Remembering Wendy Bilen
Students, faculty, staff and alumnae of Trinity mourn the loss of our teacher, colleague and friend Wendy Bilen, Associate Professor of English. A gifted teacher of writing, a talented award-winning author, a remarkable mother to Brianna and Bianca, Wendy persisted for more than five years in a heroic battle against the insidious cancer that claimed her last week. She was open about her struggles and triumphs, and all who new her at Trinity treasured her candor, her deep sense of purpose in teaching and longing to improve continuously. To say that we will miss Wendy hardly begins to capture the sense of loss within our community; her many contributions to our students and graduates live on in the myriad ways in which they use the talents honed in her classes throughout their lives.
Ms. Wendy Bilen joined Trinity’s faculty in 2006 to teach College Composition — during her 15 years on the faculty she taught more than 60 sections of English 107, one of the most important foundational courses for student success at Trinity. Professor Bilen did not just teach about writing, rather, she taught her students how to think about their ideas, how to organize and present their ideas clearly and persuasively, how to accept the fact that writing is a messy business that most of us do not get right the first time, how to persist in the endless process of writing and revising and writing some more. Wendy was well known for her deep engagement with her students and classes, and her constant quest to improve her own work which led her to revise her courses continuously. Her 2012 essay “Gone” speaks to her deep love for her students. Over the course of her Trinity career, she taught more than 1600 students in a broad range of English courses.
Beyond her courses, Professor Bilen sparked the creation of Speakin’ it Real, an annual spoken-word performance for students, and she also was the co-advisor along with Dr. Bill Beverly on The Record, Trinity’s literary magazine. She served on numerous committees and responded generously to any and all requests for help from colleagues and students. [Photo Below: Bill Beverly and Wendy Bilen, co-moderators of The Record, Founders Day 2018]
Wendy had an impressive repertoire of her own writing, including her award-winning book Finding Josie about her journey of discovery into the life of her grandmother. Her essay “Ordinary” published in River Teeth is a gripping account of her trip to Alaska with her daughters. Read it here: Wendy Bilen essay Ordinary 2020 She wrote fearlessly and without regret about her struggle to defeat the disease that kept returning.
Below are tributes to Ms. Bilen from colleagues, students and alumnae — if you would like to contribute, please send via email to me email@example.com or add in the comment box below.
Dr. Elizabeth Child, Professor of English:
Wendy wrote about everything. She was an indefatigable chronicler and she had a clear, sharp eye for the telling detail. She was often quiet at social occasions, such as the raucous faculty lunch table at Trinity, but she watched and listened carefully. The tiny, luminous details of mundane experience, of the humor and tragedy and humanity of everyday life – of lunchtimes and other times — showed up in a lot of her writing. These past few years, I thought that she wrote not just eloquently but heroically. She wrote successfully for publication, but she also wrote her life in her texts and her emails and her Facebook posts and her tenure portfolio. She just did not stop. Wendy used the most ephemeral of writing situations to create profound reflections on the people and moments that meant the most to her. We should all be so brave and so faithful to our gifts.
Dr. Stacey Baugh, Associate Professor of Psychology:
I am lucky to work in a setting where many of my colleagues are like family. Wendy and I hit it off instantly and over the years formed a deep and long lasting friendship. We stood next to each other through some of our lowest personal moments to our greatest triumphs which for Wendy would be, without rival, the day her beautiful daughters came into her life. My favorite memory was the day she and I went to the gun range together and shot guns for the first time, which in fine Wendy fashion she turned into a published essay. (Read it here: Wendy Bilen essay On The Range 2015)
I remember the day she called me several years ago to let me know she had been diagnosed with cancer. It was stunning news and I had no clue how to respond. But Wendy handled it with grace, grit and determination. Her fight inspired me each and every day these past several years. I learned by watching her to live each and every day to the absolute fullest, taking every opportunity to make memories with the people you love. Sleep in peace my beautiful friend. Your fight is over but you won the battle because of the indelible mark you left on all who were blessed to know you.”
