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Who, What, When
Creative Thought at Work
Permanent record Enduring bonds
Knowledge, invention, and insights don’t spring up spontaneously. They’re the products of agents and reagents skillfully stirred, an opposing pressure exerted just so, bonds dissolved or fused, a synergy catalyzed. That’s the kind of creative work and thought that’s at the heart of Skidmore’s mission. It’s not an assembly-line or even small-batch process—it’s custom-formulated by each professor for each student. Beyond keeping classes small, Skidmore’s individualized, whole-person education entails research partnering, campus-life engagement, role-modeling and advising, and much more. Mentoring like that requires a lot of time and care, but Skidmore has made a strategic commitment to it, as a crucial and uniquely productive investment in student growth.
Skidmore faculty often speak of their responsibility for, and joy in, getting to know their students and helping them learn in the best way for them, inside and outside the classroom. Their success is evident: Alumni report that Skidmore’s close student-faculty relationships inspired them to challenge their own assumptions, critically assess others’ ideas, and devise creative solutions. They have described their interaction with faculty and staff as a transformative crucible, as a challenge and a support that engenders new understandings of academic material and of oneself, and as a guide to developing a creative and reflective life.
The growth resulting from such deep, powerful collegiality between teachers and learners is certainly one of Skidmore's defining values. It’s also an enduring value: Countless alumni are still friends and colleagues with mentors who helped shape them in their student days. Here is a small sampling.
As a freshman, Mary DeBree ’05 managed to score a seat in Prof. Patricia Rubio’s sophomore Spanish class. “It’s very telling about the kind of student she was—creative and driven,” Rubio says.
DeBree sees it more as a stroke of luck that “set the tone for my college career.” She continued taking Rubio’s classes whenever possible. “I loved her humor and anecdotes, and the perspective on social issues she wove into the studies.”
DeBree’s second semester abroad, in Bolivia, presented quite a change from cosmopolitan Santiago. To Rubio, it demonstrated DeBree’s openness to various cultures and viewpoints. “She’s not the American who wants to conquer the world,” Rubio says. “She’s an individual who wants to give what she can, and to absorb what she can.”
DeBree certainly absorbed Rubio’s influence. She says Rubio’s passion for women’s issues clarified her own interest in politics, which led her to jobs working on Hillary Clinton’s senate and presidential campaigns. She remembers hearing Rubio talk about her experience in the Fulbright overseas-study program, and now DeBree is a Fulbright scholar herself in Vietnam.
Rubio asserts that at Skidmore, an education can be transformed into an active life experience —provided that, in addition to being exposed to different cultures, students have the courage to expose themselves to unfamiliar settings. With particularly motivated students like DeBree, she adds, “the wonderful thing is, we get back as much as we give.”
The two women stay in contact through e-mail and occasional visits in Saratoga Springs. The mentor-mentee relationship is still evident, DeBree says. “I am yet to transition from calling her ‘Profe,’ because she will forever be my favorite professor!” But they’ve moved on to much more of a friendship as well—“a very rich friendship,” Rubio says.
Bonding at the cellular level
“I’d know that head anywhere,” said Prof. David Domozych, sneaking up behind Tim Lynch ’89 in Case Center last spring. Lynch was back on campus to attend Reunion and reconnect with old friends like his former biology professor. By “that head” Domozych was referring both to Lynch’s courageous, investigative academic thinking and to the signature shape of his skull after a successful 1991 surgery for a rare, and usually fatal, brain cancer. In fact it was that close brush, Lynch says, that gave him a special perspective and extra appreciation for the tremendous support he’s been given by Domozych and the entire biology department over the years.
The giving came easy, says Domozych, because “Tim was an excellent student, hard-working, curious, and unafraid to take a contrary viewpoint. He had a great personality and rather enjoyed creative thinking. It was a pleasure to have him as an undergrad here.”
It was graduate work, undertaken at the University of Vermont, that brought Lynch back to Skidmore. While pursuing his PhD in botany, he realized he’d need access to a robust electron-microscope facility in order to properly examine his specimens at cellular and subcellular levels. Domozych extended both a personal and professional invitation to use Skidmore’s microscopy lab—and to stay at his house while doing so. Over the next several years, Lynch regularly traveled between Burlington and Saratoga Springs, conducting his research at Skidmore and pursuing his other studies at UVM. With all those visits, Lynch became “like a son” to Domozych and his wife, Cathy (also on Skidmore’s biology faculty), and “like a big brother” to their son Andrew.
