On Monday, Jan. 27, Vassar Office of Religious and Spiritual Life (RSL) hosted their first “Oh the Places I’ve Been” event of the semester. This installment involved a conversation with Professor of History on the Eloise Ellery Chair Rebecca Edwards.
Edwards focused on the nineteenth-century American West at Vassar and has taught courses such as “From Gold Rush to Dust Bowl: Writing the American Frontier” and “Sex and Reproduction in 19th-Century United States: Before Margaret Sanger.”
“‘Oh the Places’ was created by my predecessor, last year’s Inter-religious Fellow, Joey Glick,” explained this year’s Tanenbaum Inter-religious Fellow, Adah Hetko, in an emailed statement.
Hetko continued, “I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but I think that the idea was to create the space for a faculty member or administrator to connect with students and provide mentorship in a more personal way–without the filter of academics. Participants share a form of their coming-of-age story, and then answer questions.”
This installment was the first of three planned for the spring semester. Hetko said, “RSL has invited administrators and faculty members who have clearly made a difference in the lives of many students, and who are willing to risk sharing a piece of their story.”
On how she became involved with the series, Professor Edwards said in an emailed statement, “I’ve worked with Sam Speers and [Rabbi] Rena Blumenthal for several years, having served on the Advisory Committee on Religious and Spiritual Life.”
She continued, “They are wonderful spiritual directors for the campus and it’s always a pleasure to participate in the programs sponsored by their office.”
The discussion, held in the Faculty Parlor, began with an introduction by Rev. Samuel Speers, Assistant Dean for Campus Life and Director of RSL.
Edwards then jumped into the conversation by discussing her childhood and revealing that the first year after she graduated from college was her “terrible year.” She compared the anxiety she felt to the way some Vassar students and alum feel toward graduation.
“Out there beyond the walls of Vassar, the economic situation is pretty grim. Students can feel a tremendous amount of pressure to choose a career path, and to succeed in exactly the ‘right’ courses, major, internships, summer programs, fellowships, and so forth,” Edwards said.
She continued, explaining what she wanted to get across during the discussion, “It may therefore be reassuring to a student facing those pressures to hear from people further along in life that their own post-graduate paths had often been confused, messy, and downright painful.”
She then transitioned into her graduate school experience and the story of how she ultimately found a place for herself as a history professor at Vassar.
“Ultimately, there are myriad different ways for things to turn out all right,” she said.
“As they say in Shakespeare in Love, the ‘natural condition of the theater business [and we could say, ‘of life’] is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster…But strangely enough, it all turns out well,’” Edwards quoted.
Edwards then opened the room up for questions, where she discussed her interest in frontier life and how this interest has flourished at Vassar, her work with human rights organization Amnesty International, how her knowledge of 19th-century reproduction relates to reproduction rights today, and advice she had for nervous seniors.
Edwards encouraged students to take risks and not be afraid of failure, despite how they’ve perceived failure before and during their Vassar career.
“Professor Edwards talked about her childhood and college years and then focused on post-college decision-making, which was of great interest especially to the seniors present—who asked most of the questions,” Hetko said of the event.
Hetko went on, “The event was definitely a success. The faculty parlor was full of students of all years and majors. Judy Jarvis, who participated in ‘Oh the Places’ last year, and Molly McGlennen, who will be the next participant, were also there, which gave it a great sense of connectedness to the other installments.”
“The room was totally engaged in following the twists and turns of her story—I didn’t see a single person check their phone,” Hetko noted, “She ended by acknowledging that post-grad life can be struggle, but also reassured the students that there are many ways for everything to turn out okay.”
Women’s Center intern Erin Boss ’16 agreed on the success of the discussion, “The series is a really great way for students to connect with faculty and administrators informally.” Boss is one of Edwards’ former students and was interested in Edwards’ concentration on the frontier.
Boss continued, “It’s a great way to know them on a personal level rather than professionally or academically.”
“In this second year of the series, we’ve taken input from last year’s participants, who have suggested colleagues they thought would be interested. That being said, if a faculty member or administrator would like to participate, don’t hesitate to reach out to RSL,” Hetko encouraged.
RSL currently scheduled two more ‘Oh the places’ events this semester: Professor Molly McGlennen on Thursday, Feb. 27 and Professor Eve Dunbar Monday, April 7. “I hope it will continue next school year and beyond,” Hetko said.
Commenting on the series as a whole, Hetko explained her overall reaction to the event. “The stories told vary as widely as the participants, but all participants take the risk of speaking from the heart, and the conversations that result are remarkable. And the stories are very beautiful—‘Oh the Places’ is neither gossip nor confession, but true storytelling,” she said.