Leaving a Legacy: A Tradition at Vassar Has Seniors Digging Deep into their Typically Empty Pockets

By Veronika Ruff '01

Ever wonder what happened to that dollar a desperate senior class officer, extolling the importance of "class participation points," extracted from confused you at one of those overwhelming Senior Week events? In most cases, that dollar (or more if you were caught in an especially gleeful, "I love Vassar"-moment, less if they cornered you fretting about your uncertain future and ready to be done with it all) went toward a fund that continues to impact the college community today.


A student sits at a desk working on one of the lIbrary's laptops
A student sits at a desk working on one of the lIbrary's laptops

On a scale of Vassar traditions, the Senior Class Gift program is relatively new. While senior classes have given trees (and sometimes a bonus bench or two) for over a century, the program as it exists today — involving a committee of seniors that identifies a campus need and raises money from their classmates to donate toward alleviating that need — is a somewhat newer phenomenon. Early gifts were often scholarship and book funds. One class turned over its money to put toward Vassar's greatest needs, another donated to Buildings and Grounds to fix the decrepit bridge leading to the Terrace Apartments, while yet another gave to the Biology Department to help create a species pond near Sunset Lake.

In 2001, however, the senior class giving patterns changed dramatically, with the introduction of an alumnae/i challenge donor element to the program. The 2001 Senior Class Council decided to develop a technology fund that would support the purchase of laptop computers that students could check out for use in the libraries.

Meanwhile, Robert Hochberg '84, who was interested in defining a specific college need (rather than a general fund) that he wanted to donate to, heard about the Class of 2001's gift idea. For Hochberg, a software entrepreneur, working with the senior class on its project was a natural fit. Thus, the challenge donor program was born. Hochberg would match every dollar (up to $5,500) that the seniors raised, and if 55 percent of the class donated, he would give an additional $5,500 toward the fund.

The program worked wonderfully; with Hochberg's "challenge," the Class of 2001 was able to raise $17,099 and reach the participation level of 55 percent, exactly. "I think this program is an awesome idea in general as I strongly support gifts associated with results and accountability," Hochberg said.

Part of the original gift plan was that the college would regularly update and add to the library's laptop collection, depending on demand and need. The gift supported the purchase of 20 laptops, and the library has since added 10. The laptops are extremely popular and often all checked-out, according to Director of Libraries Sabrina Pape.

Freshman Mary Lewine said that the laptops are "not only incredibly convenient, but [they] perhaps relieve some of the socio-economic tension that the increasing pressure to have flashy laptops creates. If everyone has access to state-of-the-art technology, it levels the playing field, to some extent, in the realm of academics," she said.

Seeing that the Class of 2001's dollars really did make a difference, the seniors in 2002 decided to work on a similar plan. They conceived an original idea Ñ Matthew's Bean, a caf� in the newly renovated library. And soon, they found their own challenge donor.


A coffee cup from the coffee shop in the library is held out by a student
A coffee cup from the coffee shop in the library is held out by a student

Stephen Hankins '85 loved the idea of the gift itself and the challenge program. "I think it's a great way for the classes to interact with trustees [and] alums from 'less recent classes,'" he said. "It also helps to engage the alums in something that is a current need at the college Ñ as identified by the students."

Again, the program worked. The Class of 2002 (with Hankins' help) raised $30,890, with 59 percent of the class giving. Five thousand dollars of the total came from The Eclipse Foundation, of which a senior was a trustee, which challenged the class to reach 55-percent participation. Like the laptops, Matthew's Bean is a library hit, according to Pape. The Bean, as it is called, is located in the basement and open most evenings, serving coffee, tea, hot chocolate, cookies, and fruit. Lewine, who claims to spend a fair amount of her time in the library, said that many students seem to frequent Matthew's Bean, especially after the Retreat closes. "It makes a wonderful place to break up a long night of studying. It is quite a luxury, and a constructively motivating one at that, to sip a latte without even having to leave the library� I like that it's nestled in the basement so that it isn't too distracting or pervasive," she said.

After the successes of 2001 and 2002, the Class of 2003 also chose to seek out a challenge donor. Lloyd Braun '80 joined the class in addressing the college's need for additional sound systems available to student groups. Together, they raised $11,862, enough to purchase one small system for use by campus bands and a larger system for student DJs. Before this gift, student organizations had to hire an outside vendor for this need, which was expensive and time consuming. Former campus DJ Shuvo Dastidar '00 agreed that sound equipment was a definite need on campus, as most students had to rent it for each event.

"A sound system easily accessible at no cost to organizations is a huge help," said Director of Campus Activities and Senior Class Adviser Teresa Quinn.

"We were so excited when we heard we had broken every record for participation to date [68%]," said Katie Hayman '03, senior class gift co-chair. "A challenger is a vital part of the fundraising efforts for the Senior Class Gifts — he or she greatly inspires the students to participate in the campaign, whether it be through donation or collecting donations from fellow students."

This year, the senior class will provide funding to upgrade and enhance the existing wireless network system in the library. A young alumnae/i couple, Ling Chan '91 and John Gatins '90 have challenged the Class of 2004 to raise $9,000 and reach a 60-percent class participation rate. If the class is successful, Chan and Gatins will give $5,000 to the cause. "We thought the challenge was a way to let the Class of '04 know that there are recent grads who want to help them leave their stamp," Gatins said.


A microphone sits on top of a P.A. system and other audio equipment
A microphone sits on top of a P.A. system and other audio equipment

Chan said it is a "fantastic honor" to be the first woman and youngest challenge donor to date, especially given Vassar's history as a women's school. "Now my hope is that this starts a big trend of female 'challengers,'" she said.

Senior Stephanie Schuetz said that she thinks the gift is a good idea and plans to donate to the fund. She also said that though it depends on each individual's giving views, the challenge donor program is probably a good way to boost class participation overall.

Though it remains difficult to get cash-strapped seniors to give money to Vassar during this precarious time in their lives (Hayman remembers going door-to-door with volunteers masquerading as food delivery people to get classmates to listen to their plea), based on the numbers alone, the challenge donor program has undoubtedly helped raise awareness and excitement about leaving a legacy.

Veronika Ruff '01 is a freelance writer living and working in New York City

Photo Credit: Helanna Bratman