Vanderzyden Prepares to Cap Career After 30 Years

Sue Vanderzyden walked into an interview in 1993 with hesitation.

“I honestly had never heard of this place!” she laughs. “And on paper, the position didn’t really excite me, but I knew I didn’t want a traditional Guidance counselor job.”

She had just returned to the Chautauqua region because her fiancé had landed a job in nearby Cassadaga. As a SUNY Fredonia alumna, she was familiar with the region, having graduated in 1991 with a degree in Psychology. She had also interned with some area schools while working for the Upward Bound program, through which she assisted students at risk of failing or dropping out.

That experience led her to earn a master’s degree in School Counseling from SUNY Brockport, while living back home in the greater Rochester suburbs. However, her pending nuptials meant she needed to find a job ideally in southwest New York state – and Randolph Academy had an opening for a school counselor.

A traditional counselor’s role in those days was characterized more by scheduling and paperwork than real student interaction and guidance. During that interview, however, she could tell almost immediately that something was different about this school.

“There was a team of 10 who interviewed me,” she recalls. “While that could have been intimating, instead, I noticed that everyone seemed to love their job and enjoyed each other. That was the kind of place I wanted to be. Plus, working with this at-risk population…making a difference in their lives…it all really appealed to me.”

After four years as a counselor at Randolph Academy, the position of CSE (Committee on Special Education) Chair became available. The district’s leaders felt that Sue would be a great fit for the role, and she’s held it ever since.

Sue Vanderzyden’s yearbook photo from her “rookie” year in 1993.

As CSE Chair, Sue has overseen admissions for the Randolph campus’ day student population, in addition to working closely with Scott Winterburn on New Directions’ residential admission applications. She reviews referrals, conducts interviews, and meets with prospective students and their families. She also gathers information from various sources and serves as the main point of contact for students’ home school districts as well as New York’s Department of Social Services.

“Essentially, I help determine whether or not we think a student will be a good fit here,” she says. “If so, we help with their transition; if not, we refer them elsewhere.”

Sue is also involved at the back end of their journey. She assists with student discharges – ideally those who have been successful and are graduating or can return to their home district, but also those who need to find a different solution.

Sue (left) with her colleagues from Randolph Academy’s Committee on Special Education in 1998.

“We look at a variety of factors in determining their progress,” she explains. “Have they achieved Wolfpack status? Are they taking accountability for their actions? Are they learning and demonstrating behavioral growth?”

One of her favorite memories includes helping the district as it transitioned to the Normative Culture model. She was part of the delegation that traveled to the greater Philadelphia area to see how another district had successfully implemented it.

She’s also watched the growth of mental health awareness and its destigmatization in many communities, which has led to different ways of recruiting and communicating.

“We used to get referrals solely from the district,” she reflects. “Now, I get many calls out of the blue from parents who are struggling with their children. They hear about us through word-of-mouth.”

Sue also had the opportunity to work alongside her husband, Dan. He taught at the Randolph campus for 12 years before becoming a special education teacher in the Southwestern School District. They will celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary this August.

Sue has seen a lot over the years and has enjoyed the vast majority of it. However, after three decades, she’s ready to pass the baton. Her family owns a lake house in Angola, and she plans to spend as much time there as possible, along with some travel and family time. As she prepares to leave, she hopes the next person to fill her role understands the importance of building and maintaining relationships with the districts. Her impact isn’t lost on the Academy’s leaders.

“Sue has been a dedicated asset to our district. Her knowledge, expertise and deep understanding of our student populations and the systems that serve them will be a huge loss,” Superintendent Danielle Cook, Ph.D., acknowledges. “But she’s earned this opportunity to enjoy more time with family and friends, and we all wish her the very best in her retirement.”

Sue also feels very fortunate to have been part of Randolph Academy’s success, and to have impacted so many young lives over the years.

“We work with a lot of kids who are really going through it,” she advises. “You don’t always see the rewards right away. Sometimes it’s not until years later.”

She was reminded of that recently, when she was approached in a restaurant by a girl in her mid-teens who turned out to be a former student. She ran up to Sue, gave her a hug, and began to sob with appreciation. “This girl was only about nine years old when she came to us, and she wasn’t here long,” Sue marveled. “Yet, she was so grateful. I was surprised that she even remembered me. You just never know who you’re reaching, and how far those lessons will stay with them.”

Sue celebrates with a student who earned Timber Wolf status recently.