Entering a Different World

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.

From Nigeria to New York

I came to Vassar in the fall of 1960, having won one of 24 scholarships which had been offered to Nigeria and the Trust Territory of Cameroons from a group of Ivy League universities and colleges. I had no prior knowledge of Vassar, and the college was chosen for me by the organizers of the scholarship. What a fortuitous choice!

I made the Dean’s List during my freshman year and, in recognition of previous academic work in Nigeria, I skipped sophomore year. Within a span of just three years Vassar changed my life. From a diffident new arrival from Nigeria, I left Vassar a poised, confident, young woman ready to take on the world.

So many wonderful things happened to me at and through Vassar that I felt set me apart as a special person. A liberal arts education broadened my horizon and presented me with new, more meaningful vistas of the world. I joined other foreign students as guests of the Vassar Club of Washington D.C. and visited the White House of Jacqueline Kennedy, herself a Vassar girl. I was guest of the Vassar Club of New York and treated to memorable outings at the opera. Thanks to Vassar, which values ‘learning beyond the classroom,’ I spent an unforgettable late morning and afternoon with one of the greatest women of the 20th Century, Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, at her Hyde Park home, Vassar’s neighbor in Dutchess County.

I remember my Vassar years with joy and appreciation for what I have become today. To quote from our graduating song: “Hats off to ’63! …Vassar thou art all One could ask!”


I had absolutely no idea there was a field called art history before I came to Vassar. I discovered it by complete accident the first day I attended an Art 105 lecture. Christine Havelock began the course with a slide of the archaic Greek Kouros in the Metropolitan Museum and as soon as she opened her mouth (she also had an exceptionally beautiful voice), I experienced something analogous to a religious conversion. This is one of the reasons I have remained such a passionate advocate of this course and of all survey courses – they open doors to students who may not have even known the doors were there.

I wrote a paper on (as I recall) Rembrandt that Agnes Claflin thought was full of unseemly emoting and fuzzy thinking. She hated it and I am sure she was right because it had much more to do with me than with Rembrandt. But her response was interesting and original. I’ve never forgotten it though I’ve also never tried it on my own students. She decided that the best way to correct my sloppy thinking was with a prescription (as a doctor might order a medicine to cure an illness)—writing another paper on a Cézanne still life in the Metropolitan Museum. “You go work on those apples, Miss Donahue,” she said sternly. I remember spending the entire Christmas break sweating over that paper and learning something that still seems like a breakthrough: you can learn more of value by getting outside yourself than by internal wallowing. And second, if someone bothers to criticize you and give you a special prescriptive exercise, maybe, just maybe, you can begin to take yourself seriously in that field.

As an undergraduate here I vividly remember reading a novel by May Sarton called The Small Room. It was about a young female English professor in a college for women, much like Vassar was at that time, and how she handled her students’ wish for personal friendship beyond the classroom and her office (which she called “the small room”). The point of the book, which made a great impression on me, was that no one can teach or learn without some sense of real and living personal connection between teacher and student, but that it is an inherently unequal relationship that must be handled carefully and with great tact. I’d still agree with that, but for me it was the people within their professional roles and their deep engagement in their subjects that impressed me most – their inspiring, original, faultlessly prepared lectures and the degree of commitment and interest in the life of the mind that they conveyed. This was a more formal time and the lectures professors gave, in the Art Department at least, were sometimes almost theatrical performances in their degree of polish in content and delivery. As I recall there was only one seminar in the department on “modern art” in which students gave reports and Mrs. Claflin listened. This frightening ritual is a vivid memory, but the higher points were the great lectures I heard.

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