Working with Whitman students is one of the many joys of serving as Whitman’s president. Beyond being talented, curious and creatively engaged learners, our students often model the impressive communication and problem-solving skills taught by our faculty. I am grateful for opportunities to continue learning from both students and faculty here.
In November, a group of students rallied in Memorial Building to raise awareness about some of the challenges students from racially and socioeconomically diverse backgrounds face on campus. The group asked college administrators and our Board of Trustees to strengthen Whitman’s commitment to, and support for, campus programs that would address and remediate these difficulties and create more opportunities for the campus as a whole to acknowledge, discuss and learn about our differences.
Throughout the rally and in subsequent discussions with the trustees, our students conveyed their messages and requests respectfully, speaking to Dean of Students Chuck Cleveland, the trustees and me about challenges they routinely faced. Their thoughtful presentation of ideas and proposals caused me to reflect on – and draw comparisons with – the era in which I attended college.
During the 1960s and 1970s, college protests blanketed the country. At the University of Washington, my undergraduate alma mater, hundreds (at times, even thousands) of students participated in protests expressing anger and indignation at administrators and regents over American foreign policy in Southeast Asia. Some students viewed the UW as supporting the war by securing research grants and projects in applied physics sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense. In retrospect, some of these protest actions seem misguided, driven by naïve misconceptions about the role of academic administrators and federal grants that support basic research in the sciences. The protest activity formed hostile camps, and students and administrators had great difficulty finding common ground or working collaboratively to solve problems. We protested, and they retreated.
In contrast, the Whitman students who rallied in Memorial retained the clarity and power of their message through forceful, thoughtful expressions of concern and discontent. Their compelling and convincing plea for change was premised on a model of engaging with administrators and trustees. As a result, we are now beginning important collaborations on new orientation programs for students; a strengthened symposium in which students, faculty and staff explore the issues surrounding our differences; and workshops on how to “walk the talk” of living and working in a community where individuals holding and expressing widely different views listen to and respect the opinions of one another.
As the Whitman campus mirrors the increasing diversity of the U.S. population, we will continue to face these and other challenges. Periods of difficulty and adversity are inevitable. However, opportunities for betterment and growth often flourish from adversity. You don’t have to look any farther than the pages of this magazine for proof. Overseer Emerita Barbara Sommer Feigin ’59 immigrated to America from Nazi Germany with nothing more than the clothes on her back. Following graduation from Whitman, Feigin developed a successful career in advertising, and recently endowed a scholarship and internship for students whose families are recent immigrants or refugees. Cyclist Mara Abbott ’08 overcame the personal nightmare of an eating disorder to win the prestigious Giro Rosa international cycling competition. And first-year student Faith Nyakundi ’17, raised in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Nairobi, Kenya, was nearly forced to drop out of her high school in Kenya because her family couldn’t afford tuition. But she earned a timely scholarship from a Whitman alumna’s organization, Akili Dada (established by Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg ’01), which supports young African women of promise. Faith is now thriving at Whitman.
Whitman has experienced and transcended adversity from its early days. Ten years after the college’s founding, financial troubles nearly saw it close. A deep recession in the 1890s again saw the institution struggle to keep its doors open. Through these difficult periods, the college survived and thrived. Whitman’s third president, Stephen B.L. Penrose, coined the college’s motto in 1895: Per Ardua Sergo, which translates from Latin as “Through Adversities I Rise.”
Whitman students in 2013 have raised our awareness of critical issues and potential problems on campus. While confronting adversity and working through complex challenges like these can be painful, only solutions developed from engaged collaboration will ensure that Whitman becomes a stronger, more open and welcoming institution.
Penrose was right. Through adversity Whitman will rise.
George S. Bridges