Lauren Wochok, Dean of Valley Forge Military Academy, spoke with BUCKSCO Today about how her youth and experiences have enabled her to take the helm at Valley Forge Military Academy and how growing up in a diverse community in a multi-generational household grounded her, helping her to relate well among her students.
After studying special and elementary education at Millersville University, her combined degrees prepared her well for a career in public education before coming to VFMA where she has earned increasingly responsible positions before being named Dean in 2022.
Where were you born, and where did you grow up?
An only child, I was born in Philadelphia, grew up in Elkins Park, and lived there my entire life until going to college.
What did your parents do?
My mom raised me. She was a special education teacher in the Philadelphia School District for 30 years.
While my father was not in my life, my grandparents were an enormous presence at home throughout my entire life.
What do you remember about growing up in Elkins Park?
We lived in a big neighborhood, and there were always a lot of kids around. So there were always things to do outside. We abutted the Curtis Arboretum. It was a very diverse community with many different ethnic and cultural backgrounds and offered a valuable perspective.
Did you have any jobs while you were growing up?
Yes – I worked as a lifeguard at a summer day camp. I also worked at the Gap at the local mall during the school year – folding tee shirts.
My family always instilled a work ethic – even if it’s just five hours a week, I had to be doing something. It’s kind of carried me my whole life – I’ve worked the entire way up.
What lessons did you take from those early jobs that still influence you today?
Well, being on time and carrying out your responsibilities are important. Other people count on you to do your job; when you don’t, it trickles down.
I learned how to handle money at an early age. While very young, my mom set up a bank account and taught me how to manage finances.
Growing up, education was paramount. Reading was always critical. Being an educator, my mom insisted on homework first and anything else coming after.
Did you play any sports in high school?
Yes, I played field hockey and lacrosse and played for two years in college before a knee injury.
What got you into lacrosse?
In my middle school year, seventh grade was the first time our school introduced lacrosse. Since it was new, we were all encouraged to give it a try. Never a very good soccer player, but I was glad to try something new and loved it immediately.
You were able to take your lacrosse talent to the collegiate level.
I got a little playing time during my first and second years of college and would have played in later years had I not had the knee injury. There was some scholarship money from my playing days, and that helped a lot with the cost of the education.
What kind of music were you listening to in high school and college?
That’s a hard one. I remember my first concert was Pearl Jam. My mom won tickets from a radio giveaway, so she took me when I was about 12.
I remember there was always the classic rock influences. I think now it’s merged into what’s on the radio and what the kids are listening to.
Did you have a favorite artist when you were younger?
In college, it was always Dave Matthews Band.
Where did you go to college?
While the decision was between two schools, I chose Millersville University in Lancaster. I was recruited to play Lacrosse, and a visit during the spring where I could be in the dorms and experience the school sealed the deal.
It had a strong education program. I did a dual degree in special and elementary education and graduated in four and one-half years with two degrees. Ultimately, it came down to the place where I felt most at home and could get the best degree to pursue my passion in education.
Aside from the knee injuries – was Millersville a good choice for you?
Absolutely, yes. The classes there were very diverse. They focused a lot on literature and reading skills and gave a lot of good education training. As one of the top special education programs, it taught the importance of recognizing the individual education needs of each student – something we do better than many here at VFMA. With the small class size, we are able to focus on the individual needs of each student, and much of what I use now, I learned at Millersville. Also, there was also a big focus on children’s literature, so you had to take multiple levels of literature courses.
So when you finished school, did you go into teaching, or did you get a master’s degree?
My Master’s degree came later. After obtaining my BS degree, I worked for nearly a decade as a substitute teacher and in-school and camp educational programming, both in public education. My start at Valley Forge Military Academy was in the summer camp and student activities department. When there was an opening in the English department, the opportunity to be back in the classroom just seemed right. I jumped at the change and never looked back. I love being with the Cadets and love having an impact on their lives and education.
What do you bring to the classroom that’s unique and different?
