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It was 1970 and journalists had just broken news that the U.S. military was secretly bombing Cambodian villages and killing thousands of civilians.
The bombings ignited American anti-war protests and consumed activists on college campuses across the country. Connecticut College was no exception.
A video celebrating the College’s Centennial brought it all back for Julie Sgarzi ’71, whose life after college was profoundly influenced by her experience as a student leader more than 40 years ago.
The video shows Sgarzi, president of the Student Government Association, leading an unprecedented “all-College” meeting to decide whether the campus should go on strike to protest the war. The photo appears as the narrator says that the “big idea” behind the founding of the College – that bright women should have access to an outstanding education – grew to “fight other injustices.”
View the Centennial video.
“It was quite an extraordinary time on the campus,” Sgarzi said. As things started to come more and more to a head, many colleges were considering strikes.
Sgarzi ran the all-College meeting
Charles Shain, president of the College, suggested that all members of the College had to be involved in the decision –students, faculty, staff, alumni and trustees. In all, 2,000 convened to debate, question and ultimately support the strike.
“I thought President Shain would run the meeting and he said, ‘Nope, it’s yours.’ It went on for several hours as we tried to give everyone a voice. In the end, it was an overwhelming vote that the campus would go on strike,” Sgarzi remembered. It lasted three days.
Shain, Chaplain Barry Shepherd and few students traveled to Washington, D.C. to deliver stacks of petitions with thousands of signatures from the College and surrounding community, calling for troop withdrawal from Cambodia and Vietnam. The group met with Connecticut delegations in both Washington and at the Coast Guard Academy in New London.
“It felt like we took the action of the campus and brought it to Washington.” Sgarzi said. “It was a wonderful, powerful opportunity for everyone because we came back and told the story. There was lots of conversation and energy on the campus, following the news day by day, watching other campuses go on strike and feeling like we were part of a really big movement at the time, a big coalescing of energy around this Cambodian bombing issue.”
Carol A. Plotsky '71, one of the students who went to Washington, said it was eye-opening to see the political system in action firsthand -- for better or worse.
She was amazed by the zeal of students who had been previously uninvolved. "Our classmates canvassed New London and the surrounding communities to obtain the signatures for the petitions we brought to Washington," she said. "It was an amazing time without parallel. The internet has given us access but taken away some of the hands-on activity we engaged in at that time."
A groundswell can force change -- in America, Egypt and elsewhere
It was an important time for the College and for Sgarzi personally, as the meeting and subsequent strike directed her down a path that led first to a fellowship in public affairs with CORO, a nonprofit that offers training in effective and ethical leadership.
“When applying for the fellowship, one of the interview exercises was to bring an object that had significance to you. I brought the gavel from that meeting and talked about what it felt like to convene peers and faculty to come to a decision,” Sgarzi said.
Afterward, Sgarzi was the director of research and policy analysis for Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley. Later, she worked as senior vice president for strategic initiatives, providing state and local government services for a company that is now part of Xerox.
Sgarzi pursued her passion for psychology at graduate school and obtained a Ph.D. in depth psychology. Today she uses that knowledge to write and lecture about contemporary cultural issues from a psychological perspective. She hopes youth movements will energize and mobilize as they did in the ’60s and ’70s to effect government change.
“The campus strike took even students who weren’t political and said ‘You’ve got to pay attention!’ We’re going to walk away from classes that we love because this right now takes precedence,” Sgarzi said.
The current unrest in Egypt also has her thinking about the lessons she learned at Connecticut College.
“When you look at what’s happening now in Egypt,” she said, “it’s driven by young people and the sense that there can be a groundswell that can have a huge impact on government policy.”
Experience tells Sgarzi that they are right.
-- Meredith Boyle ’13