Joan Mileski ’79 was the first in her family to graduate from college, and among the first women to graduate from Notre Dame. And it’s because of those experiences that she’s committed to her work today, as a professor at Texas A&M University at Galveston (TAMUG), where she is head of the Department of Maritime Business Administration.
“Many of my students, about 30 percent, are first-time college graduates in their families, as well,” Mileski says.
It’s the reason she wanted to teach at TAMUG, where her personal approach is to assume that first-generation students will be successful, offering extra support in an empowering way. She has found that sometimes the additional support programs offered for first-generation (or “first-gen,” as she abbreviates it) students can have an unintentionally patronizing tone.
“It’s good to be first-gen and to have the support programs that schools like TAMUG and Notre Dame offer, but it is also important for the students to understand that just because their parents did not go to college, it does not mean they aren’t going to be successful,” Mileski says. “I stick up for those students and assume that they’re going to be successful.”
It’s an approach she encountered among her fellow female classmates at Notre Dame, who numbered about 200 in a class of 1,800. Mileski describes those women as high achievers and supportive of each other, but acknowledges that being part of the early days of undergraduate coeducation on campus had its challenges.
Take the time she met a male alum before a football game who asked where she went to school: when she told him she was a Notre Dame student, he said he voted against coeducation.
“And I looked at him, and he was one of those guys who could be kind of intimidating, but not to a Notre Dame woman,” Mileski says. “I looked him right in the eye and said, ‘I’m glad you lost.’”
Mileski grew up outside of Chicago, where her dad was a local business owner who hadn’t finished college. When Notre Dame announced it would start admitting women, Mileski was a sophomore in high school. Her family drove to South Bend from Chicago on a Sunday to visit campus and her dad asked, “Wouldn’t you like to go here?”
Mileski’s answer was yes, and she enrolled at Notre Dame in the business school, earning a degree in accountancy. She started her career in tax accounting working for Deloitte and Westin Hotels before making the switch to academia. Mileski already had a master’s degree in taxation from Pace University when she started studying for her Ph.D. in international management studies at the University of Texas at Dallas in the late 1990s. After graduating in 2000, she taught at Houston Baptist University, where she received the university’s Excellence in Teaching Award in 2002, before moving to TAMUG in 2004.
Mileski teaches both undergraduate and graduate students in courses with names like “International Strategic Planning and Implementation,” “Intermodal Transportation,” and “Port Design, Plan, and Security.” Her research, funded by a grant from the Department of Homeland Security, studies supply chain resilience in transportation.
“Ships are getting bigger and bigger because it is cheaper to put cargo on a big ship. But there are only four ports in the U.S., out of 2,200 total, that can take these larger ships,” Mileski says. “So that’s a problem, and that’s why there’s a backlog — because Long Beach is the only port on the West Coast that can fit the larger ships. When people didn’t get their stuff, they started to say, ‘Well, what’s going on?’ So we’re trying to come up with a model for resilience for the supply chain.”
This means Mileski and her team are developing measures and safeguards to put in place so the supply chain is not disrupted when there is a storm or a cyber attack, or even a pandemic.
She runs a department that boasts the top-ranked master’s program in maritime business in the United States and ninth in the world. Her husband, Bill Mileski ’79, is a doctor and heads up the trauma center at University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. The couple met at Notre Dame and have a dog named Buddy.
While retirement is on the horizon for them both, Mileski still relishes the time she has with her students at TAMUG, which she says has a similar value system to her alma mater.
“My parents gave me a value system, and Notre Dame showed me how that value system can be integrated into your career,” she says. “I try to be empathetic to everybody’s situation and help them be successful. The idea of taking that value system, which is Catholic, and applying it to your workplace and your interactions with other people is really important."