2008 Homecoming Speech

October 17, 2008

Good evening to you all.  What a pleasure to welcome you all home again to your alma mater, Washington & Jefferson College.  It is such a pleasure each year to see so many alumni return to renew old friendships and to check on us here at the College, to see how W&J has grown and changed.

When I came to the college four years ago, what drew me here was the sense of community that is so strong at W&J, the sense of community that draws you all back home again.  Last night, I was privileged to witness a formal dinner given to honor Dr. Denny Trelka, who was a member of our biology department for 36 years.  He taught, advised, cajoled, and counseled literally thousands of students from W&J, guiding them to careers in medicine, medical research, and forensics as well as publishing, the military, and any other career that they wished to pursue.  Listening to his students and colleagues roast him, it was easy to see that, like so many faculty and staff here, he had been more than a teacher to these students.  He was a lifelong friend and role model.

At W&J we are blessed to see close student-faculty and student-staff relationships everyday.  I see faculty cheering their students at soccer games.  I see a chemistry faculty member at an art opening because his advisee has a painting on exhibit there.  I hear about a staff member who drove a student to Baltimore for a job interview because he had no car.  I learn of faculty who tutor students in their homes on a Saturday or staff members who take them fly-fishing over fall break.  And every one of these observations or stories renews my faith in this place.  It reminds me of why I am here.  I can assure you that while all small colleges talk about close relationships among faculty, staff and students, W&J not only talks the talk--this college also walks the walk.  No wonder that one of our honorees tonight, Lynn Bialowas-McGoey, invited Ron Bayline to be her guest because of the impact his teaching had on her life.

The sense of community that is engendered on this campus does not wither when students graduate and become alumni.  You come back to this campus, like the swallows to Capistrano, because it is home.  But you do more than that.  More than 600 alumni volunteer their time each year to help keep the college strong.  Some of you are members of the Alumni Executive Council or reunion committees.  Some serve as advisors to fraternities or sororities.  Some of you mentor students by hiring them, as another honoree, Pat McCormick has done.  Some of you return to teach a course in intersession.  Some of you provide internships for our students--Lyn Dyster, one of our honorees has done that for three summers running, housing students in her home as well as providing them opportunities to conduct sophisticated research in her lab.

Let me give you an example of a group of alumni-funded programs that is having a huge impact on W&J.  Over the past few years, we have been doing more and more to help students dream big, to help them put their liberal arts educations to work, and to give them a chance to create the kinds of lives that make them even more attractive to graduate and professional schools, employers, and national fellowship competitions.  Specifically, we have a new program, The Magellan Project, which provides support for students to take internships here or abroad, or to travel and study during the summer.  While our more affluent students have always been able to accept unpaid positions as interns on Capitol Hill or to take the summer to travel in Europe, studying art history, our less affluent students have not had this luxury.  They have had to work during the summer to raise the money for their tuition.  Of course, you can learn a lot by working a construction crew or doing custodial work at a hospital, but we wanted these students to be able to pursue their dreams as well.  And so the Magellan Project was born.

The Magellan Project is really an umbrella designation for a number of different alumni-funded programs that support students for various different kinds of activities.  Some cover airfare to study abroad, others provide support for students going to third world countries, and others support internships or research activities here or abroad.  This past summer, more than 55 students were able to pursue their dreams through this program.  One of these students was offered one of only four research internships for undergraduates at the Pasteur Institute in Paris.  A first-generation student from Meadville, PA, her first trip out of the country was to spend the summer in Paris doing cancer research at the Pasteur Institute.  She could not have accepted this award without the kind of support that the Magellan Project gave her.  Two other students traveled to Cyprus to study public health care delivery in a politically divided society, another marketed fragrances in Switzerland, another interned at Universal Music Group in Los Angeles, another served as a consultant to a multi-media firm in Germany, another published bi-lingual books in Spanish and English in Barcelona, another learned sports management in North Carolina, others interned on Capitol Hill and for the World Wildlife Fund, and one evaluated workers' safety in steel mills.

