Pennsylvania is home to many inspirational and influential women, including Sondra Myers—a distinguished speaker, writer and more.
Myers is the Senior Fellow of International, Civic and Cultural Projects at the University of Scranton. She is also the Director of the university’s Schemel Forum, a program for cultural enrichment and education that she discusses further in the featured interview.
Myers has served three presidents, during which she also took part in the Commission on Fine Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Commission on Presidential Scholars. She has also served in leadership positions for various other programs focused on arts and humanities, including the Pennsylvania Humanities Council, Citizens for the Arts in Pennsylvania, and many more.
In addition, Myers frequently speaks and writes about arts, humanities and civil society. She has published multiple books, including one of her most recent titles, “Our America: Who Are We? A Digest of Impressions, Reflections and Opinions.”
Read or watch the interview below to learn more about her career, her books, her thoughts on the U.S. Semiquincentennial and more!
An Interview with Sondra Myers
Can you introduce yourself and share when and where your journey began?
Sondra Myers: Well my journey began a long time ago. My journey, in this chapter of my life, came when I had been working in Washington and had just been working in Scranton on weekends, and I decided to come back full-time. I have a lot of relationships with the University of Scranton. I’ve been Vice President on their board. I had been visiting [and] knowing a lot of people there. When I came back . . . I knew what I wanted to do, but I didn’t know where to do it, so I thought about it and looked into different things. It made sense for me, first of all, to be with an academic institution—and if an academic institution, it would definitely be the University of Scranton. Scott Pilarz was the President there and I had knew him well. It was he who thought that I should be at the University . . . so it became that I was the Senior Fellow of [International], Civic and Cultural Projects. I did that in what I believe was 2006, and I’ve been there ever since.
At one point, we began, in a very small way, the Schemel Forum. It had actually been started by a colleague of mine there—Harmar Brereton—who was a surgeon. . . . He had some interest in the University and so he started having a few of his friends come and listen to one of the professors there [who was teaching Dante’s “The Divine Comedy.”] Secondly, he had my husband, who is a lawyer and kind of [scholar], talk about “The Federalist Papers.” When I got there, thanks to Father Pilarz, I saw that there was an opportunity there to get many more people who were not students—who were citizens—interested in learning together, and so that has evolved into the Schemel Forum where we have three classes every semester and six world affairs speakers. We keep our standards very high, and so people like that.
What are some of your biggest accomplishments that you are proud of?
Myers: Well I have served three presidents, and I’m excited about that and can tell you a little bit about that. President Carter, really at the end of his term—he had only one term—he gave me a job…well, it wasn’t exactly a job…but it was serving on the Commission of Fine Arts. The Commission of Fine Arts was a very small group. There were only seven of us on that Commission, and we were to review federal architecture and also architecture on Pennsylvania Avenue that wasn’t federal, and review it for giving advice to the President. It was a really interesting time, because we had, for example, the Vietnam War Memorial. We had the Holocaust Museum. We had some really interesting things.
I’m sure some of your accomplishments, too, include the books and articles you have written?
Myers: Yes, and I’m not sure how I got into it. My first one was a book called “Democracy is a Discussion.” My major interests publicly are the arts and humanities, but at a certain point in the early 90s when the Soviet Union was falling apart and a lot of dictatorships were falling down, I got to think that this was a moment that democracy could really flourish. So my first book . . . was a genre that I kind of—I wouldn’t exactly say created it—but it wasn’t all written by me. I selected people whose views I appreciated and thought were well placed. That was how I started with books, and now this book—”Our America: Who Are We?”—is about my 10th book that I’ve had. The last one I did was on public education, and it’s called “The People’s Choice: Public Education and American Democracy.” So democracy became the kind of centerpiece of what I talk about, particularly the central role that citizens play in making democracy work.
What exactly do you want people to take away from your “Our America: Who Are We? A Digest of Impressions, Reflections and Opinions” book?
Myers: What I’m trying to do is show our diversity—that we’re a lot of things in this country. [I’m] trying to get as many informed opinions on that subject, starting with . . . Washington, and talking to people who are students to give the flavor of the country and its diversity and its strength. I don’t go too much into its weaknesses, but I don’t want to just wave a flag. I want people to think more about who we are. We are different from other countries, especially because of our diversity. Most Americans are hyphenated in some way, and we’re different. We have a long way to go to own up to what we aspire to be—a place where there is liberty and justice for all—but we are trying. There is a little quote in the book, it’s by a Vietnamese-American writer, and he says that we have this “ever-present narcotic in this country and that narcotic is optimism.” But the fact is that optimism, sometimes it’s not even genuine, it’s energizing, and I think that it’s of real value. I use the term sometimes to get people energized and get myself energized because we can make a difference. We are citizens. If you hear any president making a speech . . . they would talk about “We are the People,” [and] “We the People count.” That’s something I try to point out in this book.
What else drives you to continue doing what you are doing?
Myers: I believe that citizens have the obligation to make their city and their country what they want it to be. I think we’re the boss, and I feel that it is our responsibility. I have this saying: “The most precious right I have is the right to be responsible for the public good.” That’s why I like working for government organizations and non-profit organizations and certainly academic institutions.
If you could offer advice or inspiration for other women who are seeking to accomplish their own success, what advice would that be?
Myers: Finding your place. That doesn’t apply only to women, but at one point when I got out of college, I would have liked to have been either an artist or a scholar. After a few years I realized, nobody told me this, but I know I didn’t have the talent to be an artist and I didn’t have the will to go so deeply into a subject that I could be a scholar. I got to be a kind of friend of arts and humanities— an advocate for the arts and humanities—so I was able to serve on the National Endowment for the Humanities. I served for the Governor of Pennsylvania as Cultural Advisor, and in that job, I had the opportunity to really make a lot of noise in Pennsylvania about culture. We had a very active role because I didn’t just make it the arts, I made it the humanities too. We had Governor Seminars and ideas and issues, as well as arts events. We had an annual prize that brought the arts, humanities and sciences together. We did a lot of things in public that gave voice to culture in Pennsylvania, of which we are very rich in our culture as you know—[at least] two national orchestras, symphony orchestras. We have wonderful academic—not only academic, but cultural—institutions. Some of the best in the country here. We’re kind of showing those off and helping people to understand how rich in culture we are.
As America250PA leads up to celebrating the U.S. Semiquincentennial, what are you most looking forward to in 2026 as we celebrate America?
Myers: Well of course I would like to see a lot of the culture and artistic richness we have. I know that farming is an important industry here—somehow showing that off. Showing off some of our great people who are known nationally and internationally. Just kind of showing off who we are—the best things that we do and what we aspire to be. I would like that to be part of it too: “Who are we and who do we aspire to be?”
I think [also] recognizing that we do have a special state in the birth and beginnings of our history. I think that we should be doing something with history—some interesting things with history, with the arts and humanities—as well as inventions and things that we are very good at.
To learn more about Sondra Myers and her books, please visit https://sondramyers.org/. You can also learn more about America250PA at https://www.america250pa.org/or on social media @America250PA and @America250_PA.