Honoring the life of trailblazing educator and activist Francine Chakolis

Danny Reinan, Contributor

In 1977, a college student worked diligently at her kitchen counter. Her study session began at 2 a.m., only four scant hours after she put her four children to bed. Once she wrapped up with her work, she immediately began fixing breakfast for her family. Such a rigorous schedule seems unthinkable for most people, but it felt perfectly natural for Francine Chakolis.

Although being both a mother and a student required juggling many major responsibilities, Chakolis was motivated to push through it with the support of her family. From time to time, she could hear her four-year-old urging her two-year-old twins not to interrupt her studies, saying, “Shhh — Mama has to get an A!” Chakolis’s diligence as a student and kindness as a mother shone during this time and would help her to shape the world around her for years to come. Chakolis, 73, who left a legacy of innovation and inclusion as a professor and administrator at Augsburg University, died peacefully on Jan. 15, surrounded by her family members and community.

Chakolis arrived at Augsburg through a non-traditional path. Receiving only an eighth-grade education, she married at age 15, became a mother at age 17, and was divorced by age 20. For a while, she operated a drop-in center for children in North Minneapolis, but ultimately felt that she could achieve more with a higher education. After acing her GED test, she dove into classes at Augsburg, graduating in only three years while excelling as both a student and a mother. After her graduation, her contributions to Augsburg would only become more impactful. Chakolis became an assistant professor in the social work department in 1986, and in the years following her appointment, she pushed for Augsburg to implement a Masters of Social Work (MSW) program. Of particular importance to her was offering the program in a weekend college format, which would make it more accessible for students who might not be able to conform to the traditional weekday structure, such as students working full-time jobs and parents.

From recognition of her passion and commitment to her work and accessible education, she was appointed the director of the program and would continue in this role through the 1990s. Augsburg’s social work program became nationally accredited in 1995 and remains at Augsburg to this day. Her non-traditional path through college serves as an inspiration for students who take alternate routes to pursue their passions and shows that anyone can achieve great things with dedication and hard work.

Chakolis’s advocacy within the Augsburg community did not end after the accreditation of the MSW program. Just as we are currently having widespread conversations about diversity and inclusion on campus, Chakolis spearheaded those conversations in her time, pushing for greater support for students of color and stronger pushes to hire faculty members of color. In the April 1988 issue of “Augsburg Now,” in a piece titled, “The Campus As a Forum for Open Exchange of Ideas,” she asked a poignant question: “Is the college campus of today designed to preserve diversity, with its corollaries of academic freedom and cultural identity, or is it really its executioner?” The echoes of her contributions to the conversation around diversity and inclusion can still be heard today.

Chakolis’s efforts in expanding diversity in education reached far beyond the Augsburg campus. As the president of the Minnesota chapter of the National Alliance of Black School Educators, Chakolis advocated for black students who were not served by the educational system. Much of her role involved pushing for greater representation of educators of color in schools, such as through this statement at a 2011 conference: “We need teachers that look like us in the public schools. This continuing processes of last hired, first fired must stop and education must be about the children.” As educators all across the country consider how they can make their institutions more inclusive, these words still ring true.

Chakolis’ many loved ones will remember her for years to come. Her legacy lives on in the social work department at Augsburg, the ongoing efforts to expand diversity and inclusion on campus, and most of all, in the memories of her students, mentees, family and community members.

This article was originally published in the Feb. 2, 2019 issue.