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Meet Alex, Noor, Marvin, Eddie, and Erin. Five people who embody the Colgate of today. Their individual stories reveal how the myriad aspects of the Passion for the Climb campaign have combined to support the transformative experiences of so many Colgate people.
By James Leach
Alex Crawford ’12: Tech that teaches
Listen to Alex Crawford talk about his work with school groups and you might mistake him for a member of the teaching staff. You wouldn’t be all wrong. Crawford was employed at the Ho Tung Visualization Lab in the Robert H.N. Ho Science Center for all four of his undergraduate years, and he clearly owned the position.
When the lab opened in March 2008, school groups visited from Hamilton and Cazenovia. “Now, we draw from as far away as Rome, Utica, and Binghamton,” said Crawford. “As the visits increased, we thought, ‘If they are going to come this far, let’s give them something more,’ so we started doing some other science demos, everything from bottle rockets and a Van de Graaff generator, to visiting the greenhouse and geology museum. That makes it more of a general science experience.”
“You can do high-end research here if
you want to. Professor Leventer is
dead set on making sure I’m the first
author on a paper coming from my thesis.”
In his first year at Colgate, as part of his financial aid package, Crawford had a work-study job providing computer support for students. When he learned that geography professor Adam Burnett needed some fly-through animations of western terrain for his geomorphology class, Crawford designed the 3D demonstration using data from the U.S. Geological Survey. That project launched his undergraduate career as a designer and assistant in the sophisticated Vis Lab.
Located on the top floor of the Ho Science Center, the lab is a 55-seat domed theater — a planetarium, essentially — with the capability of projecting displays of the planets, constellations, and other astronomical objects, as well as 3-D animations and shows made for a dome environment. (You can see it on pg. 38.) Ten computers drive the programming under the dome.
In the production room, Crawford learned to use the customized high-end Macs and PCs, which run on sophisticated software similar to that used for Hollywood animations, to create projects for the lab. The job, with all its training (“it was fun,” he stressed), took the place of a traditional work-study position. Having attended Colgate on financial aid, Crawford said, “It had to be a paid position, or I couldn’t do it.”
Crawford noted how rare it is for a liberal arts college to have such a sophisticated setup, and how unique his experience was to be not simply learning under the dome, but actually creating content. He and fellow student designer Karen Alley ’12 were the only two undergraduates at the 2011 summer conference on visualization in science education sponsored by Gordon Research, an international nonprofit sponsor of science conferences.
A double major in geography and geology, Crawford spent his junior-year winter break studying five volcanoes on the border of Argentina and Chile, on an extended study trip led by geology professor Karen Harpp. In the semester prior, the students in the class designed research projects, then led their projects on site. “It put us in control, and it really worked,” said Crawford. The class built an online field guide for any other group that might study the volcanoes. Colgate covers a percentage of additional costs so that aided students like Crawford can take advantage of off-campus programs that might otherwise be out of reach. “Coming from a working-class family,” he said, “to have that sort of an opportunity is really great.”
Grants from Colgate as well as the Howard Hughes Medical Institute made it possible for Crawford to spend summers on campus. Over two summers, he served as a research assistant to his geology faculty adviser, Amy Leventer. “You can do high-end research here if you want to,” he said. “Professor Leventer is dead set on making sure I’m the first author on a paper coming from my thesis.”
In fact, Crawford presented two senior theses — the second for honors in geography. Having both the geology and geography departments housed in the Ho Science Center made for “a good experience, from my perspective,” he said, adding, “One thing that’s happening is more collaboration.”
Crawford said he wouldn’t have been able to attend Colgate without financial aid. “I received some named scholarships, including one from someone in Berkshire County, Massachusetts, where I’m from. My dad grew up with the grandson of the person for whom the scholarship is named. It’s nice to have a personal connection.”
After graduation, Crawford spent the summer in Bryce Canyon as a visiting park ranger. “They were looking for a geology major with an astronomy background,” he said. “I’m pretty sure the presentation skills I learned in the Vis Lab got me the internship.”
Those same skills are sure to serve Crawford at the University of Colorado, where he’s offsetting the cost of his graduate program by working as a teaching assistant — a job he relishes. “It’s only after having the experience here that I can say I’d go on for a PhD. I know I want to be teaching. I’m going to be an academic.”
