By President George Bridges
With each new academic year, Whitman welcomes a group of impressive students who will become leaders in professions, communities and organizations with global influence. This fall, 407 students from 48 states and 22 countries joined our campus, bringing ambitious aspirations for their futures and excitement about their academic journeys at Whitman.
The evidence that Whitman changes the lives of each generation’s students is abundant in the accomplishments of our alumni and students. Among many examples, alumnus Rob Manning ’80, chief engineer for the NASA/JPL Mars Science Laboratory mission, led the team that created the Curiosity rover, which this summer successfully landed on Mars and is now conducting unprecedented exploration of the Red Planet.
Mars Science Laboratory Flight Systems Chief Engineer Rob Manning ’80 led the team that designed and built the Curiosity rover. Photo courtesy of NASA/JPL.
Joey Bristol ’01 went from dealing with industrial policy and macroeconomics in China to overseeing programs for weapons destruction, mine clearance and landmine victim assistance as a Foreign Service officer in Afghanistan. In recognition of his dedication and achievement, Joey received the Pete Reid Award for Young Alumni for his outstanding work in the Foreign Service.
And Bao-Tram “BT” Do ’13 is a first-generation college student passionately dedicated to giving voice to the voiceless by registering new voters. BT said that her father moved to the U.S. from Vietnam when she was three because he wanted his children to be able to choose their government. Inspired by her father, the sociology major ran a voter registration project this past summer targeting low-income families in the greater Seattle area. Once school started, she continued her work by setting up voter registration drives on campus to make sure her fellow students participate in this year’s election.
Educating leaders like Rob, Joey and BT is possible not only with the tireless work of our faculty, staff and governing board members, but also with the help of our generous donors. Last November, Whitman launched our Now Is the Time Campaign, and this past year alone, alumni and friends of Whitman gave more than $18.5 million toward strengthening our academic programs, solidifying scholarship support for students, building the endowment and enhancing other key Whitman priorities, such as athletics and facilities.
Joey Bristol ’01 earned the 2012 Pete Reid Award for Young Alumni for his outstanding work in the Foreign Service.
We are witnessing the success and impact of our campaign across campus. In the classroom, we’ve strengthened our commitment to the teacher-scholar model, in which faculty members are dedicated to teaching and to advancing new knowledge as scholars. The significance of this approach for our students is that they not only learn in the classroom, but they also learn by working alongside faculty members on their scholarly endeavors.
Contrary to a national trend in which part-time, lower-cost faculty members teach more and more classes at colleges and universities, Whitman is investing in more permanent faculty – the mentors who shape intellectual achievements and foster the skills that serve liberal arts college graduates so well. Thanks to the ongoing support of our donors and a generous grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, we have recently converted eight part-time positions to permanent tenure track faculty lines. In doing so, Whitman continues to ensure that today’s students have the same close, personal access to tenured faculty as previous generations of students.
Despite the hardships of recent recession, Whitman has maintained its strong financial position, owing to conservative, sound and visionary fiscal management. Our aspirations for the college continue to be high. We seek Whitman to be the first choice of college for high-achieving students in the West, the first choice for people seeking jobs in higher education, and the first philanthropic priority for our alumni and friends.
Bao-Tram “BT” Do ’13 is a first-generation college student who ran a successful voter registration program in Seattle and on campus.
Our students remain the focal point of our mission. Their talent, accomplishments and diversity are impressive. One of my great joys from this past year was having the opportunity to teach some of these gifted students. Turning the Sherwood House living room into a classroom, I led a seminar titled Crime, Law and Punishment. It covered such subjects as the causes of violence in urban America, the role of our legal system in regulating crime, and how our country might actually reduce levels of violence and all of its attendant social problems.
Teaching the class reminded me of the pleasure of working with bright students and my roots as a teacher-scholar, a professor of sociology. I witnessed how our students discover new ideas and intellectual passions that lead them down paths they never thought possible. The crucible of discovery is the heart of a Whitman education: confronting challenges and opportunities that lead to the thoughtful evolution of ideas that in turn lead students in unexpected positive directions.
In teaching juniors and seniors, I also witnessed firsthand the impact that Whitman faculty had on my students – the development in their clarity of writing, critical skills in reading, analytical abilities and curiosity of thought was remarkable. From the moment students enter Whitman, faculty members dedicate the majority of their time to mentoring and developing students’ analytical and communication skills, one at a time and face to face.
Last year also brought many on campus the pleasure of watching how one student in particular, David Michaels ’12, developed at Whitman through his close work with faculty and coaches. David, who came from Las Vegas, was always a standout athlete. As a first-generation college student, he benefitted from the efforts of many faculty members in finding his feet academically and proceeded to earn multiple Northwest Conference (NWC) Student Athlete of the Week awards, and in his senior season he captured All-American honors. David’s success is an inspiring testament to how a Whitman education can transform lives. Today, he’s playing professional basketball in Holland.
