Honoring her legacy and everlasting impact
On December 23, 2020 it was discovered that Dr. Billie Jean Wiebe, Ph.D., associate professor of Communication and English and Director of the Communications program, had passed away. Her death has left a wave of heartbroken students, faculty and alumni behind.
Born on December 27, 1951, she was named Billie Jean Utting. She was first associated with Fresno Pacific College as a student, graduating in 1974 with her B.A. in English and Communications. In the same year, Billie married her husband, Richard Wiebe, a philosophy professor at Fresno Pacific who also graduated from the same school in 1974. Billie continued her education and went on to earn various other degrees, including her M.A. from Northwestern University and a Ph.D. from Claremont Graduate University.
After obtaining her Ph.D., Billie spent several years teaching at Immanuel High School, where she was best remembered for long silences and questions that challenged students to think in new ways. In 1992, Billie officially returned to her alma mater and became a part of the Fresno Pacific faculty.
In 2005, Billie breathed more life into Fresno Pacific’s list of majors with the recreation of its Communications department; the college had dropped the major in 1982. She left her position as Head of the English Department and began diligently working at writing a curriculum for the program she had obtained her B.A. in. This would become her most enduring legacy.
Eleanor Nickel, Professor, Director of the English Program and colleague of Billie’s, believes that without her there may not have been a new Communications department for many years.
“The Communication program was single-handed on Billie’s part; she didn’t have anyone doing that with her. She just… did it. The whole program came out of nothing—she wrote all of the curriculum and worked tirelessly to develop the program. Now it has grown to be the same size or bigger than the department it originally came out of [English],” Nickel said.
As the Communications program began to develop, Billie didn’t let the lack of production facilities on campus stop her from offering her students various class and emphasis options.
“She worked with CMAC [Community Media Access Collaborative] downtown and developed a partnership with them, where students would be able to do audio and video production classes there. She worked tirelessly to create this program, and the Communication program wouldn’t exist without her,” Nickel said.
Billie’s work stretched even further than the Communications program: she also had a hand in establishing this very publication, The Syrinx, as an academic extracurricular rather than a mere club. She brought the newspaper into an academic setting with the goal of introducing students to sophisticated journalism.
Adam Schrag, Ph.D, former associate professor of Communications in Film and Media Studies, faculty advisor of The Syrinx and colleague of Billie’s, explained one of her biggest contributions to the paper was structuring it in a similar manner to the school’s athletics program(s).
“Billie always had a keen eye for how athletes got through universities and wanting there to be some parity with other activities. She wanted to make sure that you would get credits and that the scholarships are then tied to you taking those credits. Like, if you’re on the basketball team. She wanted to make sure The Syrinx had the same structure,” Schrag said
Schrag went on to explain how Billie was an advocate for The Syrinx, wanting students to be allowed an opportunity to speak with their authentic voices.
“Her love for The Syrinx connects in a large way to her profound respect for student voice. But also, the feeling she had that student voices are legitimate, and meaningful and ought to be heard. She always wanted there to be a corner where there was the possibility for authentic student voice. Her legacy with The Syrinx is in really valuing student voice on a profound level, and wanting to make sure that there was a meaningful academic, but also just a student-led space on campus where students could be in charge of what they said and the stories they wanted to tell,” Schrag said.
For some students, she was a personal advocate. Billie inspired those in her classroom to both find their voices and use them. Many of these students have gone on to write for The Syrinx itself, using everything she taught them about the power their voice has. In many ways, her influence has come full circle.
Two previous Editor-In-Chiefs of The Syrinx and now-alumni, Abigail Brown, Bachelor of Arts in English ‘20, and Leo Loera, Bachelor of Arts in communication ‘18, speak to how Billie inspired them both as students and as staff members of The Syrinx.
“Billie taught me how to use my voice, but also how to use my silence. There is so much to be gained from using your voice, but also listening to others. She instilled personal advocacy within us as students, which creates advocacy for the communities around us,” Brown said.
Billie taught her students how to be their most authentic selves, and is in fact remembered by many for her attentive listening skills that allowed them an opportunity to tell their respective stories. At other times, her students were forced to revel in the silence, trying to find an answer to her hard-hitting questions. This was another part of what allowed students to own their truth in her classroom.