Belen Gutierrez, Class of 2023:
You helped me to live free, Ms. Bilen.
If someone’s soul was as beautiful as yours, I’d feel like a moth in a dark room where there is only one candle lit. You were light in my life that I didn’t even know was dark. In the beginning of the day on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I believe, it was a refreshing start to my morning to be in the zoom classroom with you.
What I want to say is thank you. Thank you so much for being yourself and having that desire to find yourself no matter what the world could be telling you. The world talks so much about hiding, being private, having guards up. I’m tired of it. If we stop being afraid to see ourselves from within, we will reach a place where we can impact others that this world cannot reach. “Stop trying to go with the crowd,” I tell myself. Where are you going to go following them? Thinking like them? I am extremely grateful for your soul; I see it evidently when speaking with you. The layers are gone when I spoke to you; there is one-hundred percent vulnerability. Do you realize how many people be faking everywhere I go? How many people try to protect themselves everytime I talk to them? But, you! Ms. Wendy Bilen… you were a diamond. A precious gem that is so difficult to reach in mines under the earth. But, I had the honor to reach that diamond. To hold it. To observe it. To receive everything it had to offer in the span of one semester. I will forever thank the Lord for your life and will forever pray for your soul to rest peacefully with Him. Your body’s gone, but you’re absolutely going to continue to live in the dwellings of my heart. Thank you.
Dr. Debbie Van Camp, Associate Provost:
When I started working at Trinity in the Fall of 2010 as an Assistant Professor, Wendy was one of the first people that I met. She had an office right opposite mine and so every day for the next seven plus years until I moved offices, Wendy was frequently the first person that I saw in the morning. On quiet summer days she was often the only other person that I saw all day. During those years as hall-mates, I witnessed Wendy’s extraordinary commitment to her students. I watched as every semester without fail she held conferences with every single one of her students, at least once. Long hard days of patiently working through their papers with them, often saying the same thing she had said to the student before and would say to the one after, but never seeming frustrated or tired, always making her students feel supported and their work valued. I watched her revamp her courses constantly. Never satisfied with “good enough” she was always seeking to find new and innovative ways to reach all her students. While others were enjoying much deserved rest after final grades were submitted, Wendy immediately started preparing for the next semester, and did not stop. Anyone who met Wendy knows that she was truly a lovely soul. Guided by her faith and grounded in her family, she was patient and kind and loving and giving. She saw the best in everyone and tried every day to be a source of good in the world, and every day she succeeded. She will be so missed. [Photo above, right, Wendy Bilen on the right with Dr. Van Camp holding her newly christened son Will.]
Dr. Steven Gable, Associate Professor of Philosophy:
Wendy represented the very best of collegiality and teamwork. She always radiated positivity and compassion to her colleagues and students. She often stopped by my office simply to say ‘hello’ and to inquire into the progress of my semester, and her welcome visits always lifted my spirits whenever I faced a difficult day. In our short, chance conversations in the hallways, Wendy invariably emphasized the needs of others (students, colleagues, and family) rather than her own. She was one of the most giving and supportive colleagues with whom I have ever worked, often lending a kind word of encouragement when most badly needed.
Wendy’s writing abilities earned the admiration of all who worked with her. We once attended a Council on Undergraduate Research conference together, and Wendy generously volunteered to take the lead in creating the text for our group presentation. I witnessed, in the moment of composition, her superb writing talent; as team members suggested multiple, rapid-fire ideas around the table, Wendy concisely yet clearly expressed them all with an ease and facility that would have made any other professional writer envious.
Wendy fully dedicated herself to improving her already outstanding writing pedagogy, continually thinking of new, creative approaches and strategies to employ in the classroom. Wendy often discussed with me a new activity or assignment that she planned to introduce in one of her courses. It never came as a surprise when my academic advisees taking her courses reported on the significant strides that they had made in their writing (and reading) skills over the course of a term.
