'State of the Reunion Address,' presented to Connecticut College alumnae and alumni by President Katherine Bergeron
May 30, 2014
It is wonderful to see you all here tonight. What a beautiful sight! I hope you can appreciate how inspiring it is for a new president to experience a weekend like this: basking in the love and devotion that loyal alumnae bring back to their alma mater . . . It is a real privilege for me to be able to meet so many of you all at once — and to be able to see firsthand the long-term effects of a Connecticut College education.
And those effects are notable. A large number of you who are here this weekend have spent your lives, for example, in the field of education, which means that you took your Connecticut College experience directly with you into your professional life. Others of you are working or have worked in the healthcare field; there are artists, dancers, filmmakers, and choreographers among you; there are also attorneys, CEOs, restaurateurs; there is even a llama farmer, an oil broker, and a retired army chaplain. Many of you have dedicated your lives to service through various roles in your community — and you have served the College as volunteers in large numbers.
I should also note that you have traveled here today from all over the United States — including Alaska — as well as from Paris, London, Spain, Cairo, and Tokyo. And two of you are setting another kind of distance record: returning to celebrate a 79th reunion and an 80th reunion. Can you believe it: graduates from the class of 1934 and 1935? That is worth a round of applause!
You know, people often ask me if there have been any surprises for me since taking this job. And I would have to say: One thing I did not expect was the enormous pleasure I would feel connecting with the talented and accomplished graduates, of all generations, who make up the Connecticut College family. You remind us all why do what we do. Thank you so much for being here and for your support of Connecticut College!
I’m calling this my “state of the reunion address,” because I want to give you a sense of where the College is at this point in the academic year. As most of you know, I have just completed my first semester as President of Connecticut College. I started here on January 1 and, honestly, I could not be happier with my new home. I have spent the past four months getting to know the community and I have been deeply impressed with what I have found. We have a talented, driven, and socially responsible student body; we have an award-winning faculty that excels at both teaching and scholarship; we have wonderful coaches; we have an exceptional staff; and, of course, we have passionate and zealous alumnae and alumni, along with wonderful leadership in our Alumni Association. I have been at many other fine institutions and I have to say: It really does not get any better than this.
I can give you an example: In April, we hold welcome events for newly admitted students and their parents, to help the students make up their minds about what school they will eventually attend. I took part in one of those sessions and had the opportunity to listen to two of our seniors speak to the large crowd. I was impressed by their poise, and by their long list of accomplishments, of course. But there was also something else that struck me —something about the way they narrated their personal development. They talked about specific faculty and staff mentors who had opened their eyes to the world and helped them see themselves more clearly. They talked about specific moments where they experienced a turning point in their own intellectual development. And the more they spoke, the more it was clear that these students had had a very rare and very important educational experience here at Connecticut College. They had, in a sense, become equal partners with their mentors in a deep and sophisticated conversation about their learning. That’s powerful. It doesn’t happen as often as it should in higher education. And that’s what I mean when I say: It doesn’t get any better than this.
Tonight I want to tell you about a few things that we have been doing since January to make the exceptional education we offer at Connecticut College even better.
The first thing I want to talk about has to do with our curriculum. Our students, faculty, and staff are currently engaged in one of the most productive debates about education on this campus in 40 years. They are asking: what should our 21st-century graduates know and what should they be able to do? And how should we be organizing their learning so that they will be able to make immediately meaningful contributions to the world in their lives after college? These are critical questions, and the whole campus has been involved in finding the answers. In February, just a month after I arrived, there was an exciting week of workshops, discussions, and classroom events, designed to expand the conversation outward to many more students, faculty, and staff, and to generate more ideas. It has been inspiring to see so many people engaged in this conversation — and especially to see our students so involved in shaping the future of their own educational experience. That in itself is an education.