“It was an exciting time for the entire department, because we were involved in such a major research project,” says Domozych. “We published our findings in the journal Protoplasma and gave numerous talks at professional meetings and conferences.” For his part, Lynch felt “a real family atmosphere throughout the department. Dave made sure that the students also got involved in research. Everyone’s openness and congeniality speaks to the cohesiveness of the biology department.”
Proudly armed with his newly minted PhD, Lynch landed a job at Philadelphia’s William Penn Charter School, where he chairs the science department and is continuing his studies into biomechanical responses to stressors in plant cells. His work centers on a protein that transduces mechanical signals to stimulate targeted growth in plants. And, carrying on the tradition that he learned from his Skidmore mentor, he involves his own students in every aspect of the work.
Promotions and rewards
“It was clear from the beginning that she was one of the most inspiring and dedicated professors,” says Andrew Eifler ’07 of his first meeting with his future faculty mentor, Elzbieta Lepkowska-White. “Her ‘Foundations of Marketing’ course may have determined the trajectory of my academic and current career,” he says. “Ela was instrumental in helping me develop skills that helped me then, as they do now. And her guest speakers were always interesting and engaging.”
A management and business major with a studio-art minor, Eifler spent his junior year at the University of Melbourne, Australia, where he studied e-marketing and business-to-business marketing. Then he reconnected with Lepkowska-White for his senior thesis, a yearlong one-on-one advising relationship. His major research study under her guidance became the basis of a 2008 coauthored article, “Spinning the Web: The Interplay of Web Design Features and Product Types,” published in the Journal of Website Promotion and presented at the national Applied Business Research Conference. “We worked together very closely throughout the project,” Eifler recalls. “Her steady demeanor complemented my admittedly intense personality,” he chuckles. “To this day, I hear her telling me to calm down, don’t worry so much!”
Eifler is currently a media planner at Draftfcb, a New York City ad agency, where he is exploring the marketing potential of blogging, social media like Twitter, and Flash movies. The research experience he developed working on his senior thesis serves him well as he delves into the analytics of this burgeoning communications movement.
Lepkowska-White describes Eifler as “one of my best, brightest, hardest-working, and most committed students.” As for her side of the bargain, she explains, “I came to teach at Skidmore because I wanted to know the students I teach, to know how and what they think. In our small classes here, we get to know each other well—our studies, our interests. Andrew proved to be an exceptional student, and teaching him and working together made my experience more rewarding.”
They’re still working together. Eifler returns on a regular basis to visit his favorite prof and to share his experiences with undergrads in her and others’ marketing classes. “I personally benefited from Skidmore’s guest speakers,” says Eifler, whose first job out of college was offered by business-department guest Ken Freirich ’90. “Now it’s my turn to support Skidmore, and this is the best way I can think of to give back.”
Trust is the core of the relationships between Skidmore basketball coach Darren Bennett and two-year captain Shardae Gonsalves Mendes-DeJesus ’07. When he arrived as the new head coach, she was returning to the team as a sophomore. They knew of each other second-hand, through her father, Dean Mendes, who had been in the NCAA Division I coaching world with Bennett. But trust was yet to be earned.
Upon first acquaintance, Mendes-DeJesus found Bennet “very friendly, easy to talk to…but intense.” He instituted more practices, in-depth pregame analysis of the opposing teams, and new plays on the court. Meanwhile, he was noting that she “worked hard, had the respect of her teammates, and knew how to balance her academic, athletic, and cocurricular life,” he recalls. “She also understood the possibilities of strong team dynamics and how to build them.” He appointed her the team captain the next year.
“He can be pretty vocal,” chuckles Mendes-DeJesus. His shouted directions and encouragements and warnings were directed “mostly at me, because I was the captain. And he wanted me to be very vocal too.” The aim is to put responsibility into the captain’s hands: “He wants us to be comfortable enough to call plays ourselves.” While she admits that such leadership responsibility “felt like a lot of pressure,” she also knew “he wouldn’t have put it on me if he didn’t think I could do it. He trusted me, and I had to trust him.” Bennett says open communication, and plenty of it, built their mutual understanding. Mendes-DeJesus held work-study jobs in the athletics offices, also played varsity lacrosse, and spent so much time with Bennett during basketball season that, he says, “I came to rely on her to read the team’s mood and to question my plans accordingly.”
An art director at the Grey Group advertising agency in New York City, Mendes-DeJesus is still part of what Bennett calls Skidmore’s “basketball family.” Her dad is now on Skidmore’s admissions staff, “so they still talk about me all the time,” she says with a grin. Bennett occasionally asks her to chat with prospective recruits who share her academic interests in art or art history. He attended her wedding last year, along with more than 20 other Skiddies. And he talked her into joining the Friends of Skidmore Athletics committee, because he knew she had the influence, in her quiet way, to inspire the involvement of fellow graduates. (She recently returned to campus herself for a reunion of lacrosse alumni.)
