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Tuesday, December 11, 2018

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Alana Nicastro ('93, '97) is a former instructor in San Diego State University's School of Communication. Alana Nicastro ('93, '97) is a former instructor in San Diego State University's School of Communication.

The Unforgettable Doctor Nicastro

The Alana Nicastro Endowed Scholarship in Communication will provide annual scholarships for communication students in perpetuity.
By Tobin Vaughn

Although 15 years have passed since Billy Fallon (’03, ’05) took a gender communications class at San Diego State University, he clearly remembers the first session. The instructor walked into the room, confronted her students and asked, “How would you like to begin?” The question dumbfounded the class.

“She just folded her arms and stood there,” Fallon recalled. “There was a long, uncomfortable silence. I thought she was crazy.”

But as a few students tentatively began volunteering their thoughts, the awkward silence turned into a serious discussion. Fallon soon came to view the instructor, Alana Nicastro (’93, ’97), as innovative and thought-provoking.

What she had done, he realized, was force students to examine a learning experience from a different perspective. Nicastro had challenged them to take ownership of their learning.

"One of many things I ended up taking away is that unlike professors who will (merely) impart their knowledge, she asks difficult questions and lets you struggle with them for a while,” he said. “Those kinds of questions are the ones that develop critical thinking and nurture a love for learning and self-discovery that certainly made a big difference in my wanting to pursue a graduate degree."

Violating norms

Now a lecturer in SDSU’s School of Communication, Fallon recently invited Nicastro to address students in his class, Communications in Professional Settings.  

Describing herself as a researcher at heart, Nicastro said her passion is helping people build their skills. When asked about her teaching style, she reflected on the questions she would pose on the first day of class that often initially elicited stunned from students.

“That is something I would do because I like to violate the social norms,” Nicastro said. “Then we can study how we make sense of our surroundings.”

As a qualitative researcher, Nicastro prefers ethnographic methods in her approach to teaching. She tries to understand the perspectives of her students before trying to present a curriculum.

“I think very carefully about what content I am going to share or what boundaries I am going to create so students can make sense of the content,” she said. “Then I think about inspiring them.”

It seems to work. Student reviews of her courses are overwhelmingly positive.

A generosity of spirit

For almost two decades, Nicastro taught a variety of courses in SDSU’s School of Communication. These days, she works for the United States Marine Corps at a center of excellence called the Marine Corps Tactics and Operations Group (MCTOG) where she offers a different perspective on educating personnel.

“I challenge military personnel to analyze their practices and hopefully encourage new ways of thinking and learning," she said. “A lot of the work I do stems from what I learned in the master’s program in communication here at San Diego State. Our renowned communications faculty prepared me well.”

An appreciation for that preparation, along with a continuing dedication to SDSU communication students, have inspired a planned gift from Nicastro to SDSU.

The donation will create the Alana Nicastro Endowed Scholarship in Communication in the College of Professional Studies and Fine Arts. The scholarships offer graduate students opportunities to present their research at national and international conferences, and funding them through an endowment will guarantee long-term support. Nicastro said her gift was made in appreciation of the opportunities SDSU offered her.

"I thought San Diego State was generous in developing my talents, so it's the least I can do,” she said. “I believe teaching is about creating a space for our students to do their best thinking, and I feel that was the gift I received while I attended this university. I just want to extend the gift to others."

An initial skeptic who came to admire Nicastro’s teaching style and appreciate her commitment to students, Fallon said he is not surprised she would find a way to extend her positive influence for years to come.

"She has a generosity of spirit and I think she is outstanding,” he said. “I am here to tell you that she had an impact in our department, absolutely."

Now, through her scholarship endowment, she always will.