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.