Bennett always “had an open door for students; he wanted to hear what we were up to,” Mendes-DeJesus recalls. “He still does.” It’s all about “bonding and growing,” Bennett says. “I love to stay in touch, whether for job references or advice or fostering a link to an incoming student. Skidmore lets us be part of a real network.”
“I opened my dorm door, and here was this young guy with a tie-dye shirt, cook’s pants, and a ponytail, here for his guitar lesson,” recalls Ian Selig ’86. “Over the next few months we shared lessons, a love of music, and laughs, and this guy named Sheldon became my friend.”
The surprise came the next semester, when Selig took his seat in “Intro to Psychology” and spotted his friend hanging out and chatting at the front of the class. Selig saved a seat for him, but nearly fell out of his own when the friend began to address the class. “You work here?” asked Selig afterward. “Can I be your advisee?”
Professor of Psychology Sheldon Solomon has a disarming charm both in and out of the classroom. His students have become friends, godparents to his children, road-trip buddies, bandmates, and business partners. In an age when the term “infectious” is greatly overused, it remains an apt description of Solomon’s gentle yet powerful charisma. Like the steady pull of the sun.
In fact, Will Pouch ’86 posits that the growing constellation of students, friends, and family around Solomon is held together by the irresistible pull of its luminous center. “Friends? Heck, we started a restaurant together!” Pouch says. “We’ve been partners now for years.” Their joint venture, Esperanto, on Saratoga’s Caroline Street, is a must-stop for the late-night crowd. The restaurant derives its name from the universal language, and it offers fare from near and far. “The doughboy was Sheldon’s idea,” says Pouch, “and now it’s one of the most popular items we sell.”
Selig and Pouch are just two of the many students, past and present, who love to get together with guitars and jam with Solomon. A confirmed music junkie, Solomon joined Selig to co-host a show on WSPN student radio, called “Fat One Hour,” where they played reggae, made Sunday morning football picks, and developed a loyal following with their offbeat humor. After college, Selig and Solomon took road trips to follow bands, and Solomon helped Selig when he moved to Colorado.
“When I came to Skidmore in 1980, I was 26 years old—closer in age and temperament to my students than my colleagues,” says Solomon. “Naturally I formed deep and lasting friendships with some of my students. I look back after 30 years now, and I realize that a very substantial proportion of my own personal and, to a certain extent, professional life has been dominated, in the best sense of the word, by my contact with folks who were originally students. And our interactions have persisted over time.”
Lisa Williams ’88 cites Solomon’s easy and engaging pedagogical style as the most profound influence on her own 10-year teaching career. “I’d like to think that I modeled my teaching on Sheldon’s example. I really tried to be the same kind of inspirational teacher to my students that he was to me.” Today Williams works in the Toronto television industry as a freelance writer, stylist, and show creator. She recently pointed Canadian comedian John Dore toward Solomon’s research on humans’ responses to their awareness of mortality. Dore has become a huge Solomon fan, downloading his lectures on YouTube and incorporating some of his ideas into his new act (look for him on cable’s Comedy Central.)
Another example of how Solomon’s universe is continually expanding.
Solomon remains indebted to the students who brought him into their musical fold. “They were so patient, generous, and encouraging.” Those relationships, he says, “had a catastrophically positive effect on my own teaching, making me more sensitive to students. It was a humbling and important lesson. It was also the genesis of the ‘student teaching the teacher’ paradigm that I’ve tried to incorporate in my work.”
Kind words indeed, from the center of a shining solar system.
Eric Handman ’91 was an English major but chose Skidmore largely for its dance program. When he met dance professor Debra Fernandez, he’d been dancing for about three years. Now it’s been 25. “She’s part of my roots,” he says.
Handman was among the first dancers Fernandez taught at Skidmore. She was struck by his contemplative nature, a depth that “seemed different from the average student,” she says. “As a dancer he brought the same qualities to the stage: sincerity, authenticity, and quiet strength. He could also be fierce.”
The age gap between Fernandez and her students was slight back then, so she and Handman were more like colleagues, she says—he the dancer and she the choreographer. Even so, Handman viewed her as a mentor. “Real teachers go beyond technique,” he explains. “They teach through character. You see charisma, passion, energy; you see a force. And that’s what gives all the technical stuff meaning. Debra infused everything with meaning. When she arrived at Skidmore, I started to wake up.”
