Old photographs are keepers of nostalgia, memory and, often, mystery. American photographer Diane Arbus once wrote, “A photograph is a secret about a secret; the more it tells you, the less you know.” The summer before her senior year, she came across a photo of her mother on the day of her 1978 Vassar College convocation ceremony. Surely, in that moment there was something unknowable about the photograph.
In the picture, Bernice Garbade ’79 stands among a sea of black caps and gowns, no one paying particular attention to the presence of a camera but her. Is she surrounded by loving friends? Was the photo taken before or after convocation? What experiences culminated in this precise moment? She’s smiling, hands clasped, in front of a brick backdrop that is vaguely but certainly Main Building. Thirty-six years later, Rachel took the same portrait at her own convocation.
The photo struck me when I was scrolling through my Instagram feed. “Just a casual pic of my mom and me at senior convocation in 1978 and 2014,” reads the caption. Rachel’s Instagram account is largely a documentation of campus hideaways, food cooked in her Terrace Apartment kitchen and quintessential photos of the library and orchard. All of these images are intensely familiar to her mother and uncle, who both attended Vassar.
Despite this family legacy, Rachel said she never felt any pressure from her family when applying to colleges. “I remember touring around liberal arts schools junior year and worrying that I didn’t have that one school that I wanted to go to. But, when I stepped foot on Vassar’s campus, everything just clicked in the most perfect way. My mom never pressured me to go but she, of course, loved it when I got accepted,” she said.
Bernice said that alongside overarching feelings of excitement was an immediate sign of relief that her daughter had been accepted—she had put all of her eggs in one basket and applied only to Vassar. “I definitely was hoping Rachel would choose Vassar, largely because I thought she would fit in and enjoy the atmosphere, which is the case. Since she applied Early Decision, my only reaction was relief when she was admitted, as she did not have a second choice school,” wrote Bernice in an emailed statement.
Though Vassar evaluates applications holistically, not giving any significant weight to whether or not a student has a family legacy with the College, Rachel joked that she may have had a small advantage. “I must say I had something of an edge when writing essays during the application process; I could talk about the Lathrop Parlor I sat in at reunions or the fond memories my mom shared with me that I hoped to recreate.”
Rachel has been to every one of her mother’s reunions since she was 18 months old. Amid aging photos of Bernice’s time at Vassar in the ’70s and Rachel’s college life over the last four years are pictures of Rachel as a child eating french fries in the Retreat or posing in the flowers in front of Noyes. Looking through them, it’s difficult to be cynical about how—simply put—cool, it is to see Rachel all over campus at ages six, 11, completely unaware that she, too, would attend Vassar. The College remained a homebase for the Garbade family, and Rachel and her brother always came along for the ride.
“Even before Rachel moved in, I cannot tell you how many times I was on campus for reunions, friends’ reunions, when her brother attended Summer Institute for the Gifted there for three years, Sons and Daughters, etc.,” wrote Bernice.
The Sons and Daughters Program is a two-day event Vassar holds every semester for children of alumnae/i who are high school juniors. During that time, prospective students meet with admissions officers who share advice on the college application process, current students and sit in on classes. Adam Deixel ’82 said this is one of the main ways his daughters Sophie Deixel ’18 and Isabel Deixel ’14 got to know Vassar. Though Isabel was always dead-set on going to the College, Sophie wasn’t so sure at first.
“Our older daughter always felt like she was going to go to Vassar…She had always thought of Vassar as being just what college is. Then Sophie came along and we brought her to the Sons and Daughters event. She went into the process feeling like she didn’t want to go to Vassar. She just didn’t want to follow family tradition,” explained Adam, whose wife, Jennifer Deixel ’84, and niece also attended Vassar. “She surprised herself, I think, by saying she thought Vassar was the place.”
Sophie agreed, writing, “There was no assumption that I would go or even apply. I had convinced myself that I definitely didn’t like Vassar enough to apply early and that I would do something different from my family, but I eventually realized that Vassar was the place for me. I definitely came to the decision on my own, although my parents were very excited to hear that I chose their alma mater.”
Adam maintained that his daughters’ college experiences are uniquely their own, and though he always feels a sense of belonging when he returns to Vassar, it has been exciting to see his daughters grow into the space on their own terms.
“It’s really fun as a parent to see your kids inhabit and own something that used to be yours and make it their own,” he said. Nonetheless, there is a level of mutual understanding for him and his wife when talking to their children about school.