Noor Khan: Connected
Like many other professors at Colgate and elsewhere, history professor Noor Khan had spent years telling her students that Wikipedia — the open-access, online encyclopedia written and edited by users worldwide — was not a valid reference for their academic work.
Then she casually mentioned to colleagues at a faculty retreat that she was thinking of using Wikipedia in her teaching, not as a source, but as a tool to help students think about information in the digital age. Present at the retreat were librarians and information technologists from the Collaboration for Enhanced Learning (CEL), a partnership of experts housed in Case Library and Geyer Center for Information Technology who help faculty incorporate emerging technologies into their courses. When Khan speculated about bringing Wikipedia into her coursework, she said, the people from CEL were there to help her make it happen.
In addition to the traditional paper she required in her senior seminar on Egypt in the 20th century, Khan had her students “interact with a Wikipedia entry.” In a two-part assignment, she asked them to verify or improve upon an entry about Egypt, and then explain what they did and why.
“There’s an interdisciplinary nature in all we do. It works in part because we are small, but we are just big enough to have this vibrancy.”
“Some students wrote an entire entry,” said Khan. “Others edited existing entries. In one interesting case that demonstrates how learning has changed, a student didn’t edit the entry so much, but created hyperlinks to other entries.”
Writing to explain what they did, said Khan, was as helpful to the students and to her as the actual changes were to Wikipedia users. “It required the students to consider who was using the information — in a way that they are not used to thinking.”
That discussion led to conversations about what Khan called “the extreme saturation of information. It used to be about knowing where to look for the answers. But now, there are so many answers, it’s about prioritizing a surfeit of information and figuring out which information is most useful.” In a course that considers Egypt in the context of the modern world, said Khan, “the conversation about how information works didn’t seem like a tangent at all.”
The moral of Khan’s Wikipedia story is that the vision for Case-Geyer — where librarians and technologists would collaborate with faculty and students in new modes of learning — has come to fruition across the disciplines.
Khan is a first-generation native U.S. citizen who has lived and studied in Cairo. She had an earlier introduction to the reach of social media during the revolution that overthrew Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. The daughter of parents from India and Pakistan, Khan’s interest in the revolution was personal as well as professional. When friends asked her to explain the situation growing out of Cairo’s Tahrir Square, she posted the answer on her Facebook page. Soon her primer was being shared among friends of friends and beyond, eventually leading to an interview with The Nation online and a call from a reporter in Iran. “Before that, I really didn’t understand the power of the social network,” she said.
This fall, Khan and her husband, Nady Abdal-Ghaffar (senior lecturer in Arabic), are partnering to teach a Middle Eastern studies course titled Living Egypt, which includes an extended study trip to Egypt between semesters. Emphasizing history and culture in the modern era, the course will pair students with local “language partners” while they are in Egypt. Khan expects that the Colgate students and their Egyptian partners will get to know one another in advance during online conversations
via Skype throughout the fall.
“The possibilities of technology have changed everything,” said Khan, who added that YouTube and new technologies for listening and recording have enabled her husband to incorporate spoken Arabic into classwork that was once limited to reading and writing.
Newly tenured at Colgate, Khan was educated at the University of Chicago. While she describes the opportunities she received at a larger school as “wonderful,” she is an advocate for the advantages of a small liberal arts institution. “As an undergraduate, I couldn’t expect to spend a half hour with my professors in their offices on a regular basis. At Colgate, I know the name of every one of my students. And I know a lot about any student who will major or minor in one of my fields, not just from class, but also from films and performances, or Heretics Club, or ALANA activities. There is a real sense of Colgate being a learning community. As a result, I’m able to give an education that’s even better than the one I got.”
Colgate’s expectation that professors will be both teachers and scholars helps ensure that they stay current, Khan said. Her new book, Egyptian-Indian Nationalist Collaboration and the British Empire, was released last fall, and she is already considering her next research project.
For this academic year, Khan is also serving as director of the fast-growing minor in Middle Eastern studies and Islamic civilization, which focuses on understanding the Middle East and North Africa in the context of the wider Islamic world. “There’s an interdisciplinary nature in all we do,” she said. “It works in part because we are small, but we are just big enough to have this vibrancy.”