Handman performed throughout the 1990s in New York City (including with Doug Varone and Dancers) and has toured and taught domestically and internationally with ballet and modern dance companies. He is now an assistant professor at the University of Utah, where he earned an MFA in 2003.
He and Fernandez stay in touch by e-mail. She says, “We don’t chat back and forth all the time, but when we do there is no small talk. We go right to the big stuff. We talk about our work, our students, what we’re thinking about in the dances we’re both making.” Handman says he likes to hear her point of view—“usually when something clicks for me and I think she’ll get it too. I value her thoughts.”
Fernandez returns the sentiment and adds, “Eric and I communicate as kindred spirits and as professionals in the same field.” She enjoys learning about “the kind of amazing teacher, husband, father, and writer he has become. He is living a fulfilled and rich life. His work is excellent. What more could a teacher ask for?”
Foley was equally impressed with Foy. “What first struck me about Jeff was his insatiable curiosity, his sense of humor, and his compassionate ways,” she recalls. They conversed about topics ranging from memory and imagination to the boundaries between fiction and fact. She invited him to be a research assistant in her lab and became his senior thesis advisor.
After he graduated, Foy took a year off and taught English in China. But he still kept in touch with Foley, sending her periodic e-mails, and enlisting her help especially as he got closer to applying to graduate school. Foy is now studying psycholinguistics, a field within cognitive psychology, at SUNY–Stony Brook, where Foley also got her PhD. They correspond by e-mail, discussing school and research—and directions for his career. They’ve also written two journal articles together (one already published, one under review), based on research projects they conducted at Skidmore.
“I consider Mary Ann a friend, mentor, and collaborator,” says Foy. “She is one of my go-to people when I am having issues in grad school or need some career guidance. We also toss around research ideas and ask each other for feedback occasionally.” He adds, “Sometimes I like to e-mail her to just catch up on life.” Foley’s friendship is important to him: “Without her support and encouragement, I don’t think I’d be trying to get a PhD in cognitive psychology.” He says he makes a point of visiting her whenever he’s in Saratoga Springs.
As for Foley, “First and foremost, I consider Jeff a friend who shares a fascination about all things cognitive,” she says. “In some ways I continue to wear my ‘mentor cloak,’ in that Jeff and I still have ‘what if’ conversations about professional directions. But I would say that our relationship is larger than our collaborative research or any mentoring that I might do. Even if our opportunities for collaborating on research diminish—for example, as our interests change or Jeff’s professional interests take him in new directions—I expect the gift of the friendship will continue for years to come.”
China and beyond
When they first met, Beverly Rawson ’01 was a Skidmore senior looking for a postgraduate experience, and Sandy Welter was an English faculty member planning a sabbatical. They happened to choose Skidmore’s Teach in China Program, and both ended up working at Qufu Teachers University and living next door to each other.
“What brought us together initially was the simple fact that we dove headfirst into a foreign culture together,” says Rawson. The time she couldn’t explain to a butcher that she just wanted chicken breast, not the head or the feet, she ran to Welter to vent. Welter replied by recounting her close encounter with an open manhole in the street. “What cemented our friendship was our ability to voice our frustrations and laugh things off together,” Rawson says.
The two women couldn’t have been more different, however. Welter recalls that Rawson faced each day with “a real sense of adventure,” and would plan outings like riding a night train to the city. “She never thought we couldn’t do something,” Welter says. “She made my experience in China so much richer.”
Welter was more the quiet, thoughtful observer, offering perspective when Rawson was overwhelmed with culture shock. She also offered a sense of family. The holidays, for example, were hard for Rawson, and an artificial Christmas tree with flashing lights in her apartment only intensified her homesickness. “I was sitting in my apartment, looking at this pitiful disco tree, when there was a knock on my door,” Rawson recounts. When she opened it, a dozen giggling Qufu students rushed in, trimmed the tree in minutes, admired their work, and gave a cheer. Welter had organized the student decorating party, helping to string popcorn and make paper ornaments. “Sandy was standing behind them with a big smile on her face,” says Rawson. “That was a huge gift for me: that was when China became home. Before that it had felt like just a place where I was living.”
Welter, who now directs Skidmore’s Teach in China program as well as helping coordinate the nontraditional master’s program in liberal studies, has continued to mentor Rawson, counseling her about career moves and encouraging her continued engagement with the wider world. Rawson spent six years teaching in New York City’s Chinatown and is now teaching environmental studies to first- and second-graders in Costa Rica.
Above all, the two consider themselves friends. Welter says when they see each other, very often a situation will arise where “we don’t even have to talk and we’ll be laughing together again.”
|© 2010 Skidmore College|