“Thanks to Billie, I was able to create several programs and projects based off of my identity and truth. I was encouraged bravely through her safe space that she cultivated with her students to express myself without fear and without worry of judgement. She had a knack for tapping into her students as a way to invite them in, to step into their power,” Loera said.
Aside from serving as both a mentor and teacher for those in the Communication Program, Billie served as such to many other students in the Fresno Pacific community. Billie taught people lessons which shaped who they would grow to become. Former student Hailey Millhollen, Bachelor of Arts in communication ‘18, reflects on how Billie taught her that each person’s story matters.
“She reminded me that my personal story mattered. Until someone tells you that your life, everything you do and the things that you say matter, it doesn’t mean as much. Now I want to know what each individual is thinking when I’m speaking with a group of people, because she taught me that we each have unique experiences and everyone deserves the opportunity to share those,” Millhollen said.
Billie’s teachings were more than a mere classroom curriculum: they were derived from who she was as a person. She strongly owned who she was and through this students were able to learn personal integrity, amongst various other life lessons. Karina Guzman, Bachelor of Arts in communication ‘14, reflected on what she has learned from Billie both in and out of the classroom.
“She taught me the power of storytelling and of being a critical thinker. She taught her students to be bold, not afraid to take up space in the world. Even during our times of misunderstanding one another, she taught me the importance of thinking and ownership. Billie taught me how to sit in the uncomfortable,” Guzman said.
For many students, Billie was a model feminist. She opened the eyes of her students in how she completely stepped into who she was as a woman. Rachel Barcelos, Bachelor of Arts in communication ‘14, traces her own feminism back to Billie.
“She completely embodied what it means to be a feminist. She has always willingly stepped into positions of leadership and never let herself be silenced. She knew she was entitled to speak, because she was a human being and it didn’t matter whether or not society told her it was her place or not her place—if she had something to say, she was going to say it,” Barcelos said.
For others, she was a friend. Billie’s blunt and honest nature empowered friends and students to do things they never imagined possible. Her continued words of encouragement are what pushed former student and friend, Katy Pacino, Bachelor of Arts in communication ‘13, to continue with her educational career.
“Billie gave me a lot of hope in myself. Being autistic, I never thought college or further education was possible. I was afraid that I wouldn’t be successful in college, but she made me believe in myself. She always made me believe that I could do more, and I wouldn’t be where I am career-wise without her,” Pacino said
As a friend, mentor and advisor, Billie wanted her charges to be successful, encouraging them to push the boundaries of their thoughts and strive to achieve their life goals. She continuously encouraged and supported her students in their dreams, never doubting that something was achievable for them. Former student Jorge Gutierrez-Marron, Bachelor of Arts in communication ‘17, reflected on this as well.
“Billie was a great listener who always gave me great advice. In 2016 I went to Los Angeles for a semester, for a film program, and I wasn’t going to do it, but she encouraged me to go and try something new. She made all of my dreams sound possible, and pushed me to follow those dreams. Everything she told me was worth it and I will never forget that conversation or experience,” Gutierrez-Marron said.
While future Sunbirds may never know the force that was Billie Jean, those still working towards their degree cherish beyond measure the time they spent getting to know and learning from her. Gillian Lehman, a junior double-majoring in Liberal Studies and Spanish, speaks of how Billie has influenced the type of teacher she wants to become one day.
“When you spoke with her you truly felt heard and supported. It was clear she was a strong advocate for her students. To see her passion for her students and people in general influenced me. She inspired me to be an advocate for my future students and others, as well as being intentional with all conversations,” Lehman said.
Billie’s legacy will live forever through both the Fresno Pacific community and her students who will one day leave it, as she helped teach them how to engage positively with the world and other people. Billie taught them how to maintain their dignity, while still listening to and understanding others. No matter the career path her students decide to take, whether a job in marketing or one day returning to Fresno Pacific as she did, her legacy of preparing many generations to change other people’s lives continues on.
Everyone has had unique experiences and relationships with Billie, but her memory still remains in the many generations of her students. Billie was dearly loved by this community and she will be deeply missed by those left behind. As we mourn the loss of someone that so many of us cherished, we wish everyone the fullness and comfort of peace in this new and unexpected hardship.
Author: Shyanne Mortimer | A&E Co-Editor