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Alumnae
Distinguished Alumnae
HELENA

HELENA "HOLLY" WORTHEN ’60

Professor Emerita of Labor and Employment Relations

A writer, a cellist, a higher ed policy analyst, a workers’ advocate, Helena “Holly'' Worthen is a renaissance woman who has dedicated much of her professional life to labor education. After graduating from Radcliffe/Harvard, Holly won a Wallace Stegner Creative Writing Fellowship at Stanford University where she would be the only woman in the program.She stayed on for a second year to get a master’s degree in creative writing and then traveled to Israel, where she found the theme of her first published novel, Perimeters. Her voracious intellectual appetite led to additional master’s degrees in landscape architecture and adult literacy from the University of California, Berkeley. 
By the late 1970s she was a single mom faced with supporting her children and took jobs teaching. For the next 16 years she was an adjunct instructor of English, literature, writing and composition at six Bay Area universities and community colleges where her students were single moms, Vietnam vets, and immigrants fleeing oppressive regimes in their homelands and hoping for opportunities in a new one. Holly’s writing assignments often were grounded in writing personal reflections not only as a way to draw out her nontraditional students but to teach the importance of telling one’s story and of owning the choices we make.  

She returned to the University of California Berkeley for her Ph.D. and in 1997 completed her prizewinning dissertation on community college literacy practices. Much of her dissertation forms chapters in Honored but Invisible: An Inside Look at Teaching in Community Colleges. Holly’s years as an adjunct instructor teaching primarily low-wage earning workers led her to what would be the focus of the rest of her professional career—labor education. She accepted a tenure track position at the University of Illinois Labor Education Program in Chicago and Champaign Urbana where, once again, she taught women workers in the Polk Women’s Labor Leadership Program and nontraditional students in programs that focused on the skilled trades. 

As one of her colleagues at the University of Illinois noted of Holly, “she was a dedicated labor educator with the capacity to teach several different subjects. . . .Throughout her career, [Holly] was committed to serving the field of labor education, particularly as a mentor to more junior female teachers.” After a decade at Illinois, California called and she spent a year as a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley. From 2015-17, as part of an exchange program between the US and Vietnam labor movements, she and her second husband taught labor and globalization, collective bargaining and cross-cultural leadership to young men and women in the Faculty of Labor Relations and Trade Unions at Ton Duc Thang University in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. 

A past vice president of the United Association for Labor Education, Holly is a longtime member of the National Writers Union, having served on the national executive board and as co-chair of the Chicago chapter. In addition to two novels (her second one was Damages), she also wrote two books on labor relations, including What Did You Learn at Work Today, which was awarded the Best Book related to labor education in 2014 by the United Association for Labor Education. She and her husband, Joe Berry’s, recent book is Power Despite Precarity: Strategies for the Contingent Faculty Movement in Higher Education. Holly has co-authored numerous journal articles, commentaries and chapters on labor education and the history of the labor movement and has presented at conferences around the country and abroad. 

Four years ago the world shifted and the Class of 1960’s 60th reunion pivoted from in person to virtual. What might have been a one-time ZOOM experience casually catching up on the surface layer of their lives became instead an ongoing, deep and multilayered conversation that has continued every other Friday afternoon for almost four years. Much of that can be attributed to Holly’s guidance in drawing out personal stories, just as she did all those years in the classroom. In their nomination of Holly, the class “zoomers” noted that “Holly has provided rare leadership in bringing together a dissociated, disparate group of classmates who deeply value their Laurel education and have come, through our Zoom encounters, to value the differences and similarities in our subsequent lives and to share themes, some of which we would never have discussed sixty years ago. 

“We celebrate Holly's commitment to hearing and respecting all our voices and points of view. While we are a homogenous group in many respects, we possess a variety of policy and ideological perspectives. … Instead of criticizing or demonizing those of us whose ideas are not our own, we have demonstrated a measure of tolerance and understanding and learned a great deal from one another.” 

For her notable work as an author and labor educator working to improve conditions for nontraditional college students and the adjunct faculty who teach them and for the integral role she plays in shaping the profoundly engaging and vital Class of 1960 conversation, a true model for civil discourse and community building, the Laurel School Alumnae Association recognizes Helena “Holly” Worthen ’60 with the Lifetime Achievement Award.
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