It’s Still Here


Whenever I return to Dickinson College, I like to drive past Old West, the centerpiece of the campus, and I have this tradition of declaring, “It’s still here”.  Of course, I know it’s really going to still be there, 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 is a small, liberal arts college that seems to be thriving in a world where you would think the economics of higher education would have made it extinct years ago.   You can find it in Carlisle, a sleepy little central Pennsylvania town whose major claim to fame is Jim Thorpe, local famous son.   It is one of this country’s oldest colleges, founded in 1773, and named after John (not Emily) Dickinson, signer of the Declaration of Independence.  It is also one of the first colleges in this country to admit women, long before any of its better-known contemporaries did.

There are many people who never go back for their college reunions, and I get it.   Maybe the memories weren’t so great, or they haven’t kept up friendships so it could be lonely and depressing to go back.   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 happy that Delta Nu has survived; out of the 13 fraternities and sororities that were on campus when I was a student, only 6 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 its core values.  The Delta Nu alumni advisory board did such an impressive job of rescuing the current sisterhood that they were honored by the college with a distinguished alumni award at a ceremony that I must say deeply moved me.

As I listened to the various alumni who were honored for their contributions, including Barbara Bailey who founded Delta Nu (it’s a local sorority found nowhere else), 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 graduates who have become published authors.  Lauren Stein, Matty Dalrymple, Laura Kamoie, and Sherry Knowlton 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 Fred Ferre taught me how to construct and write a logical argument, an educational psychology course with Professor Hartman taught me how to develop and teach using a Socratic dialogue, and an astronomy class with 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 trajectory to becoming a critical thinker.

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.


6 thoughts on “It’s Still Here

  1. Hi Debby,
    This is a beautiful piece. Our schools can really serve as our alma mater (the mother of our souls) in so many ways.

    This makes me recall my undergraduate advisor, Alexander Riasanovsky. He was not only a brilliant teacher and historian, but a mentor who taught us that all knowledge was valuable, that there were no real divisions between fields (sciences, the arts, the humanities–all were related), and that we should always think broadly and deeply. But one thing that your essay really brings to mind (right from the title) was the way he always greeted me, even many years after graduation, “Altman, you’re not dead yet?” I’m not quite sure what I did to make him believe in the certainty that I’d not be long for the world, but there are lots of possible answers to that. Even now, nearly 40 years after my last classes with him, his voice and guidance are still with me.


  2. Bill, thank you SO much for your thoughtful and lovely comment! I have so many wonderful memories of D’son and having worked in the higher education publishing field for more than 30 years, I have had the opportunity to spend many hours in conversation with those who really understand and care about the value of the liberal arts. Perhaps your mentor was more of a Monty Python fan than someone prescient about your imminent demise? Ha!


  3. Debby–your observations about your fond memories of Dickinson College struck a nerve with me. I also benefitted from a liberal arts college experience, and am communicating with classmates about planning for my Carleton College 50th reunion next summer. I last attended the 25th reunion–geography more than indifference being a factor in not getting to more.
    I don’t think I could have had a better college experience, being particularly fortunate for it including a summer seminar program in Japan. 50 years ago travel abroad was not as common as a part of the college experience as it is today, and the opportunity to move beyond my own familiar culture left lasting impressions. I also fondly remember discovering the College Players, as the student theatre group called themselves, early my freshman year. “Waiting for Godot” was their first performance I saw, and I missed very few during my four years at Carleton. “The Fantastics” was another favorite performance, and years later Kent and I, while on a business trip to NYC, saw the original off-Broadway production of it the final year they performed it. What a treat!


  4. Jim – I would suspect that the vast majority of our fellow higher ed publishing friends are also beneficiaries of the liberal arts. What better preparation for the work that we did, talking with professors from all fields, than having a liberal arts education which encouraged us to be curious, thoughtful, and caring. I used to tell people that I was the poster child for a liberal arts education.
    And Waiting for Godot! One of my favorite plays, “They give birth astride a grave. The light gleams one instant, then it’s night once more.”
    Thanks so much for writing and for following my blog! Hoping to get to Boston sometime this year – will let everyone on FB now so we can try to plan a Heath/HM informal reunion.


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