The two most common women’s health conditions that Interventional Radiologists treat are postpartum hemorrhage and uterine fibroids. “Interventional Radiology was a field that had real purpose,” Mary reflected. “Forty percent of women over forty have fibroids and the primary way that fibroids are treated is by hysterectomy. The procedure I perform offers a one-week recovery time versus a six-week recovery time, was less expensive at the time when I was in school, and seemed like it could have a big impact on low-income women. It’s a very powerful thing to be able to do something that makes those stressors go away.”

In the fifteen years since Mary began her practice, she has witnessed gradual shifts—a dawning awareness that applies to the treatment of many conditions. “We are now finally recognizing health care disparities, which have been long evident to those of us in healthcare. Uterine fibroids are more common in African-American women, and minimally invasive treatments are almost never offered to women with fibroids. It’s really wrong, and I suspect I’ll spend the next 10 years fighting for equality in informed consent, as I have the last 10 years. Now, however, COVID has unveiled this disparity and there is hope for change.”

Mary credits her regard for social good to strong foundations from home that were built upon during her time at Athenian. “The conversations were centered around the environment and the pillars and being a citizen of the world. It shaped me without me knowing I was actually being shaped.” Unforgettable grand-scale experiences like her Round Square exchange and AWE were pivotal, but so were humbler aspects of student life. “Kitchen duty—what a great lesson. It taught us that we’re all here to take care of each other. Those kinds of jobs and lessons just don’t exist for teenagers anymore.”

People were also a special part of Mary’s Athenian experience. As a whole, she described faculty and staff as “kind, goodhearted educators with an interest in kids. Judy Atai, the art teacher…I just remember sitting and throwing pottery and making jewelry. Sheryl Petersen…all of these maternal figures looking out for you. Ed Ellis…he was always walking around campus, completely invested in us.”

Mary now lives in Oregon with children of her own who are the same age as she was during her Athenian days. When asked what she would say to high schoolers now, her advice was to stay open. “It puts unfair pressure on younger people to find out what their passion is, because you never know what opportunity will come that might pique your interest. It may come when you’re sixteen, or when you’re twelve, or when you’re thirty-five. There’s no way to predict now what might make you happy when you’re fifty.”

Her second and final piece of advice goes back to the Service Pillar, which she still holds dear. “Always be volunteering. That’s a rule I have for myself. If I’m healthy and able bodied, I’m always volunteering. Humans were meant to be productive.”

Leaving the Nest: Seven Faculty Members and Staffers Retiring in 2020

As three iconic faculty members and four trailblazing staffers leave the nest this year, their combined 172 years of service deserve a moment in the spotlight. They have taught and nurtured our students, helped build our community and culture, and their legacies will carry on.

Tina Nott, retiring Math teacher, was a founding member of the Middle School faculty, a co-founder of Middle School Focus Days, and the second woman to teach Math at Athenian. Joining Eleanor Dase, Munzer Afifi and Lester Henderson in a combined Middle School/Upper School Math department, she joined Athenian in 1982 and helped realize a vision to have more women teach STEM. 

Retiring French teacher Elisabeth Bertschi, who joined Athenian in 1986, brought with her “whole child” approaches to learning. Her rubrics for refreshing her curriculum were decades ahead of their time. Though she came to Athenian straight out of graduate school, she had a natural ability to connect with students. 

Retiring staffer Debbie Schafgans joined Athenian in 1987, initially in the Development (now Advancement) department. She was also a pioneer: the first staffer to use a personal computer for core elements of her role and one of the first to manage the digital integration of her department. 

As with Debbie Schafgans, retiring staffer Debra Ataman’s role evolved. She joined Athenian in 1997, working in Reception before becoming the Assistant to the Director of Special Programs in 2001. In the years following, Debra became heavily involved in community outreach and ultimately went on to be a key member of our Summer Programs, contributing to its significant growth over the years.

When asked about why Athenian staff and faculty are so well-equipped to play a variety of roles, former Head of School Eleanor Dase pointed to the many opportunities for faculty and staff to show leadership, such as chaperoning trips, organizing fundraisers, providing leadership in Round Square, Interim/March Term, and much more. If self-determination and grassroots organizing are part of Athenian’s DNA, it’s clear why retiring employees Lydia Guzman, Elise Jan and Barbara Carlino were so effective.

Lydia Guzman began her career at Athenian in 2000, serving for 20 years as the Attendance Officer. She also co-advised the Latino Club, raised more than $17,000 for the Monument Crisis Center over the years after co-founding the Tuesday Nacho Sale, organized the annual Athenian Pink Day to benefit breast cancer and served a run as Dean of Staff. Along with Debbie, she was an early regular attendee of the National Association of Independent Schools’ People of Color Conference (POCC) and an early champion of equity and inclusion at Athenian.

