More than six decades have passed since her graduation from Brescia University College, yet Joan Francolini has been, and still remains, an integral part of its community.
It’s no surprise, then, that Canada’s only all-women’s university has chosen Francolini to be its inaugural chancellor, a position approved by Brescia’s Council of Trustees last November. Her four-year term begins July 1.
“It’s been a great place for me over the years. I came to Brescia when I was 18. My mother had died that year and the nuns kind of took over, overseeing my behaviour from then on,” Francolini said with a laugh.
She is happy to take on her new role, adding she hopes to connect with students while actively promoting Brescia’s vision and prominence.
“I hope to have an active role. I know the chancellor is a symbolic role, but this is a small university and to keep promoting it as the only women’s university in the country, it seems to me the chancellor could be doing something to send that message out,” Francolini said.
Since meeting her husband at Western during her studies, Francolini has set down roots in London, raising a family of six children while actively volunteering her time and talents in the community.
Over the years, she has been involved in healthcare and with numerous charitable and cultural organizations, among them libraries, art galleries, the YMCA, Heart and Stroke Foundation of Ontario, Ontario Hospital Association and Robarts Research Institute.
Francolini was also the chair of the boards of Foundation Western, St. Joseph’s Health Care London and the Tillsonburg District Memorial Hospital. Among many distinctions, she was awarded the Order of Ontario in 2009 and was honoured as one of YMCA’s 2009 Women of Excellence awards. She received an honorary Doctor of Laws from Western last year.
“A lot of my volunteer work has been in the health-care field, on boards and councils. Maybe because of my mother being sick when I was very young, but I’ve always been interested in healthcare and my healthcare involvements have been my biggest ones. They took up a lot of years – they were good years,” she said.
“But I’ve really enjoyed everything. I’ve done my terms and got out – I don’t believe in sticking around forever. Others need a chance to get involved.”
It’s this example of community involvement and leadership that Brescia values and wants to impart to its students, said Colleen Hanycz, principal.
“Anyone who knows Joan Francolini knows there is truly no better example of strong steadfast leadership in our community. She has led in every possible way – from private leadership of raising a family of six kids as well as a community volunteer and strong member of countless boards and volunteer associations. She really is without compare,” Hanycz said.
“She has supported us in every way – with her time, with her talent and treasure. For our students, showing us this additional example of strong female leadership is just an opportunity not to be missed.”
Hanycz explained because Brescia students earn a Western degree conferred by Western’s chancellor, the Brescia role will be mostly symbolic. Francolini will, however, be actively involved in the graduation traditions and ceremonies of Brescia students.
“Joan will also continue to be a key ambassador for us – she always has been, since she graduated from Brescia. She will be an honourary member of our Council of Trustees and she will be involved in our large community events, being there to be part of ceremonies and celebrations,” she explained.
It’s not that Brescia needed a chancellor after nearly a century without one, Hanycz noted, adding it was a choice made to further its vision and provide students with another exemplar of strong female leadership in the community.
As for Francolini, she wants students to know before them are endless opportunities, ones their Brescia education is preparing them for.
“What I would impart to them is they’re in the best place of their lives. In numbers, it’s small. In scale, Brescia is small, But its size lends itself to being much more amicable to be in,” she said.
“And get involved. There’s always something you can do.”