The State University of New York has recognized Leigh Wilson as a Distinguished Service Professor, one of the SUNY system’s highest honors.

In addition to being an award-winning fiction writer, highly regarded teacher and chair of Oswego’s English and creative writing department, Wilson also directs the college’s creative writing program, campus-wide Grand Challenge’s Fresh Water for All initiative, the Interdisciplinary Programs and Activities Center and the Digital Oz storytelling project.

“Professor Wilson has been an extraordinarily consistent contributor and leader on our campus, community, state and nationally,” SUNY Oswego President Deborah F. Stanley wrote in a letter of nomination.

“She has created and led inspiring initiatives that have led to campus-wide interdisciplinary endeavors, as well as community-wide projects,” Stanley added. “She has shared her knowledge and expertise nationally -- she is often invited to speak on topics related to her service as well as her award winning scholarly and creative pursuits.”

Wilson, who began teaching at SUNY Oswego in 1984, “is an integral resource and leader to her peers, students, alumni, administrators and community members,” Stanley wrote. “She sets a fine example for others. … We are grateful for her many contributions to the ongoing success of the mission of this college.”

The nomination materials noted that Wilson’s service bridges her scholarship and teaching, establishing and building connections across disciplines, among students and with the broader community. She scaled up the campus-community Smart Neighbors Project, where multiple classes on campus work with a local business or nonprofit. Wilson also spearheads the current Grand Challenges project, Fresh Water for All, that connects classes and extracurricular activities on this issue that connects the college’s sense of place on the shores of Lake Ontario to local, national, and global communities addressing fresh-water needs.

Teacher and mentor

The co-founder and global editor-in-chief of Refinery29, SUNY Oswego alumna Christene Barberich said Wilson’s “coaching and encouragement made all the difference” in the journey from college student to a prominent publishing leader.

“I was so thrilled to hear that Leigh was applying for this nomination, as her influence on me, my writing and my attitudes around being a creative professional person didn’t end when I graduated in 1991,” Barberich noted. Wilson “helped set the stage for me -- to see myself as a determined and disciplined thinker AND doer,” Barberich wrote.

“In fact, so much of what she taught me in those early years -- to have courage with my writing and ideas, to be a strong female role model, to find comfort and motivation from taking risks -- eventually helped me to launch an award-winning magazine and co-create the media company Refinery29, which now reaches close to 500 million users every month,” she added. “I cannot think of someone who deserves the honor and the opportunity more than she does.”

“When I think of what people call ‘a whole human being,’ Leigh is certainly the model,” wrote William Trowbridge, an award-winning former poet laureate of Missouri and Distinguished University Professor Emeritus for Northwest Missouri State University. The acclaimed poet and educator recalled meeting a 22-year-old well-published Wilson in 1981 at a writers’ conference where she “was the star of our group.” 

“The next year, she won the prestigious Flannery O’Connor Prize in fiction from the University of Georgia Press for her short story collection ‘From the Bottom Up,’” Trowbridge noted. “Having read most of Leigh’s stories, I -- among others -- believe she is among America’s very best fiction writers. I’ve never seen a more dynamic, effective creative writing teacher, in or out of the classroom.” 

'Phenomenal person'

Kristi Eck, chief of staff to President Stanley, has worked with Wilson on several key initiatives and praised her as "a phenomenal person and dedicated and engaged professor who really cares about her students, colleagues and about the institution."

"Leigh is a true part of the fabric and strength of SUNY Oswego. We are very fortunate to have a person of Leigh's caliber and achievement as a faculty member at our college," Eck wrote. "Leigh has published five books and over 30 other publications since earning her degrees and during her time as a faculty member at SUNY Oswego -- demonstrating her exceptional ability to remain an active and highly acclaimed scholar in her field while being a dynamic, effective and highly engaged professor and community member at SUNY Oswego and in the surrounding communities of Central New York."

Kristin Croyle, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences faculty that includes Wilson, noted that Wilson's "influence at SUNY Oswego and in the local community is both unmistakable and subtle."

"She spearheaded the common problem pedagogy approach that was one aspect that attracted me to the institution," Croyle wrote. "The Smart Neighbors program she developed ... stood out to me when I visited the community. Her influence has truly enriched the student experience, local community and institution. ... She is highly respected among her peers and is a sought out contributor and collaborator."

John Rucynski, an associate professor in the Center of Liberal Arts and Language Education for Okayama University in Japan, said that when traveling back to Upstate New York, meeting with Wilson is always a highlight.

Wilson’s “service is an outgrowth of her creative work” showing she “is an incredibly creative person who was drawn to the writing profession because of her interest in people and the human condition,” he wrote. When Rucynski graduated from SUNY Oswego in 1994, he thought of Wilson as his best and most influential teacher, but that view has expanded, he wrote: “Professor Wilson realized that she could use her creativity and enthusiasm to be much more than just a teacher for a select group of students. Her constant innovation, passion, commitment and service make her worthy of this rare and special honor.”