As the clock slowly ticks towards 2:30 p.m. and students filter into the already-packed University Hall classroom, Dr. Laura Nicosia makes her rounds, speaking quietly with each of her students. She is full of energy despite the mid-Monday class time and asks how their days are going with a bright smile on her face and animated hand gestures.
Suddenly, she exclaims, “I just have to start,” and her students seem to feed off her enthusiasm, as they raise excited hands into the air, eager to talk about the latest piece of literature assigned.
The outgoing, brunette professor with signature blue glasses races across the whiteboard with two dry-erase markers, rapidly noting key words and ideas, almost as fast as her students shout them out.
The North Bergen native, a self-proclaimed “Hudson County girl, born and raised,” now lives in Clifton with her son, Jake, 16, and her husband, Jim Nicosia, an adjunct professor of English at Montclair State University. She also raised a daughter, Jessica, who now lives in Colorado.
As the Director of English Education and an associate professor of English at Montclair State, Nicosia has tremendous responsibilities to both the university’s English and education programs.
“Most of the time, I love it,” she said. “Sometimes it’s exhausting, because I’m very scheduled with committee meetings and policy meetings and administrative kinds of responsibilities.”
Her husband, Jim, agrees. “Very few people know what goes into running the teacher education program. She’s a perfectionist who doesn’t need to be,” he said.
According to Nicosia, however, all of her hard work is worth the effort because she gets to do what she loves. “I get to touch lives every day,” she said. “I call myself a teacher. I don’t profess in class so much as I teach. I like to stimulate conversations. If students leave my class having found a book or a text that touches them, that changes their lives, that is the most successful thing to me,” she added.
She emphasized the importance of her work with students while downplaying her multitude of publications and other accomplishments, including being the past-president of the New Jersey Council of Teachers of English and an active participant in the Assembly on Literature for Adolescents.
“I’m humble,” she offered, her voice cracking and a deep blush developing on her cheeks. “I’m just grateful. I’m a grateful person, and I’m very blessed to do what I do and that people care about me is something that means more to me than people being able to count the things that I publish.”
Her students can’t agree more. Junior Kristen Martinelli, who is currently enrolled in two of Nicosia’s classes, said, “She’s never said, ‘I’ve published 15 books’ or anything like that, but she talks about being a mom. She’s a very passionate, intelligent teacher and you see that immediately when she steps into the room. You don’t find that with everyone.”
Nicosia credited several people for impacting her life and helping her find a profession she truly loves, including Mrs. Nussman and Mr. Dean, English teachers from Nicosia’s middle and high school years, and especially Jerry Weiss, an 80-something-year-old man who lives in Montclair and acts as her mentor in all things young adult literature.
“It is because of him that I’ve met numerous authors, and that started me on my relationship to local and national authors and [gave] me the opportunity to introduce those authors to my students,” she explained.
Nicosia travels frequently, corresponding with many authors and speaking at conferences throughout the country. She recently attended an Assembly on Literature for Adolescents conference regarding “Star Wars” literature.
“That was amazingly fun,” she exclaimed, leaning back in her chair and throwing her hands into the air. “We had lightsaber battles going on onstage and it was good.”
It is this enthusiasm for her content area as well as her bright, open personality that make her a standout among students and colleagues alike.
Claire Davanzo, Nicosia’s graduate assistant, said, “She is very selfless, which makes her a special person as well as a special educator. She loves her students just as much as she loves the field she is in.”
When asked what her biggest professional accomplishment is, she looked off into the distance with a contented smile on her face and explained that there is a moment that happens in classes when students realize they have created something special. “That’s the moment,” she sighed. “That’s more important to me than getting another article out. It may not get me promoted because the world values the coin of the realm, which is publish or perish, but, for me, it’s that moment. Whether that’s an accomplishment that the world acknowledges, I don’t care.”
Perhaps Nicosia’s personality and enthusiasm for her vocation is best captured in the statement which she exclaimed during her Monday class: “We have 25 minutes? Cool, we can teach the world in that time!”