Before They Were Educators: Dr. Nicholas Passalacqua

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Before they were educators, professors were gaining the experiences they needed to be proficient in their fields. Some were starting families and others were traveling the world. Now, they offer their expertise and experiences in hopes that it will aid students in their own youthful journeys.

For three years, Dr. Nicholas Passalacqua has been a professor at Western Carolina University within the anthropology and sociology departments. He is the current Forensic Anthropology Program Coordinator and teaches a variety of anthropology classes, including Taphonomy, Human Osteology and Introduction to Forensic Anthropology.

His life began in Michigan, where he was born in Okemos and later moved to East Lansing. There, he decided to attend Michigan State University since it was close to home. As an undergraduate student, he began his studies as a psychology major, but soon found a home in the anthropology field.

Before the television series “Bones” and many others like it, forensic anthropology was not as well-known as it is today. Dr. Passalacqua had not heard of the major before attending a class where the professor was a forensic anthropologist. As a child, Dr. Passalacqua enjoyed dinosaur bones, so he always knew that bones would be in his future.

“I was taking anthropology classes as electives for my psychology major because I liked them—I thought they were fun. Meanwhile, I was taking psychology classes that I hated, and thought were the worst. Finally, at some point I realized that didn’t make sense, and switched to be an anthropology major,” said Dr. Passalacqua.

While attending Michigan State, Mary Megyesi, a teaching assistant, directed him to a forensic anthropology summer program at Mercyhurst University in Erie, Pennsylvania, a six week anthropology field school. It was the only time the university offered the summer program, but it gave Dr. Passalacqua a chance to engage in all things anthropology and determine whether he liked the profession.

During his time at the summer program, an individual by the name of Steve Ousley approached him and other students needing assistance moving skeletal collections at the Smithsonian. Once Dr. Passalacqua’s summer program was completed, he moved to the District of Colombia, where he participated in helping Ousley move skeletal collections for 5 weeks.

Michigan State also has a graduate program in forensic anthropology, which inspired Dr. Passalacqua to obtain his degree. While he was in Washington D.C., Mercyhurst University developed a graduate program in anthropology. Instead of Michigan State, he chose to apply to Mercyhurst. After obtaining his master’s degree, Dr. Passalacqua received his doctorate from Michigan State five years later.

As he finished his doctoral program, Dr. Passalacqua also participated in out of class projects. He aided a professor in grant-funded research, where they were looking at cranial trauma in infants. They were trying to distinguish between accidents and abuse. Along with this project, he completed his dissertation on Medieval Spain and the health of the individuals through analyzing human remains in small cemeteries.

Once he completed his doctorate, Dr. Passalacqua applied for a job, and was hired at the Joint POW MIA Accounting Agency Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii. He moved to Hawaii and lived there for three years. There, he also taught a class at the University of Hawaiiat West O’ahu.

“I missed teaching. I really enjoyed it. So, when

I saw this position at Western Carolina open, I applied,” said Dr. Passalacqua.

Professors are more than educators, they engage in personal research, they are friends when appropriate and participate in club activities. Dr. Passalacqua is the advisor for the Anthropology Club along with mentoring over many students in the anthropology program.

Outside of teaching, Dr. Passalacqua enjoys reading, cooking, traveling and playing board games such as Settlers of Catan.

“If you don’t know what you’re doing with your life, ask yourself ‘what do you like to do most?’ If the answer is play video games, then you’re not thinking hard enough. Think about what is going to make you less miserable. Focus on the skills you need to be successful in that career, and work on them,” Dr. Passalacqua stated. “It’s all about being able to communicate professionally. If you are interested in something, ask someone who is in the profession for advice.”

While teaching, Dr. Passalacqua continues to pursue research and practice his forensic anthropology skills. Just because professors are teaching, does not mean they stop being experts in their fields.

If you would like to contact Dr. Nicholas Passalaqcua for more information about the forensic anthropology program here at Western Carolina University, email him at nvpassalacqua@email.wcu.edu.