Holy Family’s Dr. Anne Prisco is out to embrace the transforming diversity of Philly
The relatively new university president took over amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and is excited about what the future holds for the institution.
When Dr. Anne Prisco first arrived as the new president of Holy Family University in Philadelphia on July 12, 2021, the COVID-19 pandemic looked to finally be on the downward swing after more than a year of holding the world captive.
There was a robust vaccination campaign playing out, and people long holed up in their houses were beginning to rediscover the joys of being outside in the Summer and in the physical presence of other people.
Upon Prisco’s arrival, the plans were grand.
“We talked about having an inauguration in the Fall… everybody needs a big party and celebration, so won’t it be wonderful?” she said of the first week plans.
Within a week of Prisco’s arrival, COVID-19 had reemerged in a new form — the Delta variant — and education leaders like her were left scrambling again to develop an action plan with the pandemic in mind.
The good news was that there wasn’t actually as much of said scrambling this time. There was a vaccine, and it was proven that wearing masks could stem a good amount of the virus transmission.
“We knew people were vaccinated and if they wore masks, that we were much more likely to be able to be together inside,” said Prisco.
With that in mind, the university quickly mandated vaccinations for all its students — something Prisco also said is in line with the university’s mission and values.
“We’re Holy Family. We’re responsible to each other, we care about our community. So how do we stay together? We get vaccinated and when we’re inside we put a mask on,” she said.
That message of community and responsibility to one another is what first drew Prisco to Holy Family from Felician University in North Jersey. Beyond the mission, values and strong academic standing, it also allowed her and husband to stay close to their roots in the Northeast.
Prisco is the daughter of Italian immigrants born in Brooklyn, New York. When describing her life journey from those beginnings, she offered a personalized version of a popular saying.
“What’s the difference between an immigrant construction worker and a university president?”
In Prisco’s case, it’s one generation, as her father was sponsored to come to the U.S. by a distant cousin in the 1950s. He came to live out his American dream of getting work and starting a family.
For his kids, school became a number one priority, and a young Anne developed an early fondness for the environment throughout her time in Catholic grammar school and then when she transitioned to a much larger public high school.
“I aspired to be a secondary school teacher,” said Prisco. “To be a high school teacher in my family, that was aspirational.”
That desire to be in the classroom would stick with her throughout her career.
Her parents also supported her in that dream and she went locally to community college before getting some scholarships to make the first big jump from Brooklyn to the University of Arizona.
Prisco admits the move was not a popular one with her father, but let her go because they had family in nearby Phoenix.
“It was a very big deal,” she said.
But in many ways, Prisco’s first jump cross country continued her embrace of difference throughout her life.
It started with the first jump from grammar school to a large public school, and then from a diverse Democratic bastion like New York City to a red, but still diverse Arizona.
“I always say it’s good because it forces you to feel like the ‘other,’ and learn how to assimilate,” said Prisco.
She studied family and consumer science while also getting involved as a student organizer and working in the school’s financial aid office.
The latter would be the key experience she obtained to carry her career after undergrad.
When Prisco graduated in 1979 and came back to New York City it was in the throes of a recession and she couldn’t find a teaching job. Instead, her first position was in Fordham University’s financial aid office as an entry-level financial aid counselor.
As she gained more experience, the world of financial aid opened her eyes to its ability to help people go to school and jumpstart their careers and lives. Prisco also found an interest in learning more about the rules and regulations around financial aid.
But to progress further, she also came to another realization.
“I opened my eyes to higher ed administration, and realized I kind of had a knack for it. I liked it, but I better get an MBA because I really have no background in business,” said Prisco.
With that in mind, she got her Masters in Business Administration from Fordham and then went back to work at the university as an assistant director in its financial aid office.
“It was the early 80s, so it was real ra-ra days in New York City. I could’ve just jumped on a subway, gone down to Wall Street. I had a degree in finance. I could’ve joined a Wall Street firm, but again, my heart was in education,” said Prisco.
From Fordham, at 25 years old, Prisco moved on to Saint Francis University in Brooklyn as the director of its financial aid office.
“Everyone in the office was older that reported to me, all my peers across the institution were older than me,” she said.
Instead of demanding respect via seniority, she relied on intuitive professional development and honed in on the rules and regulations of financial aid to lead.
Within six years, Prisco was an executive director and “hit a wall” as she described the place in her life.
“I really want to teach. I miss the classroom. That’s what I got into this for,” were her thoughts.
Luckily, she soon got an adjunct position at St. Johns University teaching management and economics courses. It turned into a full-time teaching position that she held for 10 years.
The only thing to get Prisco to leave was to pursue a doctorate degree at Columbia University in economics and education while also trying to start a family.
“I’m not a superwoman,” she said. “I did not get to teach and pursue a P.h.D at Columbia University and raise my children by myself. I have a supportive husband. We have two sets of grandparents who love my sons and want nothing more than to help us raise them.”
When she graduated again at 43, she was also not in a position anymore to take an entry-level job. After a year of doing research, Prisco caught wind from peers in the industry about an associate provost position at Lehman College. She applied, got it, and so began her introduction to higher ed leadership in 2001.
Much like her introduction to financial aid, it piqued an interest for Prisco.
“I really liked trying to help figure things out, make things better for the students, and the faculty and the staff,” she said. “How do we advance together?”
She would carry that attitude from Lehman to nearby Hunter College before making her next cross country move to Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, California, where she was the vice president for enrollment management.
Prisco stayed in Los Angeles for six years before coming back to the East Coast to take her first presidency at Felician University in 2012, where she was the first lay person to helm the institution.
To get over the divide, she’s learned over time to focus on the mission and values of the institution, and carrying them out.
“I think you have to become very intentional to be clear about your understanding,” said Prisco. “What does that mean in this day and age and how do we provide the right program and the right education opportunities for the students we’re called to serve now?”
In Philadelphia at Holy Family, where she is also the first lay president in the school’s history, that means interacting with a lot of different populations.
At the top of Prisco’s list is positioning the school as best as possible to serve the changing demographics of the city. According to the latest census data, that means more emphasis on Latinx, Asian and Black populations, which are all becoming bigger majorities in Philly as the decades pass.
“The whole idea of diversity and inclusion for me is a wonderful opportunity because there are lots of different people in Philly,” said Prisco. “How do we all get to learn together and be educated, and be in classrooms together? That’s how we learn from each other.”
Beyond embracing diversity, Prisco’s goals include making the university more integrated with its communities in Bucks County, Newtown, Northeast Philly and Center City, revamping its internship requirements for graduation and making sure the growing, diverse student body graduates with a solid foundation to build a career on.
All are things that have Prisco excited about Holy Family’s future.