Well, in my new role as dean, I am not in the classroom as a teacher much anymore. But my involvement with the Cadets is as deep as ever. In this role as dean, my role is to be in every classroom by making sure the entire faculty is equipped with the tools they need to help every Cadet reach his full potential. It is a challenge of a different sort. It is up to me to make sure our teachers command the classroom as they should, to have the time to prepare good lessons, so cadets are engaged, and to be patient but firm. Like every school everywhere, some students can be challenging, and that is true here – so we work together to make sure they all have a good classroom presence.
When you look back over your career, who were the people who saw promise in you and opened up doors?
When I first started at VFMA, the then leadership assigned a special project that was a difficult task but one which needed to be completed. She allowed me to take it on and encouraged me through the challenges. On completion, the results were able to be worked into the programs here, and they remain in place today. I am grateful for the confidence placed in me to complete such a vital task.
Current institutional leadership, Col Stuart B. Helgeson, USMCR (Ret), president of the Academy and College, approached me about becoming dean after my predecessor was named to the post at the Valley Forge Academy in Doha, Qatar. Having just finished my Master’s degree in leadership and obtaining my principal certification, he said he had full confidence in me that I could do the job. Knowing I have his backing and support gives me confidence.
What do you think Colonel Helgeson saw in you?
I would say he saw confidence developed over my time here in the classroom – confidence to lead the Cadets and the teachers entrusted to help them achieve academic excellence. Capability – he knows of my experience in the classroom and knows that my being familiar with the joys and the challenges there makes me capable of helping the faculty achieve the level of teaching excellence that we expect from our Cadets with Academic Excellence. And then commitment – a commitment to the Cadets, to the faculty, and to the rest of the staff here who work hard to make this such a great institution for those in our care. All of us have a passion, me included, for the work we do – we all want to be here, and it shows.
So you’ve just been through the most challenging years ever. Looking forward, what are your top priorities? What are you focused on?
One of the big things I’m focused on is community engagement. Our Cadets are going to be required to complete a certain number of community service hours before graduation. Covid prevented us from doing some of the work we had done prior with the local nursing homes as well as other community service initiatives. We are creating new ways for our Cadets to become visible and involved in the community.
Additionally, looking at the global market and how to engage with Valley Forge Academy in Qatar to utilize that relationship and keep our Cadets globally minded – because we educate leaders for a global society, and we want them to experience the community, the country, and in fact the world.
This, coupled with community service and classroom, inculcates confidence in their abilities to lead.
We are constantly strengthening our faculty to be empowered with freedom in the classroom. I want them to have the experience I have had here to grow and be creative.
You spoke about getting involved in the community. What would you like the community to know about that initiative?
I’d like the community to be able to see our Cadets as the leaders that they are. To see them clean up the local monuments and interact at parades and community events where they are all really successful. To see the good things that they do. A lot of people just see our gates and don’t know just how magnificent the education is for our Cadets.
What do you do with all your free time?
I have an 8-year-old who plays three sports, so we don’t have much free time. My husband was an athlete, as was I, and so my son has a passion for sports. Currently, he plays ice hockey, and there is a lot of travel with that.
We’re big into family downtime. We travel as much as we can – we’re trying to get back into it again. Gardening – we have a little garden in the backyard with tomatoes.
Where was the last trip you took?
We went to Smith Mountain Lake in Virginia. And we visited Massachusetts and Connecticut. We went out on an oceanic fishing boat, and my son got to pull in the crab traps. So those were our two summer adventures.
In this chaotic world, what keeps you hopeful, Lauren?
The Cadets, 100 percent, keep me hopeful. Watching their achievements on an almost daily basis, seeing them return for the new semester, and being happy to be back here – and they share what they have been doing – oh, it is just so wonderful! One Cadet, when he came back for the start of the semester, told me he couldn’t wait to come back and see his favorite teacher. They have a lot of energy, and seeing the impact the school has on them is fulfilling. So their level of enthusiasm really keeps me hopeful.
Finally, Lauren, what’s the best piece of advice anybody ever gave you?
My family always told me never to give up. Don’t give up; if you fall down or some challenge comes your way, you can overcome it. They never let me quit – if I didn’t like something, I had to finish it. So I think perseverance and sticking with what you need to do, even if you’re not good at it – that is really good advice.