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AAVC Bestows 2019 Spirit of Vassar and Outstanding Faculty/Staff Awards

An alumnus who inspires young people to strive for excellence in New Mexico and a professor who has been inspiring Vassar students for 25 years have been honored for their work by the Alumnae/i Association of Vassar College (AAVC). At a dinner on the campus on October 18, the AAVC bestowed its annual Spirit of Vassar Award upon dance educator Russell Baker ’91 and presented its Outstanding Faculty/Staff Award to Robert K. Brigham, Vassar’s Shirley Ecker Boskey Professor of History and International Relations.

Celebrating the awards, from left: Sharon Davidson Chang ’84, P’19, AAVC Alumnae/i Recognition Chair; Russell Baker ’91; President Elizabeth Bradley; Professor Robert Brigham, and AAVC President Steve Hankins ’85, P’13, ’17.

The Spirit of Vassar Award is presented to alumnae/i who have demonstrated extraordinary and distinguished leadership, contributions, and commitment to serving a community in which they effect positive, transformative societal change. This contribution may have been made through the recipient's career, community work, or volunteer service. The award recognizes the values of service and civic responsibility that are fundamental to a Vassar education.

Baker, the Executive Director of the National Dance Institute (NDI) of New Mexico, is a firm believer in the education and enrichment of children. The NDI works to help them “develop discipline, a standard of excellence, and a belief in themselves that will carry over into all aspects of their lives.”

During his acceptance speech, Baker said he discovered dance at Vassar and credits the college’s emphasis on a broad exploration of subjects for his taking dance to begin with. While pursuing his bachelor’s degree in English from Vassar, Baker took his first ballet classes during his sophomore year and was smitten. He went on to pursue his master of fine arts degree in ballet teaching and choreography from the University of Utah. Baker danced professionally with the Kansas City Ballet for 10 years, performing a variety of principal, soloist, corps de ballet, and character roles.

At the same time, he taught ballet at many schools, including the Kansas City Ballet School, and choreographed dances for a wide range of dancers and many venues in the Kansas City area. Baker attended NDI New Mexico’s Teaching Excellence training program in 2001 and taught with Kansas City Ballet’s Reach Out and Dance residency program prior to moving to Santa Fe.

Baker served as NDI New Mexico’s artistic director before being appointed executive director in 2008. Under his tenure, NDI New Mexico has served more than 120,000 children.  

Sharon Davidson Chang ’84, P’19, AAVC’s Alumnae/i Recognition Committee Chair, said the committee wanted to honor Baker for “his unwavering commitment to youth development.


Russell Baker conducts a workshop for enthusiastic young students with the Center for Creative Education, Kingston, NY.

“Russell has helped to build an organization that has the power to change children’s lives—and the effects extend beyond dance,” she noted. “Those who engage in NDI programs show marked increases in writing, math, reading, and science skills. And they score, on average, one grade higher than other students in their district. The results speak for themselves.”

Baker said he was “not only touched but also surprised” when he learned he had been chosen as this year’s recipient of the Spirit of Vassar Award. “When you work for a non-profit, you do it for the work, for your students, and you never think about getting recognized for it,” he said. “But this award means a lot to me because being at Vassar was a highlight of my life, and being recognized by the AAVC energizes me to keep doing the work I’m doing.”

Before receiving his award, Baker and John Meehan, Professor and Chair of Dance on the Frances D. Fergusson Chair and Director of the Vassar Repertory Dance Theater, engaged in a lively public discussion titled “Moving and Shaking: Arts Education and Social Change.” Baker also conducted a workshop for local students with the Center for Creative Education of Kingston, NY, which shares NDI’s goal of enriching the social and cultural awareness of the local youth and community through arts, wellness, and education.

The Outstanding Faculty/Staff Award is presented to a faculty or staff member who has demonstrated exemplary service, leadership and commitment to engage with alumnae/i and current students over a period of years.

In presenting the Award to Brigham, AAVC President Steve Hankins’85, P’13, ’17 noted that his courses on the history of American foreign relations “are always in such great demand that they can be hard to get into.”

Hankins said that Brigham has not only distinguished himself in the classroom and his scholarly research but also “has been uncommonly generous in sharing his vast knowledge of American foreign policy with Vassar graduates as a frequent contributor to programs across the nation and around the world, including Vassar Travel Program tours in Vietnam.”

Brigham is an acknowledged and acclaimed expert on the history of Vietnam and the Vietnam War. He is author or co-author of nine books, among them Reckless: Henry Kissinger and the Tragedy of Vietnam (PublicAffairs, 2018); American Foreign Relations: A History, Volumes I & II, 8th Edition (Cengage, 2015), written with Tom Paterson, J. Garry Clifford, Michael Donoghue, and Kenneth Hagan; Iraq, Vietnam, and the Limits of American Power (PublicAffairs, 2008); and Argument Without End: In Search of Answers to the Vietnam Tragedy (PublicAffairs, 1999), written with former secretary of defense, Robert S. McNamara and James G. Blight. 

Brigham said he had received offers from other colleges and universities over the years but never thought of accepting them. “The students here are so thoughtful and such independent thinkers, and I have amazing colleagues that I teach with,” he said. “I also feel completely supported by the college in all of the scholarly work I have done, and that has meant a lot to me.”