by Edward Pittman, Class of 1982
Vassar was a far away place when I was growing on South Perry St. in downtown Poughkeepsie. It was a world not likely to touch my or my friends’ lives. Several critical interventions changed this scenario. As a fourth grader at Clinton Elementary school I attended an afternoon school program sponsored by Vassar students with the lure of a campus visit one day a week and sometimes on Saturday. The evening dinners in the residence dorms and bike rides out to the Vassar farm remain etched in my mind. This was in 1969—a year after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated and two years after the urban riots that also touched upon lower Main Street.
A year later my family moved uptown to Winnikee Avenue and one day, venturing down the block toward Cottage Street, I came across a two-story storefront building with the words Urban Center for Black Studies blazoned above glass windows in large black letters. My curiosity led me inside where I discovered wall after wall of books, African masks, and maps. In the afternoon a mini-bus dropped off black students from Vassar who made their presence felt in so many ways. The magnitude of this building didn’t hit me until I was a teenager; suddenly its contents meant everything in my search to understand black history and culture. Vassar’s Urban Center stuck with me as I went through high school and Dutchess Community College.
The third critical Vassar moment came when my high school classmate and good friend, Michelle Lanchester ’81, told me that I should transfer to Vassar. Going to Vassar had never been in my vision, but I had done very well in my first year at Dutchess and I trusted Michelle. By the time I stepped onto campus in the fall of 1980, I knew Vassar was the right place. Yes, it was a world different than what I’d known but the intellectual challenge met my needs. My courses in sociology, political science, and the general edginess and politics of the Vassar of then are memorable. We saw divestment in South Africa and Reagan come into office. It was the time of disco and punk rock and designer jeans and big hair too.
With a Vassar degree I headed back to Poughkeepsie and eventually a career in higher education at Dutchess. Still, I had not imagined the long-term role Vassar would play in my life, but in the spring of 1990 I applied for a student life position. This was following the tumultuous student takeover of Main Building and Vassar’s call to meet the challenges of diversity. I see this as the last critical moment that made Vassar closer than I’d ever imagined while growing up on South Perry Street. So, for twenty years I have worked closely with students, faculty, administrators, and staff in trying to shape the Vassar community. I value what students have taught me about being responsive and take this to reflect their commitment, love and care for Vassar as well.
When I drive through my old South Perry Street neighborhood Vassar is no longer that far away.