Marvin Vilma ’14: Humble humanitarian
Marvin Vilma first visited Colgate on a summer
college tour organized by the Oliver Scholars Program, which works with exceptional New York City students of African-American and Latino descent. The son of Haitian immigrants, Vilma was raised in Queens. The Oliver Scholars Program recognized his academic potential at an early age and supported him as he transitioned to the Trinity School, one of the city’s top independent college preparatory schools.
That Vilma doesn’t volunteer this information indicates the modesty that is part of his charm. He is making his mark at Colgate, but you need to know the details in advance to get him to talk about it.
On that summer tour, he was struck by the beauty of Colgate’s campus. When he returned to visit that fall, he attended a French class taught by Helene Julien. “I was blown away by the literature and the discussion. It was analytical and lively and lighthearted, all at the same time,” he said. “I’d always been interested in French, but I’d never before thought of pursuing a degree in it.”
So, he enrolled the following fall, and a transformation began. Originally envisioning a major in international relations or political science, Vilma has come around to French and sociology. And from the career he once imagined in law or government, his Colgate experience so far has him thinking more about public policy and education: “how to improve teaching strategies, how to make the classroom environment better for students, how to improve pedagogy.”
“Once you start putting yourself out there, you can have a grand old time
The move from one of the most densely populated and diverse communities in the United States to rural Hamilton took some cultural adjustment. “I’ve learned to enjoy the moments I spend with people a lot more, because it’s so much smaller here. And there’s definitely a different look than back home.” His neighborhood in Queens is almost entirely West Indian, Latino, and Indian. As a sophomore, Vilma said, he expanded his social circle on campus. “Once you start putting yourself out there, you can have a grand old time.” He’s put that outlook to work as an intern at the Max Shacknai Center for Outreach, Volunteerism, and Education (COVE), gathering material for the center’s newsletter and doing outreach to increase diversity among its participants.
The past two summers, Vilma returned to the city, commuting more than an hour each day to work full time with Breakthrough Collaborative, a college preparatory nonprofit organization. There, he taught animal science and English literature and served as dean of students to middle-schoolers from underprivileged backgrounds. The COVE’s Levine-Weinberg Fellowship, which provides funding for students interested in careers in community or public work, underwrote his work. His participation in the Robert A. Fox Leadership Institute, which brings together students from across campus at the beginning of each academic year, as well as other Colgate-sponsored workshops and presentations, prepared him to get the most from his internship. “I really learned how to work effectively in diverse spaces,” he said.
His other COVE experiences include traveling to the Lakota Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota to winterize homes as well as distribute books and clothes to Native American children. “That experience helped me reflect on the work I’m doing now and might do in the future to have a positive impact on communities like the Lakota,” he said. And at Colgate’s Donovan’s Pub, he spearheaded a fashion show for the area charity Cinderella’s Closet, which offers gently used prom dresses free of charge to area teens in need.
During the academic year, Vilma has volunteered at Hamilton Central School two days a week, tutoring and working with local students on their skills in conversational French — practical experience for the work he sees himself doing after graduation. Even that plan has another layer: “I’d like to teach on a Fulbright, or maybe study for a year on a Watson Fellowship.” His work-study job helping students apply for postgraduate fellowships will serve him well when it comes time to prepare his own applications. Staff in the fellowship office, where he has worked since his first year, regard Vilma as a colleague.
Vilma’s aspirations don’t end there. The alumni who mentor budding student entrepreneurs through the Thought Into Action (TIA) program helped Vilma get his dream of an event-planning company up and running last year. He realized his goal of helping nonprofits organize “awesome and affordable” events when he and his sister Merlyn (a student at the University of Buffalo) staged a gala in New York City that helped South Bronx United raise $30,000. Next, through TIA, he plans to develop a program to provide high school students in Queens with experiential learning that will help them to connect the classroom with the real world around them.
Vilma will be away from campus this coming spring, studying in Dijon, France, with a group led by Professor Bernadette Lintz. He said the program in France, like his education at Colgate, would be out of his reach if not for financial aid.
He describes that assistance as “Colgate investing in students,” adding, “The university helps you make the most of the experience.”
Eddie Watkins: Fern nerd
Eddie Watkins wore a hard hat when he first
toured the greenhouse, under construction in the Robert H.N. Ho Science Center in 2008. A self-described “fern nerd,” Watkins was interviewing for a position in biology. Major research universities were also recruiting him.