Barbara Carlino, who joined in 2007 as Upper School Counselor, founded longstanding programs as well. She co-created ASAP (the Athenian Sexual Assault Prevention Program), started the school’s peer counseling program, and shaped curriculum and culture by carrying out Athenian’s health education program for many years.

Mandarin teacher Elise Jan, who came to Athenian in 2009, is yet another lauded language teacher. She developed an innovative method of instruction that helped students achieve a level of fluency that wasn’t obtainable through classic approaches. Along the lines of holistic participation, she also chaperoned several trips abroad. 

Beyond what these outgoing women contributed as trailblazers from a curriculum and culture perspective, they contributed greatly to our enjoyment of the school. They gave hugs. They played pranks (we’re looking at you, Tina). They performed in countless Staff and Faculty Talent Shows. They were treasured friends. We will miss them all. 

Three Class of ’11 Alumni Talk About Returning to Athenian as Faculty/Staff

The start of the 2020-21 school year will mark a happy event: three alumni from the same class, together as staff or faculty on campus. Lauren Dominguez ‘11, former Assistant Dorm Head and continuing Assistant Coach for the swimming and freshman/sophomore basketball teams, and Donald Sherwood ‘11, Swim Coach, will be joined by former classmate, Samantha Bishop ‘11, in the coming year. 

In sitting down to chat with them, the questions were obvious: why did they choose to come back to work at Athenian? And, what is behind the special relationship between the Class of 2011 and the School?

Samantha, who returned to Athenian as a Summer English Language Program (SELP) teacher in 2019, will teach Pre-Algebra in the Middle School in the coming year. “There are so many opportunities Athenian creates to build relationships with students,” she said. “I’ve taught in public schools, where the opportunities just aren’t the same. I’m really looking forward to Focus Days and field trips. This is why I teach. I love the relationships I form.”

A chance to make meaningful connections also tied to Lauren’s decision to come back. “Everything in my life, I can trace back to something I learned or something I did at Athenian. The idea of being part of that experience for a current student is so appealing…Living in the dorms is fun, because I get to know students outside of their academic environment. The multicultural aspect of the dorms was perfect for me.”

Love for Athenian culture also factored into what made Donald a great candidate. Associate Director of Athletics, Josie Chapman, talked about what impressed she and Athletics Director, Darek Cliff, during the hiring process. “Darek and I were immediately impressed by his approach to “being Athenian.” We knew that he would embody that as a coach.”

Though not an Athenian teacher, Aaron Wiener ‘11, also works in education and is a longtime moderator of the Class of 2011 Facebook Group and an organizer of numerous online events. Aaron shared sentiments about the cohesiveness of the class of ‘11 when we talked to him in late April. “Overall, people are excited to be in contact and are liking the events; internationally-based people want in on the action and we’re working around time zone logistics.” 

Other reflections centered on the exhilaration of bridging past and present. “I have loved watching the physical changes of Athenian,” Lauren said. “I also love that so many teachers from my time are still here,” Samantha remarked. “When I saw this during the application process, I figured it was a good sign.”

Four Athenian Alumni Donate 10,000 Masks to Our Local Community

Pictured from left to right: Jim Lin ’07, father Ting-Fung Lin, Shannon Lin ’09

In an act of tremendous global philanthropy, four Athenian alumni joined forces to donate and coordinate the delivery of 10,000 surgical masks to our local community. The alumni, former boarding students from Taiwan, gave Athenian discretion around their distribution. Jim Lin ‘07 and Shannon Lin ‘09 were the original organizers. When friends Jamie Chang ‘08 and Wesley Yang ‘12 heard about the brothers’ idea, they quickly joined the effort.

“I checked in with Jim and Shannon when the pandemic hit,” said Michelle Park, Athenian’s International Student Coordinator, ESL teacher and longtime faculty member with the School. “I wanted to say hello and see if their family was well. They asked if we at Athenian needed anything in regards to supplies, as the U.S. was just entering the COVID-19 crisis. They wanted to make a donation and wanted Athenian to decide who should receive the masks.”

Pictured: Michelle Park and Eric Niles with Maeshah Shaw and Jelani Moses of SEIU-United Healthcare Workers

After a long and complicated shipping process, Athenian received its first delivery last week and has now received the remainder of the masks. Donations have already been made to the SEIU United Healthcare Worker’s Union, John Muir Hospital in Walnut Creek, the Springhill Medical Group, and The Gubbio Project, a non-profit serving the homeless community in San Francisco.

On Video: Jelani Moses of Kaiser Permanente

SEIU United Healthcare Workers West members Jelani Moses of Kaiser Permanente and Maeshah Shaw of San Ramon Regional Medical Center visited campus today to receive their donation of 4,200 surgical masks. In the video below, Jelani expresses his thanks.

Apart from sending a huge thanks to Jim, Shannon, Jamie and Wesley for their extraordinary kindness, we also appreciate those who worked to coordinate efforts on the Athenian side: Michelle Park and Vivian Liao.