Alumni honor former professor with graduate award endowment

Susan Bedsworth
August 28, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — For many students, regardless of their field of study, there is a class or subject they are nervous to take. Sometimes, however, it is in those classes that a student finds an inspirational teacher — a teacher who makes learning what may be a difficult subject a joy to learn. For alumni Louis Swanson and Carol Gertsch, that subject was statistics, and the teacher was Fern “Bunny” Willits, professor emerita in the Department of Agricultural Economics, Sociology, and Education.

Dr. Louis Swanson and Dr. Carol Gertsch

Penn State alumni Louis Swanson and Carol Gertsch have created the Dr. Fern “Bunny” Willits Graduate Award Endowment in Rural Sociology. 

IMAGE: Provided

To honor Willits and give back to the department in which Swanson earned his doctorate and Gertsch earned her master’s degree, the couple has created the Dr. Fern “Bunny” Willits Graduate Award Endowment in Rural Sociology. The endowment, established with a $50,000 gift, will benefit graduate students pursuing a degree in rural sociology who have strong academic records and potential for success.

While Swanson and Gertsch did not take Willits’ class at the same time, they both came away having had the same experience.

“Bunny made these classes incredibly interesting and easy,” said Swanson, vice president for engagement and director of Colorado State University Extension. “I learned statistics in a way that made it applicable.”

Gertsch agreed, saying, “Bunny made statistics interesting in a real-world way. She helped you understand that statistics was not just a mechanism to crunch data for the sake of writing a paper. Statistics can help you understand the world and the issues around you better.”

According to Gertsch, a physical therapist, Willits had a gift for making every student feel that any diligent, hard-working student could master statistics. She had a gift for making statistics relevant and understandable, and she could convince students of every background that they could master the material.

Willits, who taught for 55 years in the College of Agricultural Sciences, said she aimed to help students understand how to use statistics as a tool. She believed a detailed understanding of the theoretical basis of statistical theory was no more necessary for the effective use of such methods in research than knowledge of food chemistry was for being a good cook.

As a result, her courses focused on the practical issues of when to use certain common statistical tools in the research process, how to calculate those tools, and what they did and did not tell the researcher. In response to students’ requests, over the years Willits developed three sequential graduate-level applied courses, affectionately dubbed by students “Bunny 1,” “Bunny 2,” and “Bunny 3.”

Swanson and Gertsch, who are both retiring in September of this year, believe in the power of philanthropy. The pair recognized how beneficial departmental financial support was to their education, but with a son also pursuing a doctorate at another university, they know there are often gaps in that support.

“We wanted to be able to support a student who was meeting the high standards of the department, was committed to the program, and was doing good work,” said Gertsch. “We feel like it’s paying back the support we got by giving support to a student in the future.”

When asked what it means to be honored in such a way, Willits said, “I have had so much fun through the years working with wonderful students. Especially satisfying has been hearing from former students, sometimes years later, how much they learned and how meaningful that learning was to them in their careers. The Dr. Fern ‘Bunny’ Willits Graduate Award Endowment is an amazing and overwhelming expression of that appreciation. I am truly honored.”

The Dr. Fern “Bunny” Willits Graduate Award Endowment is the second graduate award of its kind in the Department of Agricultural Economics, Sociology, and Education.

“Graduate awards, such as the Dr. Fern ‘Bunny’ Willits Graduate Award Endowment, provide crucial opportunities to enhance the professional experiences of students,” said Laszlo Kulcsar, department head and professor of rural sociology and demography. “Graduate education includes a variety of unique events and experiences, including conferences, trainings, fieldwork and professional immersion beyond taking classes and writing an academic thesis. The opportunity to tailor support to unique needs helps the department to effectively deliver high-quality graduate education.”

According to Kulcsar, these types of gifts have both direct and indirect impacts. The most obvious direct impacts are an increased pool of resources to help provide students with such things as research materials, travel funding for conferences and other events, living expenses, and more. Indirect impacts include the opportunity for students to gain firsthand experience navigating an environment — in this case the academic research realm — where in order to be successful they must find and leverage various financial resources in addition to what is offered by the institution. Finally, he said, gifts like these also help inspire recipients to give back in the future to help others.

The Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences represents the foundation of Penn State and its land-grant mission to serve the public good. To fulfill that mission for a new era of rapid change and global connections, the University is pursuing "A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence," a fast-paced campaign focused on the three key imperatives of a twenty-first-century public university: Open Doors, Create Transformative Experiences, and Impact the World. Through teaching, research and Extension, and because of generous alumni and friends, the College of Agricultural Sciences is able to offer scholarships to one in four students, create life-shaping opportunities, and make a difference in the world by fueling discovery, innovation and entrepreneurship. To learn more about supporting the college, visit Information about the campaign is available at

Last Updated September 17, 2019