Fontanella Ebstein Reflects on 30 Years at Wesleyan

(By Ann Bertini)

Gemma Fontanella Ebstein is leaving her role as Wesleyan’s Associate Vice President for Advancement at the end of December, following a 30-year career at the University.

During her tenure, Fontanella Ebstein has helped the Office of Advancement expand and foster lifelong alumni and parent loyalty and support for Wesleyan. An important part of this work has come through facilitating local and global events, and overseeing the merging of Reunion and Commencement weekends (2000) and Homecoming with Family Weekend (1995). Fontanella Ebstein also led University Communications and the Gordon Career Center through leadership transitions, and has helped cultivate a culture of Wesleyan pride among her teams and anywhere her work has taken her.

“My entire time at Wesleyan has been spent under Gemma’s leadership and tutelage,” said Director of Special Events Deana Hutson, whom Fontanella Ebstein hired 21 years ago to help centralize Reunion and Commencement. “I have learned so much from her—from her innate ability to problem-solve through collaboration to the importance of empowering her team in a way that is genuine, nurturing, and respectful. I am so appreciative of how much she has contributed to my experience at Wesleyan and for the friendship that resulted from this journey.”

Fontanella Ebstein began her Wesleyan career as part of the Alumni Relations and Development team in the late 1980s. She stepped away from the University for other fundraising opportunities before returning to join the Wesleyan Annual Fund full-time several years later under the leadership of Alumni Director Emeritus John Driscoll ’62. “He hired me twice,” Fontanella Ebstein said, citing Driscoll as a strong positive influence on her work.

Her work has been driven by her passion for and commitment to financial aid and access.

“I was a first-generation college student,” said Fontanella Ebstein, who graduated from Williams College. “I didn’t interview or visit schools. I knew I had to attend whichever one gave me the most money, and that I’d be happy anywhere. I would not be where I am now without financial aid. So, I am inspired by raising money for Wesleyan whether indirectly or directly. I have truly enjoyed meeting new people and connecting them with Wes in mutually beneficial ways.”

Within Wesleyan’s Office of Advancement, Fontanella Ebstein has served as a director of Alumni and Parent Relations; Events; and Administration. She was named an assistant vice president in 2005, and associate vice president in 2008. From 2008 to 2010, she was tapped to lead University Communications to reorganize the department and bolster its focus on digital media, and subsequently served as the Career Center’s interim director.

Fontanella Ebstein’s influence on Wesleyan has been far-reaching. For example, in the spring of 1995, she worked closely with a first-year student named Makaela Kingsley ’98 (then Steinberg), who was originally hired to work during Reunion weekend.

“That experience turned into a 25-year Wesleyan career thanks to Gemma’s mentorship, advocacy, and friendship,” said Kingsley, who is now the director of the Patricelli Center for Social Entrepreneurship. “Working for Gemma, I learned the art of alumni engagement and project management. I learned to embrace change, and to keep the larger mission in mind while diligently executing the immediate tasks at hand. I use these lessons in my life and work every single day.”

In turn, Fontanella Ebstein is also quick to mention her own Wesleyan mentors. “I’ve learned so much from so many people,” she said, citing President Michael S. Roth ’78 and retired Vice President Barbara-Jan Wilson for giving her many opportunities to grow at the University. “I never had a career plan and people are always surprised by that because I am such a planner. To have had the privilege to work with the cream of the crop—from alumni and faculty, to staff and students—has just been amazing. I’ve always loved my job and I have no regrets.”