In the Spring of 2012, as I sat in Professor Maria Hoehn’s afternoon section of Europe 1945, she recruited me to join her then-fledgling initiative. She described the premise: the Vassar-West Point Initiative would be a part of the new Mellon Grant, which was designed to bridge the gap between military institutions and their local liberal arts colleges. I jumped at the chance. Before I go too deeply into my experiences as part of the initiative, I need to first provide some context on who I am. I was raised in a very liberal household in San Francisco, and while I could conceptualize the military as an entity, it was never a path that I considered pursuing. With this frame of mind, I met my first cadets. The first exchange was social, based in the arts. We were assigned a partner and given hours of free time with which to begin construction on the proverbial bridge. Although we had chosen markedly different college experiences, my partner and I discovered a common taste in books, movies and music. The early days of the initiative served their purpose: we were no longer Vassar students and cadets, we were simply friends. When the Initiative meets, we represent an intersection of many different things. On one hand, we are individuals, peers who have built friendships on foundations of common interests and experiences. On the other, we are representatives of our institutions. For the latter, it does not necessarily matter what our individual beliefs and values are, simply what the perceived ones of our institution are. This is uniquely valuable in terms of the initiative, because one of the most important aspects (in my opinion) is the fact that both Vassar students and cadets are given the opportunity to shadow one another in classes at their respective institutions.
As a three-year member of the Vassar-West Point Initiative, I have spent a lot of time reflecting on the next chapter of this program. The time has come to make a crucial decision about the future of the Initiative: will it continue to be a primarily social interaction, or will it push students’ boundaries in the classroom as well? I have always been told and fundamentally believe that college is a time to broaden one’s horizons, and take educational risks. In this regard, the Vassar-West Point initiative presents an opportunity that should not be ignored. Imagine this with me: Professor Robert Brigham’s Foreign Policy seminar jointly taught with a West Point professor to a mixed class of cadets and Vassar students. The potential for a class like that is incredible.
While the program is not all the way there yet, the Initiative has always been dedicated to engaging its intellectual potential. For example, last year, for Black History Month, West Point hosted a screening of Professor Maria Hoehn’s book-turned-documentary “Breath of Freedom.” The event was an instance of true institutional synergy, where Professor Hoehn’s work (which focuses on the experience of Black soldiers in World War II, and is an incredible book) was showcased in a military environment to a mixed audience of cadets and Vassar students.
Through my involvement in the Vassar-West Point Initiative, I have had the opportunity to meet and befriend dozens of incredible cadets. I have had levels of access to the West Point experience usually reserved for the cadets themselves. The Initiative has, in many ways, been a core aspect of my time at Vassar. I am honored to have been a part of its development from the early stages, and I am excited to see it develop in the future.
-Sophia Rutkin ’15