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Why I Support Dickinson’s First-generation Students

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by Sylvia Rambo '58

Transformative moments can arrive when we least expect them. My own life-changing realization rushed in during an ordinary day in 1947, while I rode the bus home from school.

As the bus passed the Dickinson School of Law, I heard a voice in my head saying, “I’m going to become a lawyer.” Now I had a plan, and it changed the way I approached my studies. But even at age 11 I knew it wouldn’t be an easy road ahead.

My mother and father divorced when I was 2, and my father provided no assistance thereafter. So my mother, a German immigrant, raised my brother and me alone for a time, cleaning houses and taking in Dickinson students’ laundry. She continued to work after marrying my stepfather, whose Army salary didn’t go far. We lived at the Carlisle Barracks.

When I was in high school, my stepfather passed away. I worked part time at Woolworth’s and the telephone company and continued to earn high marks in school. Books about crusading lawyers kept me inspired.

Dickinson was the only school I applied to because it was the only undergrad college in town. (I couldn’t afford to live on campus, and with no family car, I couldn’t commute far.) Attending Dickinson on a full academic scholarship while living at home, I majored in political science, joined a sorority, played women’s basketball, worked part time and helped register voters during election years.

I fell in love with Washington, D.C., during my semester in Dickinson’s Washington internship program. That led me to George Washington Law School.

Partway through my first semester at GW, my mother passed away, and I returned to Carlisle to care for my 14-year-old half-sister, Ruth. I attended Dickinson School of Law and was the only woman graduate in Dickinson Law’s class of 1963.

My first position after graduating from the Dickinson School of Law was in the trust department of the Bank of Delaware. After several months there, I returned to Carlisle and worked at a law firm and was also a part-time public defender. I was the county’s first woman chief public defender and the county’s first woman serving on the Court of Common Pleas. In 1979, I was appointed by President Jimmy Carter as the first woman to serve on the federal bench in the Middle District of Pennsylvania.

Last spring, I attended the opening ceremony for the Sylvia H. Rambo United States Courthouse, the first courthouse in Pennsylvania named after a woman. I still struggle to comprehend that honor.

None of this would be possible without God, or without my Dickinson scholarship.

This is why I support Dickinson scholarships for first-generation college students. A college education is very expensive today, and there are many hardworking young people aiming to contribute meaningfully to society who cannot afford to attend without help. Some have already overcome formidable odds to graduate from high school. All they need is a leg up. 

Sylvia Rambo ’58 has presided over many landmark cases during her career on the federal bench in the Middle District of Pennsylvania, including lawsuits relating to the incident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant, special-education courses, the prison riots in Camp Hill, Pa., environmental-protection issues and fraud. Sixty years after earning her law degree, she continues to maintain a caseload. She lives in her hometown, Carlisle

Read more from the fall 2023 issue of Dickinson Magazine.

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Published November 21, 2023