David Michaels ’12 was an athletic and academic standout at Whitman. He plays professional basketball in Holland.
David is not the only Whitman athlete competing professionally. His former Whitman teammate, Juan Pablo Alvarez ’12, signed with a team in his native Ecuador, and Jenele Peterson ’12 signed a contract with a team in Germany, becoming the first woman from Whitman to play professional basketball.
David, Juan Pablo and Jenele are just three of many examples of the standout varsity athletes who thrive at Whitman. With three conference championship teams – men’s and women’s tennis and women’s golf – and five teams competing at the NCAA Championships, Whitman enjoyed athletic success unmatched in the history of the college.
Many student-athletes like David, Juan Pablo and Jenele also took time away from their busy schedules to carry out Whitman’s tradition of volunteerism. For example, tennis player Alyssa Roberg ’13 won the Intercollegiate Tennis Association’s West Region Arthur Ashe Award for Leadership and Sportsmanship. She is the first-ever Whitman athlete to win the award. Alyssa, a psychology major, competes on the tennis court and thrives in the classroom. During her free time, she sets up tennis camps at Walla Walla elementary schools, mentors elementary school children and offers her friendship to residents at a local retirement center through Whitman’s Adopt-A-Grandparent program.
Alyssa’s volunteerism is typical among Whitman students. Each year, hundreds take what they learn on campus and then use their skills to serve in the local community. Our students’ dedication to service this year did not go unnoticed. Whitman once again was named to the President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll, which annually recognizes institutions of higher education for their commitment to and achievement in community service.
Among the many other examples of community service this past year was Whitman Teaches the Movement, a program that placed our students in local Walla Walla classrooms to teach lessons on the civil rights movement. Being a part of projects like this that serve Walla Walla brings me great pride, owing to the generous support the larger community extends to Whitman. Serving the community also gives our students opportunities to learn from their experiences in our local schools and organizations, experiences that often prove critical as students enter careers and professions.
Thanks to continued gifts to the Whitman Internship Grant, the Parents Leadership Committee, the David Stevens Internship Endowment and the Ferrari Environmental Studies Internship Fund, nearly 100 students had the opportunity to take advantage of paid internships in organizations and businesses in Walla Walla and across the country. They held positions that ranged from fact-checking for San Francisco-based publication McSweeney’s and studying brain chemistry in New York City to working with Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell and learning how to run a small, organic farm in the Walla Walla Valley.
As students and faculty accomplished these achievements last year, we also reached a milestone with the re-opening of Harper Joy Theatre following a $7.4 million renovation. The renovation is a testament to the grand tradition of theatre at Whitman College, a tradition dating back more than 100 years. Thanks to more than 130 donors, the state-of-the-art renovation guarantees the college’s heralded theatre tradition will continue for at least another 100 years.
Alyssa Roberg ’13 was the first Whitman athlete to earn the Arthur Ashe Award for Leadership and Sportsmanship.
Another significant change isn’t noticeable in our campus skyline, but it will dramatically strengthen our academic legacy. Whitman has joined the Northwest Five Consortium of Liberal Arts Colleges (NW5C), which was formed through an $800,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The NW5C – composed of Whitman, Lewis & Clark, Reed College, University of Puget Sound and Willamette University – will create learning, research and development opportunities for faculty and students through collaborations between schools. By combining resources, students eventually will be able to draw from the strengths of each school in their individual programs of study. We are very excited about the new partnerships the NW5C will foster, as Whitman continually seeks to strengthen and expand the opportunities available to our students, faculty and staff.
Some critics question the value of liberal arts colleges at a time when many institutions have begun to narrow and specialize their academic programs. I return to Rob Manning. His pioneering work on the Mars rover Curiosity embodies not only the Whitman spirit, but also the relevance of the liberal arts in fostering the imagination and creativity necessary to thrive in a field as competitive, challenging and complex as his. I’ll use some of Rob’s own words to describe what Whitman meant to him:
“I count my years at Whitman as my biggest educational experience, because that’s where my most intense memories come from. It’s where my world opened up. Being curious is a wonderful attribute, but you need to satisfy that curiosity. Whitman College provided that for me.
“I now see the planets and stars as places. It’s like looking at a big wooden fence in your back yard. Your yard is your world. The stars are points of light, suggestions of something beyond the cracks in that fence. I know what it’s like to fly over that fence and see other yards.”
Even in a year in which Whitman lost one of its most beloved and revered professors, Dr. George Ball, links from our past continue to guide our future, and they always will. Our Now Is the Time Campaign and the resources it provides ensure that future generations of Whitman students will enjoy journeys like Rob’s and those of the other alumni I’ve described. Here’s to continuing the tradition of a Whitman education that never stops at the fence but allows students to always look beyond and journey farther than they ever imagined.
George S. Bridges