As we celebrate 150 years of Vassar's existence, we want to compile the stories, photos, and videos that, together, define what we mean by world changing. "World Changing" is not simply a catch phrase; it is a summation of the philosophy, goals, and achievements that have made Vassar remarkable from the college's earliest days. Please share with us how Vassar changed you.
by Cate (Amy Siegel) Duggar, Class of 1970
My fiancé was a Navy SEAL officer who served two six-month tours in Vietnam, one of them coinciding with my last semester at Vassar. While he was leading twelve men safely through the military and moral morass of Southeast Asia, I was marooned at Vassar—where I couldn’t find a single person who even knew anyone serving in Vietnam. My sense of isolation was reflected in my senior thesis for the drama department, a reading called “Women in Wartime,” constructed from primary sources dating from World War I and earlier.
Although strongly anti-war personally, I resented the stated purpose of the Vassar Moratorium: to raise consciousness about the war. With the man I loved getting shot at on a daily basis in the Delta, I felt that my consciousness was plenty raised already.
On the last night of the Moratorium, I had an overwhelming urge to go up to the roof of Raymond and express my frustration by setting off my illumination flare. I can’t remember exactly which SEAL had given it to me after I’d mentioned that I thought it was cool. The flare was a fat, foot-long tube. You took off its lid, fastened it to its bottom, and punched upwards. Supposedly, there would then be great noise and light. (These days I shudder at the thought that I brought it home with me on a commercial airliner.)
I had no faith that my arm would be strong enough, so I persuaded one of Vassar’s brand-new crop of senior men to accompany me to the roof. I assembled the tube, gave him verbal instructions, and held my breath.
Chris slammed his fist against the bottom of the tube. There was a pop and huge whoosh, and the dark quad lit up like noon for several minutes as the flare exploded and then floated gently on its little parachute. It was satisfying and beautiful—reminiscent of stories I’d been told about my father, a World War II demolitions expert, whose hatred of Nazi aristocrats had prompted him to blow up their grand pianos because “it made the most beautiful sound.” Hidden on the roof and deeply at peace, I watched the brilliant light flicker and die.
Then we came downstairs to find the quad full of furious students, terrified by this unexpected demonstration of firepower. The recent killings at Kent State had made everyone edgy, and they had feared that Dutchess County sheriff Lawrence Quinlan had decided to unleash WMDs against Vassar’s radicalized student body. Chris and I melted into the indignant mob—and never told anybody.Read more...
by Antoinette Chwastyk Wills, Class of 1968
I was a history major at Vassar, and took all the courses I could—American history, Russian and Chinese history, European history. Because I was the first generation in my family to go to college, I didn’t know what kind of career I might have beyond Vassar. I didn’t know how good a student I was. I just loved to learn.
I was in the honors history seminar senior year, and Evalyn Clark was advising me on my thesis. One day during our regular meeting she asked, “Where are you going to graduate school?”
I replied that I wasn’t going to graduate school; I was getting married.
She asked, “What difference does that make?”
That single question changed the course of my life. I did get married, and I did go to graduate school. I completed my Ph.D. with a dissertation on the French Revolution, a subject I first studied in Clark’s course at Vassar.
The academic job market was glutted by the time I finished my degree, so I never had the scholarly career I aspired to. But I never regretted going to graduate school, and I have always been grateful to Miss Clark for changing my life with her question.Read more...
by Nancy Kerber MacRae, Class of 1963
It was my freshman year, and I had only been at Vassar for a month, maybe. There were four of us in our rooming group in Strong—two suburbanites, two city girls. Three of us were on scholarship. The civil rights sit-ins in the South were taking place, and a group of Vassar students wanted to support the students on the front lines by picketing Woolworth’s in Poughkeepsie.
We four roommates spent intense hours debating whether or not we would join the picket line, and at the end the personal decisions split by geography. The two city girls could not imagine not joining the demonstration, having grown up in a tradition of taking a stand on ethical and liberal political issues. The two suburbanites had no such upbringing, and we were terrified that if we picketed at Woolworth’s we would lose our scholarships. Our city friends scoffed. They went; we stayed on campus.
The marchers returned, and to my utter amazement I learned that Sarah Gibson Blanding, the president of Vassar, had participated in the demonstration! I could hardly comprehend it. Vassar College was truly a different world, opening up vast new possibilities.
Four years later I stood on the Mall in Washington, D.C., listening to Martin Luther King Jr. mesmerizing an audience of 200,000 with his “I Have a Dream” speech. Although the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was the first and last demonstration I joined (except for a minor protest in my Capitol Hill neighborhood over an historic building being torn down), I never forgot the moment when I first understood that “standing up” and challenging authority for a belief was a normal expectation.Read more...
by Gary Frederick Hohenberger, Class of 1997
As a student at Vassar from 1993-1997, I pursued a major in music with a concentration in composition. While the college, now as then, prides itself on a flexible curriculum that allows its students to build a diverse and creative course of study, there are a small number of requirements that must be met, including proven proficiency in a language other than English. Having earned excellent grades in high-school French (which I took because I had to), I considered trying to test-out of the requirement, but for students of music, knowledge of German was “strongly recommended.” Rolling my eyes, I thus enrolled in an intensive, introductory German course to get it over with. Instead, I found myself forever changed.
Günter Klabes, who taught at Vassar from 1974-2010, was an engaging and entertaining teacher. Energetic, cheerful and possessing a gleaming nutcracker’s grin, he conveyed the beauty of the German language, even to his bumbling intro students. His teaching was rife with an infectious passion for German art and literature, as well as the more mundane glories of his homeland—German wine among them.
Learning German—and learning it well—enriched my life in unexpected ways. It allowed me to access a wealth of literature while fueling an interest in international affairs and world history, and afforded me the chance to discover long-forgotten facets of my family’s heritage. During the summer between my junior and senior years, I participated in Vassar’s six-week Summer Study Program in Münster (established by Herr Klabes in 1975), which was to be my first extended trip to another country. I returned to the United States in awe of the stark differences, as well as the similarities, between the people and cultures of the two nations, and I found myself keenly aware of—if unable to articulate—that which both binds and divides them. I vowed to return for a longer stay, and did so after graduation by moving to Cologne.
During the ensuing year, I met long-lost relatives and made a number of lasting friendships. That year in Germany counts among the best of my life. It gave me a renewed sense of belonging—new roots, if you will—in a city, a country, a world, even, and all in a place very far from home. It is a sentiment I could not have anticipated, and I carry it with me today.
Beware Vassar’s minimal requirements—they just might change your life.Read more...
by Carol Scarvalone Kushner, Class of 1968
I know both the old and the new Vassar very well. I am a member of the class of ’68, the mother of two Vassar alums (Aurora ’97, and Cody ’99), the great-niece of Concetta Scaravaglione, who taught studio art (sculpture) at Vassar for many years, and the sister of Patrice Scarvalone ’73.
This summer, I was on the faculty of Exploring Transfer, a program designed to help community college students from colleges around the nation to adapt to and be introduced to the rigors of a four-year college, such as Vassar. Because I have been a community college teacher for many years, I welcomed this chance to introduce students to the joys of research, reading books, writing analytic essays, and, most importantly, to the rigors of digging deeply and doing some critical thinking.
At the introduction ceremony, I related my personal benefits from my own education at Vassar: the need to research and look things up when I was unsure of the answer (and to question authority); and the desire to be a life-long learner, always curious about the world. These qualities have surely helped me throughout my life, no matter what I have been doing, and I am so grateful to Vassar and to my education for helping me realize such important lessons.Read more...