I will miss Wendy greatly and am grateful for the time we spent together as colleagues.
Breshun Bryant, Class of 2010:
Professor’s Wendy’s care for her students extended beyond graduation. After graduating in 2010, Professor Wendy always stayed in constant contact, and encouraged me to pursue a postgraduate degree. A few years back, she insisted that I had too much time on my hands and contacted Trinity’s Library to see if they had any part time openings (I started a few weeks later). That’s the type of person Professor Wendy was, she always looked out for me, and I will always be grateful for the care and love she showed me over the past 15 years.
Anastasia Broaddus, Class of 2015:
This hurts… this hurts my whole entire heart
I knew her as Professor Thorbjornson when I went to Trinity. She would also tell me after class, “Anastasia you can do this, this isn’t too hard for you.” I would leave her class with the classic answer of “I know Professor Thorbjornson.” I had to say her whole last name when others called her “Professor Wendy” or “Professor T.”
She kept up with me in my adult life. Always complimenting me on all that I was accomplishing in my career and life. In January when her daughter Bri had a COVID birthday celebration I wrote Wendy a message for Bri and she was so happy to hear from me personally.
Just a few weeks ago I shared a graduation picture when I graduated from Trinity and thanked her for pushing me in the right direction. She never gave up on me, she never stopped pushing me when I would tell her that it was “too hard.” She would open office hours at times that I know was infringing upon her time, I appreciated is so very much.
This one hurts, Wendy was so special to me- that person who always believed that I could do anything and she made sure to pour into me. I am praying for Bri and her sister and the family of Wendy. God definitely lent us an angel and my hurt hearts in the natural but I know she has been healed and free.
Wendy, thank you. I love and appreciate you so much!
Dr. Susan Farnsworth, Professor Emerita of History:[Excerpted from Dr. Farnsworth’s recommendation for tenure for Ms. Bilen]
As a professor of literature and writing, much of Wendy’s work takes place in close, intimate collaborations with students in her office. Over many years, from my nearby vantage point on the hallway, I was able to witness how much she accomplished in these sessions and how positively and affirmatively she bolstered her students’ self confidence and skills. Her office is a welcoming, inviting environment (with candy or some kind of treat waiting for those who need a spike of energy.) She is infinitely patient with her visitors, as she carefully, thoughtfully, and insightfully reviews their papers and explains how best to improve their work. Students end up in Wendy’s office not only when required but because of her great empathy and her ability to understand individual personalities. She never condescends to students, recognizes those in special need of care and attention, and sparks interest in those who have previously diagnosed themselves as less fluent in writing. Numerous students have testified to how much Wendy’s outreach and care changed their lives, both during their time in her classes and throughout their Trinity careers….
…Wendy also embodies the characteristics that enrich the communal life of the faculty and the overarching Trinity community. She is deeply beloved by her colleagues and central to all our shared enterprises. In these recent years, as she has confronted her personal health challenges, she has inspired us by her strength, her determination, her capacity for living well and honorably, and her faith. I turn to Wendy often when I have challenges in the classroom about which I would like her expertise; I think of her constantly as someone who has dealt with significant difficulties while never forgetting that her core purpose is to teach students who gain so much from her instruction. I’ve been moved and humbled by the grace, beauty, and eloquence that Wendy models in her daily life, both professionally and personally. I’m convinced that I speak for all my colleagues when I say that Wendy is the center of our collegial dynamics and, in so many ways, has made us a stronger, better faculty.
Megan Kelly, student:
Professor Bilen cared deeply about her students’ education, whether that was just making book chapters available online until one could get all of their books, or giving constructive feedback on an essay. She always encouraged her students to foster their creativity, and to engage with a text fully and deeply. I didn’t know her particularly intimately, only being her student for one online Literature of Sickness and Health class, but from those brief interactions, I could tell that she had an indomitable spirit. I wish her family to have peace and healing in their time of grief.