Next-Generation Leader
With a background in the sciences and decades of experience in academia, newly appointed head of school Wendy L. Hill leads the girls of The Agnes Irwin School into the future
by Leigh Stuart

On July 1, one of southeastern Pennsylvania’s most storied academies—The Agnes Irwin School (AIS) in Rosemont, for girls in pre-Kindergarten through grade 12—stepped into a new future with the appointment of a new head of school, Wendy L. Hill, Ph.D. The Agnes Irwin School, which has been providing exceptional education to young women since 1869, officially celebrated Hill’s new position during a formal, all-school convocation ceremony, held September 5.

Hill, now the 13th AIS head of school, possesses a fascinating background studded with an eclectic mix of talents and qualifications. Her academic career started at Douglass College of Rutgers University in New Jersey, where she earned an undergraduate degree with honors in psychology. Hill went on to earn a Ph.D. in animal behavior from the psychology department of the University of Washington in Seattle. She conducted research in the field in locations including Sweden and the Pacific Northwest that won her recognition from respected national institutions, including the Fulbright Commission, the American Museum of Natural History and the American Ornithologists’ Union.

Most recently, Hill served as provost and dean of faculty, a faculty member and founding chair of the neuroscience program at Lafayette College in Easton. Hill spent 25 illustrious years with Lafayette College and in 2002 she was named William C. ’67 and Pamela Rappolt Professor of Neuroscience. She also made such an impact on Lafayette College during her time there that her name now graces the school’s neuroscience lab.

It was, in fact, a colleague on the Lafayette College board of trustees, Joseph T. Cox, Ph.D., who introduced Hill to AIS and informed her of the opening for the position she now occupies.

“The more I learned about the school, the more impressed I became,” says Hill. “The staff here truly is dedicated to the school and to each girl’s development and growth.”

Perhaps most importantly, however, were the opinions of those who Hill would be charged to lead.

“I met with various student groups last fall, while I was a candidate,” she explains. “I met groups from both the Lower School, and Middle and Upper Schools. The students were articulate, poised and confident, and that pulled me in.”

Hill made as great of impression on the AIS community as the students made on her. Ann Sonnenfeld, chair of the AIS Board of Trustees and alumna, class of 1977, is but one of the members who felt Hill was perfect the candidate to take the helm at AIS.

“In just the short time she’s been with us, she has been wonderful,” Sonnenfeld says.

Sonnenfeld played an integral role in organizing and participating as a member of the search committee tasked with finding a head of school to fill the vacancy left when the previous head of school, Mary F. Seppala, Ph.D., retired. As such, Sonnenfeld found herself involved in every step of identifying, and getting to know, the candidates in the pool, which comprised approximately 70 people.

“Wendy’s experience, her background, her manner and her thoughtfulness all sort of coalesced in everyone’s minds to make her the most outstanding candidate,” Sonnenfeld says. “She has also been a provost and a tenured professor in the sciences, and those two things are extraordinary.”

Sonnenfeld says she also observed a number of noteworthy traits upon visiting Hill at Lafayette College, assets that don’t really translate on a C.V.

“When I went to visit her in Easton, she took me on a tour of campus,” Sonnenfeld says. “She knew everyone on campus; everyone had a smile for her, and she had a smile for everyone.”

With such a reputation for rapport, as well as extensive and unique experience in academia, the AIS community expects big things from her. In addition to furthering AIS’s mission—to empower girls to learn, lead and live a legacy—Hill plans to do something very wise indeed: listen.

“One of my goals is to hear from faculty, staff, students and parents about their hopes and dreams for the school,” she says. “This is a really strong community, and I very much believe in the collective wisdom of communication.”

People are also looking to Hill to apply her scientific background to amplifying such studies at the school and happily, she does not plan to disappoint. As a scientist herself, Hill aims to give even stronger support to the pursuit and study of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields.

“Oftentimes, young women think certain fields are ‘not for them’; this is not the case at Agnes Irwin,” Hill says. “I’m already seeing how this school really helps girls be open to possibilities.”

Hill is quick to note however that she has a reverence for the arts as well.

“I have just come from a liberal arts college, so even though I am a scientist, I feel very strongly about the holistic education of girls,” she says. “I’m a scientist that loves history and art and other fields.”

Alumnae outreach is also set to strengthen under Hill’s leadership. In addition to serving as role models and mentors, the AIS alumnae are living proof of the lifelong nature of the relationships formed within the school’s walls.

“What has been fascinating to me is that when speaking with alumnae, the women talk about Agnes Irwin being one of the most significant experiences of their life,” Hill says. “They say that the friends they developed here have been in many ways their closest friends—closer than friends they made in college.”

Such friendships will be budding right in Hill’s backyard; she and her family now reside in the official residence of the AIS head of school, which is located just next to campus. Hill will even see this at home, as her daughter, Maisie, just started her sixth grade year at AIS.

The Agnes Irwin School
Ithan Ave. and Conestoga Road
Rosemont, PA 19010