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AAAVC’s 13th Triennial: A Chance to Reconnect, Remember, and Reflect

The African American Alumnae/i of Vassar College (AAAVC) celebrated its 13th Triennial April 9-11, hosting nearly 100 alumnae/i of the College. While the event was virtual, Karen Roberts Turner ’86 echoed what many AAAVC members expressed throughout the weekend: “The virtual platform actually allowed some alums to participate who otherwise might not have been able to travel. I was delighted to reconnect with so many of the people who made my Vassar experience as a student and as an alum so incredibly meaningful,” she said.

Several members of the Vassar Community were recognized during this year’s Triennial. Special tribute was paid to Dr. June Jackson Christmas ’45-4, a renowned advocate for public mental health and a friend to many in the Vassar Community, pictured above.Photo: Karl Rabe

The festivities began on Friday with a welcome session hosted by AAAVC co-chairs Tracy Elise Poole ’82 and Dennis Slade ’91. The evening involved virtual cocktails and a book chat focused on new publications by authors Karen Turner and Torrey Maldonado ’96.

In a gathering of Vassar administrators on Saturday morning, President Elizabeth Bradley gave a “State of the College” address, reporting on the “twin pandemics” of COVID-19 and racial injustice. Vassar has done well maintaining a lower prevalence of infection than most other colleges, she reported. As for the second pandemic, she said that senior officers, the Board of Trustees, and campus groups such as the Engaged Pluralism Initiative have been examining ways in which the College itself can avoid perpetuating racial injustice and encouraging members of the community to undergo similar self-reflection.

During Triennial, President Bradley announced that the ALANA Center would be renamed the Jeh Vincent Johnson ALANA Center in honor of the Senior Lecturer of Art who designed the building and encouraged generations of Vassar students. Learn more.

Photo: Yassine El Mansouri

President Bradley also announced that the ALANA Center would be renamed for Jeh Vincent Johnson, Senior Lecturer Emeritus of Art (Architecture), who died in January. Johnson designed the ALANA Center (then named the Intercultural Center), as well as faculty housing, and other prominent structures in the local community and beyond. Bradley noted that Professor Johnson was a quiet man with a “persistent social justice DNA,” who encouraged Black students and women to pursue architecture, a field in which both groups remain underrepresented. Over the coming year, the center will be undergoing significant renovations, funded in part by a matching gift by alumnae. 

During the session, Dean of the College Carlos Alamo-Pastrana reported on facets of campus life, including the bolstering of student health and wellness services; Dean of the College William Hoynes P’18 spoke about efforts to recruit a more diverse faculty; Erin Martin, Associate Vice President for Individual Giving, revealed new designations to the Vassar Fund that support racial and social justice efforts; and Wesley Dixon, Special Assistant to the President, reported that, though the Vassar Institute for the Liberal Arts has not yet broken ground, the College will host a year-long series to explore its own complicated history, starting with this summer’s Institute for the Liberal Arts. 

Sonya Smith, Dean of Admission and Student Financial Services, reported an 18 percent increase in first-year applications by Black students over the previous year. Of admitted students, 44 percent identify as people of color, and, more specifically, 12 percent of admitted students identify as Black. Yield efforts are underway, and Smith highlighted some of the new efforts being made to enroll a diverse range of students as well as plans for future recruitment initiatives.

One moving highlight of Triennial was a special tribute to Dr. June Jackson Christmas ’45-4, a groundbreaking psychiatrist focused on community health, who served as Commissioner of Mental Health and Mental Retardation Services under three New York City mayoral administrations. She was a member of Vassar’s Board of Trustees from 1978 to 1989.

Scores of alumnae/i and Vassar employees paid tribute, including President Bradley, who praised Christmas’s thought leadership in the arena of public mental health. Psychoanalyst Anton Hart ’83 said he considers Dr. Christmas a “luminary who blazed the trail” for other Black psychiatrists and psychologists, having served as the first African American woman president of the American Public Health Association.

Ken Miles ’07 said he first got to know Dr. Christmas when he served as co-chair of AAAVC, but being neighbors in Harlem has further deepened their friendship. Miles said he appreciated Dr. Christmas’s “culture of care, which has really been a foundation not only for myself but for my neighbors in Harlem and the uptown community.” (Christmas spent time heading the group therapy program at Harlem Hospital and founded the Harlem Hospital Rehabilitation Center, which became a model for community psychiatry across the country.) She continues to inspire, Miles said. “We’ve had several conversations about the need to be bridge builders for the next generation of young people, to be honest about the challenges they are being confronted with and to really empower young people with the knowledge and the confidence to be positive stewards for change,” Miles said. “I’m currently working on a project that involves doing just that and I can honestly say that if it weren't for Dr. Christmas, I wouldn't be as passionate about or as persistent.”

Many commented on Dr. Christmas’s warmth, grace, and wisdom. Yolanda Sabio ’73, P’95 described her as “a universal mother here at Vassar College and not just for Black folks, for everyone.”

AAAVC members also recognized several Black administrators whom generations of alumnae/i have counted on for support. They include two administrators on the cusp of retirement—Karen Getter, Academic and Learning Resources Specialist, whom alums considered a comforting presence as they strived to complete their studies, and Ed Pittman ’82, Senior Associate Dean of the College, whom they praised for his persistence in fighting for students of color during his time in the Dean of the College office. Participants also recognized Anna Belle Gadsden-Jones, Manager of the Residential Operation Center, who has helped generations of alumnae/i feel at “home” in campus housing.

Other highlights of Triennial included “The ALANA Center Today” in which Kevin Collins, the center’s director, Administrative Fellow Ivanna Guerra ’20, and student leaders discussed services and programming offered, and a session on LGBTQ+ experiences at Vassar offered for the first time during the conference. Saturday night, AAAVC members enjoyed a virtual party with break-out sessions and dancing and conversation. Sunday ended with a Service of Gratitude—facilitated by Rev. Canon Sandye Wilson ’75 and with music by Patricia Ann Neely ’75, P’18—where participants remembered those who have passed away,

AAAVC thanked outgoing co-chairs Tracy Elise Poole ’82 and Dennis Slade ’91 for their leadership and innovative programming, including the On Mattering series that illuminated disparities in education, criminal justice, the arts, health, and wealth. During a business meeting, members elected new co-chairs—Eric Wilson ’76 and Gwen Salley ’81—to serve three-year terms.

Salley praised her predecessors for doing an “outstanding job.” As for the future, Wilson said the co-chairs hope to “increase alumnae/i participation in the events and mission of AAAVC, and, more importantly, to interact with our students in tangible ways that will enhance their collegiate experience and future careers.

Mentorships, networking, and internships will all be fodder for discussion and implementation. A half-century later, I still recall how significant it was to have the then-relatively-few Black alumnae return to campus to support, encourage, and inspire us.”