But I have to share with you one of my favorite Magellan projects.  A student who had been studying the Holocaust at W&J decided that she wanted to visit the sites she had read so much about.  So, she submitted a Magellan proposal to do this.  The problem was that she did not have much experience with travel, so in preparing her project proposal, she did what she knew how to do--she search the internet for Holocaust tours, and she found one.  To her credit it was not a Gray Line tourist tour--it was one sponsored by the Smithsonian with lectures and intellectual discussions.  But, it was designed for Smithsonian donors--5 star hotels, etc.--and it cost $3200 for one week.  Well, I called the student in and told her that I would fund her for her project, BUT, I said, I wanted her to stay for 2-3 months.  She could stay in hostels, get a Eurail pass, etc.  She looked like I had just asked her to climb Mount Kilamanjaro.  But off she went, to talk to students who had done this sort of thing and then send me her thoughts.  Two weeks passed.  No word.  So, I emailed her and asked her how things were going.  I received an answer--I can't go--my mother won't let me.  Well, I felt awful.  I had pushed her too far, too fast.  So, I offered to call her mother or to ask Dr. Dodge, her advisor, to call her mother.  No response.  I wrote again, saying that if her mother would only allow her to travel on a formal tour, then she should do that.  It was better to spend one week than not to go at all.  Still no response.  Finally, after another couple of weeks, I get an email.  "I can go!" Her mother had relented.  She spent the summer visiting the sites she had only read about.  She learned to travel on her own.  She took trains and buses and found historic sites that were far off the beaten track.  And when she returned, she was a different student.  Before she left, she was the kind of student you might not notice--her eyes were always on the sidewalk 6 feet ahead of her.  When she returned, she came to my office and I harly recognized her.  She looked me straight in the eye, her face glowed, and she said "I did it.  Now I know I can do anything.  I can travel anywhere."  She is truly a different person.  She now talks to other students saying, "You can read about things in books, but until you stand in those death camps and realize how large they are, you don't understand what happened there.  You can learn a lot from books, but you have to go and see the world as well."  Her life has been changed.  My dream is that in a few years we can tell all W&J students that, if they make a reasonable proposal, they can have a grant of $2000-$3000 to pursue their dream for a summer.  I want all our students to have the experience that these 55 students had this year.

As more and more students seek these kinds of remarkable opportunities, you can help them fulfill their dreams.  Some of you may be able to offer internships or housing or to join the other alumni who support the Magellan Project financially.  We are working hard to reach out to you, to learn from you about your experiences at W&J, and to connect you with our students.  The Magellan Project offers an exciting way to connect.

W&J has experienced remarkable success and momentum over the past few years, with 16 new buildings, growth in our freshman applications from 1000- to 7000 in the past few years (this past year we received more out of state than in-state apps), the student body has grown from 1000 to 1500 students and the faculty has grown commensurately to sustain our 12:1 student:faculty ratio.  Our students are happy, successful, and exciting.

You are also responsible in large part for this success.  Your lives and reputations are the foundation for our growing reputation.  If you are successful, people know that W&J had a hand in that success and they admire the college.  If you lead lives of integrity, then we have fulfilled our mission.  In short, your career and your character are the primary evidence of the quality of this college.  We build our reputations on you.

In these turbulent economic times, as families sit down to sort out their priorities for the family budget--should we go visit Aunt Charlotte in New York, or paint the garage, or buy a used car--they are talking about values and priorities.  They are determining what is essential in their lives.  This is a time when we all reassess our values.  It is a time when we realize that wealth can evaporate--it is ephemeral.  We are reminded just how valuable our education is--it lasts forever--it shapes our souls.

W&J has shaped you and now you in turn shape us.  We are bound together in a community, faculty to student, staff to faculty, alumnus to student.  Together we can celebrate the power of education to transform lives and together we can pledge to keep this college strong.  With your gifts of time and money, with the evidence of your daily lives, you are a vital part of that effort.   Thank you so much for everything you do for W&J.
Tori Haring-Smith