“If I was going to work on tropical plants, I needed a place to grow them,” he said. “I was overwhelmed by what Colgate had to offer, and especially this brand-new greenhouse.”
Watkins started teaching at Colgate that fall. When he arrived, the department owned only five or six common species of ferns. Today, through his efforts, the greenhouse holds about 125 species, including several that are extremely rare. “It’s not a collection for collection’s sake,” he said. “We use this for research. I can’t take two years to go off and study one of these varieties, but I can go to the greenhouse and pluck off a leaf and collect the spores and have a lot of material for students to work on.”
Watkins’s irresistible enthusiasm is evident when he describes the genesis of a delicate fern growing under glass in his office. His wife, Colgate ecologist Catherine Cardelús, brought a dried specimen of the fern back from a trip to Ethiopia. Watkins appropriated a small sample, “stuck it in a pot, and it grew!
I don’t know anyone else in the world who has one growing.” The species, which is unusually drought-tolerant, will inform his work in plant stress physiology.
“Students grow up in this environment where they see biologists talking with physicists and geologists, and it becomes a natural part of how they think.”
His students are undergraduates who have the opportunity to study with a professor doing research at the leading edge of his discipline — Watkins is president-elect of the American Fern Society. The advantage of studying with scholars who are active researchers is demonstrated in the experience of one of his first Colgate students, Tyler Coolman ’11, who called from graduate school to tell him, “I was so well prepared. I had no idea.”
In the interdisciplinary arrangement that distinguishes the Ho Science Center, Watkins shares space with astronomers, physicists, geologists, geographers, and colleagues in environmental studies. “I feel enriched as a scientist being able to walk next door and talk to colleagues in physics.” Two flights up, he can consult with geologists about where to find the limestone outcroppings that support a particular species of endangered fern.
A study of plant stress physiology that Watkins has undertaken with Colgate biologist Nancy Pruitt and Missouri plant scientist Mel Oliver was funded through a grant from the university’s Harvey Picker ’36 Interdisciplinary Science Institute. “Students grow up in this environment where they see biologists talking with physicists and geologists, and it becomes a natural part of how they think. And that is the future. Not many schools can compare,” he said.
Colgate’s Upstate Institute supports Watkins and his students in their research on the endangered American Hart’s Tongue Fern, one of only a handful of New York plants protected under the Endangered Species Act. Fewer than 4,000 of the plants exist, more than 90 percent within a two-hour drive of Colgate. While studying the plant’s ecology, physiology, and molecular biology, his students learn to work with local landowners to protect the species.
Among the students who arrived on campus at the same time as Watkins was Weston Testo ’12, straight from his family’s sheep farm outside Albany, N.Y. As a first-year student, Testo started working in Watkins’s greenhouse lab. Over the next four years, they became “colleagues,” Watkins said. “We’ve traveled all over the world together — Costa Rica, Panama, Australia, Alabama — looking for information about this endangered species of fern that Wes studies.” When Testo graduated in May, he received the Botanical Society of America’s Young Botanist Award — which Watkins won 15 years ago. Testo also won the prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, providing $30,000 per year for three years of research. Even before that, colleagues from around the country were calling Watkins about Testo: “Would you tell this guy to apply here?” (He chose the University of Vermont.)
Michael Britton ’12 also traveled to Panama and Costa Rica with Watkins. Britton is working on the unusual occurrence of blue iridescence in some ferns, Watkins explained. Britton also studies the cinnamon fern group, common in the northeast and sometimes mistakenly eaten by people who think they are dining on edible fern fiddleheads (cinnamon ferns are toxic; some other fern species produce fiddleheads that are not). Britton had two papers ready for publication in professional journals when he headed off to graduate study at Florida International University.
The late University of Michigan scholar and National Academy member Herb Wagner encouraged Watkins when he was a high school student. Although Watkins never studied under Wagner, it was Wagner who guided him to the programs where he developed his expertise and international reputation. When Watkins talks about why he is drawn to teaching undergraduates, he recalls the advice of his mentor: “‘Ideas developed in the classroom live on,’ he said. ‘You need to be just as excellent in the classroom as you are in your research.’”
If Herb Wagner were advising an aspiring young fern nerd today, there’s little doubt he’d send that student Eddie Watkins’s way.