“The knowledge I have is still limited because what I know is 32 years old, but there certainly is a comfort in having a shared vocabulary and a shared geography. In some ways it’s trivial and superficial—we know the buildings, the dorms, the academic buildings. But when, for example, Sophie says it’s a long walk from Cushing to the library, we know what she means,” said Adam.
It’s easy to see the advantage of parents grasping the mundane aspects of everyday Vassar life. One could imagine this translating to fewer arguments with parents about the merits of gender neutral housing and the nuances of what you’re learning in your classes on gender, race and sexuality. I thought about all of the difficult conversations I’ve had with my parents at the dinner table. I thought about the time my dad called me downstairs and asked me about not wearing a bra. If they had taken the same classes I have, if they knew what Vassar was like, maybe they could understand a little better, I always thought.
Though this may often hold true for Rachel, there are still generational differences between her and her mother that exist with any parent and child.
“Although some of the buzzwords we take for granted now—like ‘heteronormative’—did not quite exist when my mom went to Vassar in the ’70s, I have found that both of my parents are extremely understanding of Vassar’s ever-changing climate. I often come home for break, chattering on about some new type of privilege I learned about recently and I am met with blank stares. But my parents are always curious, ask questions and are happy to learn new things,” said Rachel.
Sophie expressed having a similar relationship with her parents, adding, “I think Vassar is in many ways a very different place now than it was then, but there are definitely similar aspects as well. [My parents] are always extremely interested in what Vassar is like now and finding out from me the ways in which it has changed and the ways in which it had stayed the same.”
Bernice said one of the most prominent changes has been students’ activism and social consciousness. She wrote, “When I arrived at Vassar, it was just the beginning of people feeling comfortable talking about being gay, there was no talk about being transgender, or queer, or questioning. Everything is much more open and diverse in that regard…Clearly students now are much more engaged in politics and social issues.”
Even so, there is still some overlap in experience. Both Rachel and Bernice are French majors, though Rachel was careful not to make one mistake her mother did. “One greatest regret is that she never took Art 105/106. So, I made sure to do that first thing freshman year, and, evidently, that decision has changed my life forever,” said Rachel, who has a second major in art history and is currently Editor-in-Chief of Contrast.
Sophie’s parents had similar words of caution for her: “My parents have given me a lot of great guidance for how to navigate Vassar. They made me swear that I will take Art 105 because they both loved that course, so that will definitely be on my schedule next year,” she wrote.
Still, for Rachel, the most salient advice her mother has given her has been through showing rather than telling. Beyond the time Rachel spent with Bernice on campus for reunions and events, away from Vassar she saw how her mother’s relationships flourished after graduation. Every summer her family would visit Bernice’s college best friend in Cape Cod.
“I can remember how happy they were to see each other and how they would immediately commence discussion about crazy memories they had from their college years…but I’d also hear stories they would share about how their other best friend…had given birth years ago and how my mother had rushed to Buffalo, N.Y. to help her out in her first days of mothering,” Rachel recalled.
Along the same lines, Adam said the experiences he might share with his children come in broad strokes. College, he said, has always been about making friends and receiving an exemplary education.
“If you’re lucky and at a place like Vassar, there are commonalities. It’s a place where you’re going to make those best friends you might have for your whole life. It’s a place where you go from being a smart kid with a fairly unformed mind to being someone who’s on their way to adulthood with some pretty well-developed skills in thinking and writing and understanding the world around you. I hope those things never change,” he said.
I told Adam I enjoyed talking to him and hearing about his experiences. But before I could hang up the phone, he stopped me: “Can I ask you a favor?” “Sure,” I replied, unsure of what he would ask. “If I’ve said anything you think Sophie would be embarrassed by, please don’t publish it!”
As a second-semester senior, Rachel is now beginning to look forward to after her time at Vassar. And she knows that moving the tassel from right to left won’t be the end of her journey with the College.
“Vassar isn’t just four years—it is forever. The friends my mom made there are her friends today, some 35 years later. When I think ahead to the future I can only imagine Sean Chang [’15] being the great gay uncle to my children and visiting Simon Hardt’s [’15] beach house in Florida with my whole family in tow,” she said.
Rachel ended by saying, “Vassar is a crazy yet extremely short-lived adventure. Though never explicitly, my mom made it clear that whoever joined you on that journey would be with you for the rest of your life, arguing about drying racks in your first apartment, next to you at the altar, there by your side as you cuddled your first child, and years after that, still reminiscing about how you could once buy alcohol at the Mug.”