One of Vassar’s hallmarks is its uniquely involved student community; I remember my admissions interviewer, who had just graduated nine months before, telling me that Vassar was a place that sought students who would change it, not the other way around. This was something that I have found to be true, and something that I am extremely proud of. While there is no such thing as a perfect community, I believe that Vassar students are constantly striving toward that ideal, which is something that surely cannot be said for every college community. However, that is only half of the story.
In my experience working with alumni and alums-to-be, I have discovered a fantastic quality in Vassar graduates. This commitment to action and a strong, uninhibited voice cannot and does not stop when one steps off this campus. While many are excited to leave when graduation is in sight (and rightly so), this does not mean that they abandon the students that will succeed them. Although many retain their issues with the institution, they also have a remarkable ability to remember the students separately from the institution. It appears that, while students here do make great strides, there are also thousands more outside of the immediate community contributing in just as many different ways.
It always surprises me that every time I speak with an alum, I find that they are just as impassioned about campus issues as we are, no matter how far removed they are from Vassar. It is not uncommon to meet someone who has not stepped foot on campus in decades, but is more up-to-date on issues than some current students. I have found that Vassar alums stay alert to the problems and triumphs here, and many times just want to know how they can get involved in making things better for the students. Whether this happens through funds, writing a letter to administration or just offering a few helpful words to a student, many are genuinely concerned with the well-being of students.
Perhaps this connection to a student body far different from theirs comes from continued connections with their own: many look forward to and make a point to attend reunion, stay in touch with their local Vassar club and even encourage their children to apply. Maintaining that connection with those who truly made their Vassar experience—their peers—obviously inspires a special connection with that time in their lives. In relation to campus issues, many alums remember such campus events as the occupations of Main in 1969 and 1990 and final exam boycotts in relation to social upheaval, perhaps because they keep their time at Vassar in the back of their minds in one way or another.
Therefore, when they hear of something happening on campus, such as the recent race-related incidents, they do not see these as isolated events—rather, they attribute this to deeply ingrained, ongoing issues at Vassar and seek to make change more accessible for current students than it was for them. This type of attention and concern may be even more valuable than monetary support, as it reminds students that, even in such dark situations, others have fought similar battles at this institution and that those people are interesting in helping them fight theirs.
However, that is not to say that monetary gifts cannot make an impact on the Vassar community. Cause-oriented grads have a way of making contributions that are not only financially significant, but also significant to the growth and improvement of the Vassar experience for generations to come. Most recently, three Vassar alums from different class years demonstrated this in the creation of The Solomon and Barbara Wank Prize for Excellence in African, Asian, or Latin American History. United in their appreciation for History Professor Maria Höhn, these alums created an award that not only honors someone who influenced them, but also someone who made that possible as that professor’s mentor.
This news struck me as a very “Vassar” thing to do. This prize seeks to fill a gap that can discourage History scholars who study the aforementioned regions as there were, until now, only prizes established for those who studied European and American History. Although the prize’s namesake, Professor Solomon Wank, was a European History scholar, he made strides in broadening the scope of history at that time (the late 1960s) to include women.
Professor Höhn has, with his influence and inspiration, made similar strides in include and emphasize the contributions of African-Americans in the Second World War. Taking all of these influences into account, the creation of this prize will encourage and reward those who study non-Western history in a continuation of previous work to make history more inclusive and therefore more complete. This example is not isolated, as many Vassar alums have poured time, thought and funds into making their alma mater what its students expect it to be. Naturally, this has evolved with time and continued social awareness, and it will only progress as time goes on.
Similarly, Vassar graduates take an interest in current students’ futures by contributing to such resources as the Internship Grant Fund, offering up their time for informational panels and making themselves available for advice and even internship opportunities through services such as AlumniFire and LinkedIn. To me, this signals a strong support system that compels graduates to reach out to those who need guidance to attain their goals.
This is also, perhaps, a result of the supportive rather than competitive community that is found here, which requires a certain level of compassion as well as belief in fellow alums who they may have never met. A sense of reassurance can be gleaned from this: even if one feels alone within these walls, it is possible to find someone within this larger network who is willing to at least sympathize, if not point them in the right direction. As the semester draws near the end and many are dreaming of life outside of Vassar, it is reassuring to know that even after influential people leave campus, they are still thinking of ways to better this community.
—Sophia Burns ’18 is a student at Vassar College.