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Jana Lese is working at her desk

Dedicated People, Positive Progress

56 years since first visit to campus, Lese has just about seen it all

Jana Lese, senior clerk, Division of Continuing Studies

For more than 47 years, it seems that no matter where she’s been living, each morning Jana Lese has driven down St. Joe Road to turn into Purdue University Fort Wayne. She doesn’t even think about it, hanging onto the steering wheel and letting muscle memory take over.

As much as working at PFW has become her routine, Lese has become a fixture of the university. She spent the first 21 years in the Office of the Registrar, and since 1997, in the Division of Continuing Studies, now as a senior clerk.

Maybe on paper, that may sound like a humdrum existence, but there have been several adventures that would make anyone else wonder how she got everything done. Lese’s commitment has continually served as an inspiration to family, coworkers, and even students.

First, Lese remembers coming to campus in 1966 with her mother, who was returning to school to earn an education degree. The campus was only two years old, but while mom attended classes, Jana and her sister sat and colored in the air conditioning.

“Mom would bring stuff home to us about her classes,” Lese recalled. “We saw how exciting it was to learn, and we’d learned things along the way with her.”

Fast-forward a few years, and Lese started working in the registrar’s office on a work-study program in July 1975 after graduating from Northrop High School. When a fellow employee left, she slid into that position to work full-time and receive benefits, including a pension she maintains today. Everything was tabulated by hand before a computer that everyone shared was placed on the counter a few years later.

Back then, Lese asked for permission to take classes during her lunch hours so she could be home in the evening. After giving birth to her daughter, she held out of classes for seven years before coming back in 1987. She took one per semester for most of the next 11 years.

There were tough times too, including another year away to get through a divorce, but things began to turn around after meeting Mark Lese, who also happened to be a returning student.

After they were married, he stayed home with the kids so she could attend a few night classes. She graduated in 1998 with an associate degree in organizational leadership and supervision.

That’s persistence.

Lese’s example also encouraged their four children to pursue degrees in higher education, mostly from IPFW/PFW.

Maybe her biggest contribution to the university came early during the pandemic. With all in-person classes canceled after spring break 2020, Lese worked for weeks supporting efforts to make sure every student was classified properly in PFW’s computer system — each essentially being dropped and then re-enrolled for online instruction.

Sounds easy, except it had never been done or even contemplated before. 

With help from Kari Smith of Indiana University Fort Wayne and the registrar’s office, Lese worked 11 or 12 hours per day to get everything organized as software engineer husband Mark set her up on two computer screens at home. The race was on, and it didn’t let up that following summer as PFW adjusted for the mixed modalities that became a backdrop of its 2020–21 academic year.

“That was nerve-wracking,” Lese said. “I think I only had one person who didn’t get back in out of thousands. Sometimes I do pretty good under stress.”

According to Lese, there are typically around 300 online classes offered, but that number grew to 536 at the height of PFW’s pandemic response. 

“During her 40-plus years at the university, Jana has acquired a great deal of institutional knowledge that has proved invaluable to coworkers and other departments,” said lifelong friend Karen VanGorder, executive director of the Division of Continuing Studies. “She can see how things relate to one another, how we have done things effectively in the past, and how we can tweak processes for future success. She is a caring person, always looking out for the welfare of others and the university.”

After Lese retires at the end of March, her perspective will be missed. She wants to spend more time visiting her mother, volunteering, going on trips, and spoiling her four grandchildren.

“For a long time, I wasn’t ready, and I know it’s going to be hard,” Lese said. “When I walk in each morning — I’ve done this for so many years — this is my home, and it’s been part of my life for so long. I enjoy working here.”