Vassar alumna Carolyn Belle Lyday ’72 updated us on her teaching work and how Vassar has stuck with her in her career.
Q: What are you doing right now?
A: I am in my 38th year of teaching at George School, a Quaker coeducational boarding and day school. Now I teach in the religion department, where I have taught for the last 30-something years.
Q: How do you like what you’re doing?
A: I love what I’m doing! I wouldn’t be in my 38th year of doing it if I didn’t. That’s certainly one of the things I began learning while I was a student at Vassar. That is the capacity to have real passion for what I do.
Q: How do you feel your Vassar education has affected your life?
A: My Vassar education was really a crucible where I discovered a lot of things; I was able to focus on things that mattered deeply to me and I feel that rest of my life spilled out of that. It unfolded because of habits of thought, habits of work, a vision of how I could participate more fully in the world and give my gifts to the world. All of those things really came together for me at Vassar in the classroom, in the library, in the dormitory. All of the things that were going on in the wider society. I discovered my capacity for leadership, I discovered how to be really a collaborative leader, kind of a point person. I was the chair of the Vassar Committee to end the war. I became a dorm president at Cushing, the Chair of the Board of House presidents, working closely with the Dean of Residences. I learned how institutional bureaucracies work, both in good ways and not good ways. I really learned intellectual passion from my professors and from my classmates. It was just really fun to pursue things intellectually. I can still remember my professors and things we talked about in the classroom. The whole liberal arts education that was offered there–I was a political science major, a Russian minor, but I took art history; I took philosophy; I took English classes every single year I was there; I took drama literature classes. It was a very powerful education that both showed me what I was capable of but also showed me the interdisciplinary nature of knowledge at a very critical time in my life.
Q: What kind of things were you involved with at Vassar?
A: Residential life was very important for me and Vassar was doing a pretty good job during the administration of really trying to involve students in a meaningful, real way in campus governance. I ran for student government president my junior year and lost to a classmate of mine. I look back gratefully at that fact because I would have had a very different senior year as the SGA (Student Government Association) president, but I became a member of the Student Conference Committee as a result, which met with administration regularly to talk about issues; this was very important to me.
While I was at Vassar, it was also a time when the college was intentionally trying to diversify its student body. Vassar was admitting African-American students and it was a time when they were gaining a voice in a very important way. They were trying to speak truth to power and challenge a lot of paternalism that kind of inevitably at that time was there. At one point, they occupied Main building, and it was a really big deal. I began learning what it meant to be a white ally and do anti-racism work while I was there, which was something I was concerned with, growing up in North Carolina. I really started seeing it and I began learning how to participate in that work and that was really important to me.
I also regularly attended chapel at Vassar, something that really also had a big impact on me. When I arrived, Fred Woods was the chaplain. He also taught ethics in the Religion Department. Then when Fred left, George Williamson came. […] Both of them really began to show me a way to have intellectual integrity and to be a person of faith, really made me think outside the box of the type of Christian doctrine I had been raised in. I am tremendously grateful for them. They planted important seeds in terms of thinking about religion. I only took one religion course at Vassar. That was my senior year with Patrick Sullivan. I only took that one course, which was a year-long course on Eastern religions. I didn’t know that much about Buddhism, Hinduism and Daoism. We also studied Islam in that course.
That was also the year I studied art history. I realized I was going to graduate Vassar without taking Art History 101, which at the time was one of the legendary Vassar courses. I had a fabulous time in both of those courses and I was able to bring everything I had been learning from political science and other courses into it. At the time, though, I was not thinking at all about teaching career. I certainly was not thinking about graduate school in religion, which I subsequently did at Yale Divinity School where I got my M.Divs. But those were just really important seeds that got planted.
I remember thinking my senior year that I could do a whole other four-year undergraduate career, being an art history major and taking all these other courses at Vassar that I hadn’t been able to take. I remember laughing out loud in my room in Cushing, thinking this is what it means that a well-educated person is really a lifelong learner. I left college with even more questions that I came in with because of everything I learned. It really honed in a way my curiosity and gave me the skills to pursue it.
Q: What is a favorite memory at Vassar?
A: There are several that jump into my head at once and compete. One is being in the library. There was a table, which is still there, on the second floor in the stacks in the front by the leaded windows. I used to love to go in there. There was always a sense of being able to exhale, not being able to think about anything else except what I was working on. It was really a very, very good feeling for me. I would go in there after dinner and work for hours and not really be aware of the passage of time. That was really wonderful. That’s one really favorite memory. Another one has to be just sitting out on the lawn with my friends, all of us with our guitars, playing guitar and singing songs. Talking about politics and just feeling the urgency of the times because it was really a crazy time. You know the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement, the Cold War, nuclear arms and all of those things. It felt like an urgent, critical time in the history of the country and in the world. It often felt to us that in the United States we were at the epicenter because the United States has so much power. We really needed to participate in that democracy.
Q: Where do you see yourself in five years?
A: In five years, I expect to still be living in the same place but retired. I have been thinking a lot about what I want to do in retirement. I might go back into hospital chaplaincy, which I did for a while after I finished at Yale Divinity School. I think that, now that I’m older, I will handle that ministry a lot better. I enjoyed it while I was doing it, but I was in my 20’s. With the life experience I have had, that’s a possible path for me. I also expect that I will be involved in teaching, probably through my church. I am very, very concerned about global warming and the environmental crisis as well as the shifts in the human relationship to the Earth. I think faith communities need to be brought up to speed on that. I wish they could be leading the discussion, changing hearts and minds, and I would like to participate in that more. It’s what I have already done in classes I teach like cosmology or sustainability and spirituality. I also want to keep traveling because I love to explore the world, witness the world and bear witness to it.
Q: Do you have any words of wisdom for current Vassar students?
A: Take advantage of the opportunity to do the really hard, challenging intellectual work and find the joy in it. If you can find joy in it now, then you’ll be able to find joy in it the rest of your life. Soak it all up. Take a course that you never thought you’d take before. You never know what seeds will get planted there, which will bear fruit later in your life.