Donna F. Attallah ’61, B.A. in Education – Attallah College of Educational Studies
Having grown up in a family of educators, it’s no surprise that Donna Ford Attallah felt a strong calling to work with youth from an early age, serving as a camp youth leader in high school. She applied to Chapman College after learning of its distinction of training educators since 1861. She was a small town girl and the small size of the school at the time was just the right fit. Donna taught kindergarten and first grade for four decades in the Cypress School District and has always believed that teachers should give children the opportunity to just be kids so that they learn to play, imagine and share with others. Learning how to be a friend and the friends they make are far more memorable to a child than when they learned how to read. Crediting her professors for their distinctive and personalized education, she developed a philosophy that showcases her passion and dedication to patience, kindly serving others and never missing an opportunity to learn at any age. In 1962, she married noted school psychologist, philosopher, author and Olympian, Fahmy Attallah, Ph.D., and though they never had children of their own, they dedicated their 43 years together to serving the students they worked with. Donna retired from her teaching career to care for her beloved husband during his illness and passing. In 2017, in recognition of her lifelong service to children, education, her generous philanthropy towards our Chapman Family and her community, along with her loving, nurturing and bright spirit, her legacy was fulfilled as she became the namesake of the Donna F. Attallah College of Educational Studies to inspire many future generations of educators.
Q&A with Donna F. Attallah
We asked this year’s winners about their experiences at Chapman and what advice they have for current students.
Who was the most influential person for you at Chapman? Why?
Donna shared that the most influential person in terms of her Chapman experience was Dennis Savage, a Disciples of Christ minister who also supervised regional Church groups known as Christian Youth Fellowship (CYF) that Donna became involved with and served in leadership roles during her high school years. Dennis was married to Mary Lou, who was a very active Chapman College alumna from the class of 1948. Donna shared that Dennis and Mary Lou really encouraged her to do a lot of things that she wouldn’t otherwise have been likely to do, including becoming President of the CYF group. Dennis was the person who was always there as a resource for her. Ultimately it was the two of them that encouraged Donna to apply and attend Chapman College to study to become a teacher. Donna shared that later, after she met and married her husband, Fahmi Attallah, the two couples became fast friends and travelled the world together. Donna added that she and Fahmi even spent part of their honeymoon in Hawaii, chaperoning high school youth from Dennis’ church because he needed trusted friends to watch over the students.
If you could go back and experience one moment from your time at Chapman, what would it be? Is there anything that you would do differently?
Donna said that one of her fondest memories from her days at Chapman was that every Sunday, all of the students got dressed up (girls wore dresses and the boys wore dress pants, shirt, tie and sportcoats). All of the students would meet in the dining hall for Sunday evening dinner and fellowship. Donna loved these events and wishes these events still were happening. “It brought us together like a real family,” she said, “The food was served family style, and we all had to learn to share with each other.” She added that social graces were taught and learned at these events, which was great experience for real life. The Sunday dinners were a time to come together and made everyone feel very safe, comfortable and important.
What were the most challenging social issues in our country/world that you faced as a young college student? What was your perspective or how did you get involved? Have your opinions on these issues changed or stayed the same? Give an example…
The world was an incredibly different place back in the 1960’s. We didn’t have a 24 hour news cycle, easy access to televisions or the Internet, so news of the world beyond Chapman just wasn’t a part of our daily lives as students. We were focused on friendships, our studies and graduation to begin our careers. “I’m sure there was so much going on in the world at the time, but I don’t recall anything specifically. Chapman was a place where we all felt incredibly safe and secure,” said Donna.
What do you wish you knew at the time of your graduation (about life, careers, family, best place for tacos, etc.) that you know now? What advice can you give to the students and/or recent graduates of today?
Donna said that listening and heeding the advice of professors and advisors was something that she paid careful attention to. They gave a lot of real world scenarios that didn’t seem that important at the time, but seriously benefitted her once she started her career in teaching. Donna said that the supervisor of teacher credentialing advised the Chapman students to “never, ever, NEVER wear perfumes when teaching children.” At the time, Donna wasn’t totally sure why this advice was so important. The supervisor went on to share that as a child, her own most miserable year of school was in the classroom of a teacher who wore heavy amounts of perfume. Her parents discovered that the child was highly allergic to fragrances, but at that time it was unheard of being able to ask the teacher to not wear perfume while in the classroom. Donna heeded the advice and never wore perfume in class, even when the students sometimes gave her presents of perfume or scented products. “This was a very important moment for me to realize and respect other people — especially children who cannot speak up for themselves.” In that moment, Donna learned to respect others “airspace,” but also to recognize that not everyone is the same cookie cutter and that making thoughtful accommodations for our differences is one of the most important things we can do for each other.
How did Chapman prepare you for your career? How did your experience prepare you for the real world?
“Well, I spent four years at Chapman learning how to become a teacher. After I graduated, I was blessed to have a 40-year-long career teaching children in kindergarten and first grades, which brought me great joy and personal satisfaction.” Donna’s experience while at Chapman was exactly what she had expected when she began her studies there, and it was always a very genuine place. The professors that Donna had helped build the confidence that she could achieve anything that she wanted to do.“They believed in me and that helped me to believe in myself.”
A side note, during her isolation for COVID, Donna has completed more than 38 puzzles, most of which were 500 pieces or more. As a Trustee of the University, she said she misses most seeing the student’s interaction, and shares that she believes that Chapman is still really focused on being a family to everyone there. She loves seeing the students greet and hug each other as they pass by in the Piazza or having students ask her if she needs help finding anything while traveling in the elevator. She is very proud of the Chapman University that Chapman College has become.