Erin Nash ’12: A need to lead
By her junior year in high school, Erin Nash
had already been elected president of the student board of New York State’s Council on Leadership and Student Activities, which runs statewide leadership conferences. And she believes that her record as a high school leader in nearby Central Square is the reason Colgate invited her to become one of the university’s inaugural Benton Scholars. The 20 or so students admitted to that program each year are emerging thinkers and leaders with the promise to have a positive impact in the world.
That promise is nourished through exposure to global issues and leaders, including visitors brought to campus through the Kerschner Family Series Global Leaders at Colgate. A 10-day Benton Scholars trip to Russia with faculty program leader Tim Byrnes was her first trip abroad. While there, Nash said, “We had a great discussion with a professor at Moscow University about the role of religion in modern Russian society. It introduced me to what it means to understand someone else’s culture and way of life.” As well, Benton Scholars are encouraged to think about what it means to make a difference in the 21st century. Putting her Benton Scholars experience to work on campus, Nash founded Students for Global Engagement as a forum for discussing global issues.
“We had a great discussion with a professor at Moscow University about the role of religion in mordorn Russian society. It introduced me to what it means to understand someone else's culture and way of life
Nash’s Colgate opportunities built upon each other in ways that allowed her to make a difference for others at every turn. In 2010, as a student fellow in the Upstate Institute’s Summer Field School, the psychology major worked with autistic children at the Kelberman Center in Utica. That experience, and a fellowship at the Drama-Play Connection outside of Boston the next summer, inspired her to take psychology professor Regina Conti’s course Bonding Across Boundaries. Nash taught drama games for the course’s hands-on component, the Oz Project — a theater arts workshop bringing together Hamilton-area children with and without special needs to learn about cooperation, teamwork, and inclusivity. Held at the university’s Palace Theater in town, “it’s about making sure kids appreciate each other’s differences,” she said.
Nash connected with villagers at the other end of the age spectrum in a course called the Sociology of Age, Aging, and the Life Course taught by Professor Meika Loe. After being paired with selected Hamilton elders, the students produced digital stories about the elders with help from the staff at Case Library and Geyer Center for Information Technology, gaining technical skills in programs like Final Cut Pro while they develop firsthand appreciation for their subjects. Nash researched and worked with former Hamilton Mayor Larry Baker. “It was a wonderful experience because I got to meet people in the Hamilton community and become close to them,” said Nash.
The digital stories are archived on the Colgate website
During spring break her sophomore year, Nash traveled to Washington, D.C., for a “Civil Societies Spring Immersion,” which she described as “an eye-opening look at the operation of nonprofits.” The 10 students chosen for the program, which is sponsored by the career services office, prepared in advance by researching 17 nonprofit agencies. Once in the nation’s capitol, they taught each other about their chosen agencies before going into the field for tours and on-site presentations.
Nash twice traveled to the Dominican Republic on alternative break trips organized through the Max Shacknai Center for Outreach, Volunteerism, and Education (COVE). “It was a culture shock,” said Nash. On her first trip, Nash led three days of workshops — in Spanish — on health, sanitation, and leadership. Then she went into the field with her students and built latrines for five days. In January, she taught leadership skills to young Dominicans, and then helped them paint murals sharing positive messages that address issues such as domestic violence or alcohol abuse. “It wasn’t Americans helping Dominicans,” she said. “It was Americans helping Dominicans help Dominicans.” For students such as Nash who receive financial aid, Colgate helps cover expenses for those alternative breaks as well as study abroad.
Nash, who studied for a semester in Wollongong, Australia, her junior year, had arrived at Colgate expecting to major in biology and pre-med until two early electives in psychology turned her head. She graduated in May and began working in human resources at AXA Equitable.
Her dream job, she said, is to some day become a motivational speaker. That day may be closer than she imagined. In February, Nash’s high school adviser asked her to return to Central Square to address freshmen and sophomores. In April, she shared her inspiring Colgate experiences at a Presidents’ Club gathering. Then, Nash addressed the local district conference of the N.Y.S. Council on Leadership and Student Activities. And in November, she will address the council’s statewide conference, the 25th-annual edition of the same conference she organized as a high school junior.
Funny where leadership leads.
Portraits by Andrew Daddio