The Last Page

Back to School

By Susan Freyberg Wolfert '81

With the email’s subject line reading Mind the Gap, I wondered if Vassar had begun an advertising campaign for a certain clothing retailer. But no, it was an invitation to be a student for a day and a not-so-subtle reminder of the importance of donations to the alma mater.

Mind the Gap is a simple yet powerful symbol of how far tuition dollars do not go toward educating college students. As the average tuition, room, and board payment covers 55 percent of the cost to educate a student, alumnae/i and other outside donations cover most of the remaining costs. On February 7, the school year was approximately 55 percent over, thus opening this year’s gap.

With the allure of seeing the beautiful campus, taking classes, and having a Vassar Devil, I summoned my best Vassar partners in crime for a girls’ getaway back to the motherland. Yes, you are justified in wondering why we went to Poughkeepsie and not to a spa. But our shared room in Alumnae House with three twin beds (where else but Vassar?) was great for a night of yakking, and the Wi-Fi network there allowed us to tend to a few pesky work obligations and IM with our teenagers back home.

First stop: the bookstore. Then, off to Jewett Hall where we had lived a technological lifetime ago. Jewett had been completely renovated recently and only barely resembled the home we had known. The shock of gender-neutral bathrooms made me wonder if I’d actually graduated in 1881. Or was it the ­laptop- and cell phone-toting students or the absence of beer at the Retreat that made me feel so... well... old?

Had Vassar changed, or was I feeling the seeds of middle age germinating?

I soon realized that none of the important things about Vassar had changed a bit. The differences we saw were all part of the digital revolution and the concept that time would not pass Vassar by. The school’s investment in itself shone everywhere.

The radiant warmth of the campus was just as it had been when I made my first visit there in 1976. The students, always ready to share their experiences with interested strangers, were charming, thoughtful, and worldly. My pals and I were not aliens dropped on campus; we were part of the deep familial history that is the Vassar community.

I knew I had attended the right college when I met my first student host over breakfast. This lovely, intelligent sophomore from Vietnam told me, “You cannot imagine how privileged I feel to be here.” And maybe I couldn’t, but knowing she felt that way was enough for me.

My host took me to Spanish class where an effusive professor welcomed the alumnae/i guests and appreciated our vaguely successful attempts to keep up with his Spanish-only lecture. As class let out, students gathered around the visitors, wondering not just why we were there, but about our lives after Vassar as well. That Vassar curiosity and warmth were written all over their faces.

My next class was Nineteenth-Century Philosophy in the venerable Rocky 200. And best of all, Professor Mitch Miller, from whom I had taken Philosophy of Education in 1979, was my teacher again. Time stood still for me when I saw him at that familiar helm.

The topic was Hegel (harder to follow than Spanish class), and what struck me as the college’s unique and most pleasurable pursuit was just thinking. Pointing to an ordinary water bottle, Miller asked, “Is this a bottle? Or is it just a bottle in the context of its sitting on a table? Is it a bottle because we agree to call it a bottle? Or is it a bottle because of the absence of its not being not a bottle?” Yup, we were in college for the day.

The only disconcerting moment was being awoken from my Hegel reverie by the vibration of my cell phone. Business back home brought me out of my trance and back to real life. I then realized how special and wonderful both of these lives are and how lucky I have been to have them both.

Would I return again to Mind the Gap, and will I remember to mind the gap going forward? Yes and yes. How privileged we all are to have had a Vassar education, and how great it feels to be reminded of that once in a while. My host had said it all.

— Susan Freyberg Wolfert '81

Susan Freyberg Wolfert is a freelance writer living outside of New York City.