by Deborah Batchelder Seme '77
Whenever I return to campus, I like to drive past Old West, and I have this tradition of declaring, “It’s still here.” Of course, I know it’s going to still be here, but I say it because in my mind, it’s a place that doesn’t exist when I am not there. Those years no longer seem real to me, so when I return, it’s a bit of a jolt to my consciousness that it does indeed remain a very real place for thousands of people other than myself—that it carries on without me.
Dickinson seems to be thriving in a world in which you would think the economics of higher education would have made it extinct years ago. I have to believe the reason is the quality of its premier liberal-arts education. A new president will be taking over this fall, Margee Ensign. It was a pleasure seeing and chatting with her as she made herself available during Alumni Weekend, and I have no doubt that the college will continue to thrive under her stewardship.
There are many people who never go back for their class reunions, and I get it. Maybe the memories weren’t so great, or they live too far away, or they have family obligations, or they haven’t kept up friendships, so why bother to go it alone. I am lucky that I have kept some dear friends from my freshman year, in addition to remaining friends with many of my sorority sisters. At a time when Greek organizations seem to be on the decline, and in some cases for very good reasons, I am amazed and happy that Delta Nu has survived; out of the 13 fraternities and sororities that were on campus when I was a student, only six remain.
However, it almost didn’t. Delta Nu was put on probation by the college two years ago, and an advisory board of alumni sisters volunteered to take on the responsibility of steering the undergraduate sisters back to the organization's core values. The Delta Nu alumni advisory board did such an impressive job of rescuing the current sisterhood that its members were honored by the college with a distinguished alumni award at a ceremony that I must say deeply moved me.
As I listened to all of the alumni who were honored for their contributions, including Barbara Pim Bailey '73 who founded Delta Nu, I witnessed the living embodiments of a high-quality liberal-arts education. Noorjahan Akbar is a 2014 graduate who co-founded Young Women for Change, an organization committed to women’s empowerment; Noor risks her life whenever she returns to her native Afghanistan. Then there is Tony Mestres, a 1992 grad who left a job as a vice president at Microsoft to work as the CEO of Seattle Foundation, overseeing an investment of $100 million in charitable grants. Or Young Park, a South Korean immigrant and 1987 grad who majored in economics but ended up CEO of GeneOne, a biotech company that recently produced the first Zika vaccine tested on humans.
At an Alumni College session on publishing the next morning, I listened to four women graduates who have become published authors. Matty Dalrymple ’85, Laura Croghan Kamoie ’92, Sherry Rothenberger Knowlton ’72 and Lauren Keiper Stein ’02 have all taken what they learned at Dickinson and transformed it into historical and romance novels, suspense novels with a message, and a unique cookbook that simplifies the art of preparing fresh food.
And what did we learn at Dickinson? We had to take courses outside of our comfort zones, courses in the sciences, arts, social sciences and humanities, the oft maligned “liberal arts.” As an English major, all I wanted to do was take literature courses, but alas, that was not part of the deal.
As I look back now, many of my dreaded required courses proved to be the most worthwhile. My philosophy course with [former Professor of Philosophy] Fred Ferre taught me how to construct and write a logical argument, a teaching methods course with [former Professor of Psychology] Frank Hartman taught me how to create and teach using a Socratic dialogue, and an astronomy class with [former Professor of Physics] T. Scott Smith taught me to appreciate the vastness of the cosmos, and most importantly, to look up.
Perhaps these skills in isolation may not have meant anything to anyone hiring me for a job, but in total they taught me to get my nose out of a book and opened my mind to a world of possibilities and varying viewpoints. They launched me on the road to becoming a critical thinker.
They also turned out to be the very best preparation for a career in higher education publishing. I like to call myself the poster child for a liberal-arts education, because in my role as a sales professional selling textbooks and software to professors, it was a huge advantage to be able to speak about dark matter with physicists, mitosis with biologists, positive reinforcement with psychologists, the Civil War with historians; my range was never limited to just chatting up English professors about literature. It didn’t matter what department on campus I visited—I could hold my own with anyone, thanks to the opening of my mind to the world of intellectual curiosity that Dickinson gave me.
Years ago, I remember a recent graduate writing “we knew each other and we cared.” Forty years later, I would argue that we still care, not just about each other but about the world, because Dickinson made us into people who are authentic, curious, brave and willing to walk a mile in another’s shoes.
It’s still here. That sense of caring and community, the dedication to unlocking minds, and the passion for looking outward, all can still be witnessed and understood and felt whenever I engage with my fellow alums, whether the class of ’67 or ’07.
Today Dickinson remains a physical place, but for those of us who were fortunate to attend and graduate, it continues to exert its magic as a place in our hearts and minds.
It’s still here, only now we carry it with us.
Published August 11, 2017