It has also been inspiring for me to see the faculty so engaged. They are, in fact, on fire. Just this past week, in fact, AFTER classes have ended, AFTER grades have been turned in, and AFTER the Commencement celebration is over, they were still at it. I don’t know if you are aware that, here at Connecticut College, the faculty like to come together in the week following Commencement, when school is completely over, to work on pedagogy in a forum they call “Camp Teach and Learn”; it’s run out of our Joy Shechtman Mankoff Center for Teaching and Learning. I dropped by one day this week for lunch, and found around 90 faculty members (that’s more than half of our faculty), gathered in a high-level discussion about what constitutes disciplinary “breadth” in a college education. It was remarkable not only to see so many people participating; but also to listen to the very level of the discourse. I truly believe that the new curriculum they are envisioning for the College will put us on the map. The faculty expects to finalize these discussions and then vote on the new requirements in November.
Our core facilities are being renewed along with our core curriculum. This summer — in fact, right after you all leave campus this weekend — we will be undertaking a $9.1 million renovation of the Charles E. Shain Library, thanks to generous support by several trustees and donors. The renovation will be completed on an aggressive 15-month schedule for the fall of 2015. And the plan is to turn a not-so-beautiful piece of 70s architecture into a striking new space in the middle of our campus. It will include a central glass column and enlarged windows to bring natural light into the building. It will have an updated interior with state-of-the-art technology; it will have new light-filled study areas; it will have many more group meeting and collaboration spaces; and it will feature a new outdoor plaza and 24-hour café. Our new Academic Resource Center will also be moving to the second floor of the new library, to provide students with even greater access to academic support. If you are interested in seeing renderings, you can go to the conncoll website and type in “shainreno.”
You may have heard that we opened a new Hillel House this semester, with a generous gift from Henry Zachs and his family. Connecticut College has actually supported a Hillel student organization on campus for 25 years, but this new facility gives our Jewish students their first dedicated space on campus for study, reflection, and fellowship. The Zachs Hillel House is a gorgeous, shingled house on the northeastern corner of the campus, just beyond Winthrop, that has already become a sought-after meeting place for the whole community. A true home. We had the formal dedication of the Hillel at the end of April, and it was clear, from those who spoke, that this new building was already making a huge difference for our students.
We are making a difference for our students with some other programs, too. And so the last thing I want to tell you about has to do with what we have done to bolster career preparation and support for our students’ lives after college.
You know, one of the things that impressed me when I came to Connecticut College was its enlightened approach to career advising. For the last two decades, at least, this College has distinguished itself among its peers by offering a rigorous three-year career preparation program, along with funding for summer internships. And that’s wonderful. But in the current climate, it’s clear that we must do much more. And so we are doing it . . . In January, with support from Diane Y. Williams, class of 59, we launched an in-house program for seniors called “now hiring,” a kind of bootcamp for life after college. Students learned how to manage budgets, how to work with spreadsheets; they honed their interview skills, practiced their “elevator speeches,” and, most importantly, they worked in teams to develop and present ideas about an enhanced marketing campaign for an actual local business. It was a big success.
In February, I announced another new opportunity for our students. Connecticut College is one of a dozen liberal arts colleges in the U.S. to partner with a new enterprise called Koru. That is a Seattle-based company that is working to offer immersive programs for liberal arts students in real-world business challenges. Students work with CEOs in high-growth startups or established industries on the West Coast (currently in San Fran and Seattle) to get hands-on training in areas like marketing or project management and to hone other marketable skills that may lead directly to employment. The first six Connecticut College students who were chosen will start this summer.
These kinds of offerings are, of course, critically important for our students who are stepping into uncertain times. But, to me, they are also critically important for this College. In a very notable way, they hark back to the educational vision of this school at its beginning 100 years ago. The founders of Connecticut College imagined a new kind of education for a new kind of woman at the dawn of a new century. So they combined rigorous liberal arts with practical training so that women could make a meaningful contribution to the world as soon as they graduated. That original vision is all the more relevant today, and I am committed to building on that deep foundation to make a Connecticut College education even more distinctive — and valuable — for our own time.
So I want to thank you all again for being here. Thank you for your warm welcome to this marvelous community. And thank you for your love and your loyalty to Connecticut College. I wish you all a joyful Reunion weekend!