By Erin Wispelwey
Susan Rizzo, the program manager for Center for Health and Wellbeing (CHW) and the grants administrator for the CHW and Research Program in Development Studies will be celebrating retirement at the end of February. Susan has added the magic to make things happen behind the scenes of the CHW and cares for everyone in the office, helping new people settle in and feel welcomed. Janet Currie, the Henry Putnam Professor of Economics and Public Affairs at Princeton University and Director of Princeton's Center for Health and Wellbeing said, “When I think of Susan, many things come to mind: Her quiet competence; her unflappable calm and ability to find a way forward when the unexpected happens; and her wonderful sense of style - not only personal style, but style in the deeper sense of knowing just what should be done. Susan is altogether a class act. As a person who was both new to the Princeton faculty and new to being a center director, Susan was instrumental in helping me to land on my feet, get things moving in a good direction, and keep them on track. I am extremely grateful for everything she has done for me and for CHW, and wish her the best for the next chapter in her life” In addition to keeping tabs on grant requirements for faculty research, and ensuring that academic visitors have a productive and smooth visit at Princeton for over 25 years, she is an accomplished figurative and abstract painter.
Recently I sat down with Susan to hear her wisdom and learn more about her career Princeton. The following is our conversation—edited for clarity and space.
Erin: You’ve been here for 25 years. How did you first start working at Princeton and how have your roles evolved over time?
Susan: I was born in Princeton. My parents moved here after WWII when a lot of people were looking for places to start their families, and my father stumbled across Princeton.
After college, I moved to San Francisco for about 18 years and during that time I attended the Academy of Art. I came back to Princeton in 1992 to be near my family, and needed to find a new job. I looked to Princeton University and was hired in the undergraduate program office at the Woodrow Wilson School. After I was in that office for about nine years, I thought it was time to see what other opportunities are were open on campus, and found CHW was hiring. Christina Paxton, the founding director, was looking for a program manager and I’ve been here ever since. As the first program manager (and actually the only person working with Chris in the beginning), I had the ability to set up the systems, and organize things. I wore a lot of hats. It’s been wonderful to see CHW grow into the vibrant center it has become.
Erin: What do you like about Princeton - the university and the town?
Susan: Princeton as an employer is the most generous employer that I’ve ever encountered. I have really loved working here. The town of Princeton is a beautiful, peaceful, almost bucolic place to live with a wonderful academic and cultural community. I drive through town every day to come to campus and I’m never tired of it. Both Princeton as a town, and the university campus have grown and changed enormously since I was a child.
Erin: Gilbert Collins, Director of the Global Health Program, shared that “Susan takes great pride in her work and knows how to get things done. I rely on her expertise every day!” What are the day-to-day functions of your job that you find most fulfilling?
Susan: I work with a lot of budgets and track the funds that flow into and out of CHW. I enjoy working with numbers and spreadsheets. I also like solving problems—whether it’s reconciling a statement or helping a visitor sort out the logistics of their stay—and I enjoy my coworkers and others I work with on campus. I am somewhat behind the scenes in my position. Janet [Currie] and Gilbert [Collins] will say who we want to bring in as a visitor and what we want to do and I’m the person that helps make it happen. I find accomplishing these things to be very satisfying.
Erin: I’ve heard you say, “I’m an artist, and my Princeton job is what I do during the day.” Can you tell me more about your art?
Susan: Even as a very small child, I liked to be alone with crayons, pencils, and paper. I’ve always loved to draw but when I was in high school, I had a wonderful art teacher who mentored me. We would go into the country outside of Princeton and paint old barns and landscapes. She was an amazing watercolor artist. I was horrible at it. Thankfully in later years I discovered oils and acrylics.
At The Academy of Art in San Francisco I studied illustration and graphic design, but moved to fine art after graduating. People ask, “why do you paint?” It’s because I can’t not do it. It’s like eating or breathing. I put it aside for years when my children were young. Once they went off to college, I started painting again. It was a slow process of rediscovery because I felt out of practice. Now I’m focusing more on my art, and have a studio in my house.
As an artist, I’ve been finding myself in a new way and continually asking “what is my voice”, and “what do I want to say?” I use painting to create visual expressions of life’s experiences and my impressions of the world around me. Our brains seek to make sense of what our eyes are seeing. That’s one reason I love abstract and impressionist art. Each viewer of my work sees different things in a painting, and has different emotional responses than other viewers. That’s why, to me, art is so powerful. With my representative and figurative art, I paint conceptually and I think of an emotion or a time in life and try to express that by using the figure.
Erin: How do you come up with either the emotion or the other things you want to represent?
Susan: The first paint stroke you put down or the first sentence in a book—if you’re a writer—is somehow going to dictate where the rest of the piece goes. Often, I’ll start a painting and I’ll have a general concept, for example, I’m working on a painting now called hope. It’s a very abstract landscape with a lot of sky, and when I’m working on it, I have an idea where it’s going but when I step back, I see other things. So my brain, even in the process of doing an abstract piece, will see new things and then I will go with it and paint in that direction. I still keep the original concept, in this case, hope, but the painting starts to take over even though it’s me putting the paint on the canvas the whole time. It’s a fascinating process.
Erin: You’ve been at Princeton for 25 years. Where do you see yourself going in the next 25 years?
Susan: I have a pretty strong vision, and I think it’s important to actually visualize where you want to be. Now I’m building a vision for my retirement and my passions are painting, gardening, and yoga. Where those will take me, I don’t know but I trust that it’s going to be very fulfilling.
Erin: You’ve built a lot of self-reflection and self-learning into your career. Do you have any career advice for those just launching careers and, on the other side, do you have career advice for other people who are coming towards retirement?
Susan: Early on at Princeton, I was fortunate to have someone advocate for me, and I’ve had great mentors. I think these are important for progressing at Princeton or in any area of life. I started to see that I could build something for myself here and that is why I’ve stayed for 25 years, because it became very fulfilling. Princeton now offers so many opportunities for learning and growing in a position here.
I do know some people who are nearing retirement and don’t know what they would do with themselves without an office to go to during the week. I’m fortunate and blessed to have my art, but if I didn’t I would take time to think deeply about myself, to figure out where I could be of service, and what I could do to just have fun. There’s time in retirement to strengthen friendships, find new hobbies, and spend more time with family.
I think everyone, no matter where they are in life’s journey, needs to take time every day to sit down, turn off the TV, put the phone down, and be self-reflective and answer for themselves, “what do I want?, how can I grow?, what can I do to contribute?” Being in retirement is the time to devote ourselves to these things after having worked for decades.
Thanks so much for taking the time to share Susan, you will be missed by everyone at Princeton and we can’t wait to see more of your work in the local art shows!
"When I think of Susan, many things come to mind: Her quiet competence; her unflappable calm and ability to find a way forward when the unexpected happens; and her wonderful sense of style - not only personal style, but style in the deeper sense of knowing just what should be done. Susan is altogether a class act. As a person who was both new to the Princeton faculty and new to being a center director, Susan was instrumental in helping me to land on my feet, get things moving in a good direction, and keep them on track. I am extremely grateful for everything she has done for me and for CHW, and wish her the best for the next chapter in her life." - Janet Curry
“Susan is in so many ways the glue that holds the Center for Health and Wellbeing together. Having been here since the inception of the office, she knows just about everything about our history, growth, and accomplishments. Susan takes great pride in her work and knows how to get things done. I rely on her expertise every day! She also cares for all of us as individuals, taking time to organize social gatherings and helping new people settle in. Students, faculty, and staff alike all appreciate Susan’s many contributions to CHW’s mission.” - Gilbert Collins