As a "colored" girl growing up in segregated South Africa, Penelope "Penny" Andrews obtained intellectual salvation from the Irish nuns who provided her with the knowledge, confidence and discipline to lead.
Now, as the newly installed 17th president and dean of Albany Law School, Andrews hopes to offer the next generation of Albany-educated lawyers the blessings she received from the Dominicans.
"When students come into this building, all students, whether they come from poor backgrounds, whether they are people of color, whether they are women, they are already part of a small elite, with the potential to be very powerful leaders," said Andrews, the first woman to lead the school since it opened in 1851. "I want them to embrace that when they walk in. I want to help them see themselves as leaders, as being able to go forward and to be powerful people -- what the nuns did for me."
Andrews on July 1 took over a law school that, like many, has seen a dramatic drop in applications and a decline in the bar passage rate and is concerned about whether its debt-laden graduates can find jobs.
Mary Ann Cody, chairwoman of the school's board of trustees, said resolving those issues will require a bold and innovative approach, one that the board is confident that Andrews brings.
"Other than her stellar academic reputation as an international scholar and authority on human rights, she has a number of qualities that allow her to address these issues," Cody said. "She is tenacious, she is conscientious. She is also ambitious and industrious. We think she is very conscientious about the placement opportunities, an evolving role of law schools."
Andrews came to Albany most recently from the City University of New York School of Law, where she was a professor and associate dean and dealt with issues similar to those she faces in Albany. But her roots are in apartheid-ruled South Africa.
"I grew up in a 'colored' community," Andrews, 57, said in an interview last week. "I went to school with only 'colored' children. I had no interaction with whites. It was what I think Jim Crow would have looked like in the South in terms of where people lived, where they went to school and their aspirations. The idea was that you really couldn't go beyond a certain integrational level to be a full citizen."
Andrews views herself as mixed race, something of an understatement since her bloodline flows with Jewish, Malaysian, Scottish and Rhodesian heritage. In South Africa, it distilled to "colored," and relegated her to the back of the bus.
"We knew we couldn't travel on buses designated for whites only," she said. "We couldn't go to parks. We couldn't go to movie theaters. Our big thing in high school was trying to go to a movie theater and daring them to kick us out. We sat in the movie theater and were petrified."