Vassar Today

President's Page: Extracurricular Excellence

By Catharine Hill

On a beautiful Saturday this past April, in the midst of the ice cream social that I host as part of Parents Weekend, I was standing outside College Center with a group of parents and others, many about my age. We listened with admiration and amazement as three of Vassar’s many a cappella singing groups — the Vassar Devils, the Vastards, and Matthew’s Minstrels — performed back to back.

President Hill with the cast of the 2008 spring musical, Merrily We Roll Along (the non-Vassar shirts were part of the plot!).
President Hill with the cast of the 2008 spring musical, Merrily We Roll Along (the non-Vassar shirts were part of the plot!).
I couldn’t help but notice how impressed we all were, not only by their considerable talent, but at how the unlikeliest of songs from our own younger days — by Michael Jackson, the Go-Gos, Kool & the Gang — so smoothly made the transition to rousing a cappella performances, thanks to these creative young vocalists!

Just a few hours later, my husband Kent and I found ourselves sitting in a packed arena in Springfield, Massachusetts, sharing in the excitement and cheering on our men’s volleyball team, as the Brewers concluded a truly phenomenal season by playing for a national title at the Molten Division III Men’s Invitational Volleyball Championship, in a hotly contested match.

That single day offered a good microcosm of one of the most pleasurable and, I think, most important aspects of my job. I find it a source of both pride and consternation that I could be president of Vassar for a very, very long time, and still probably not see every student group in action — just as in writing this column, I am unable to mention more than a tiny fraction of the student groups whose abilities I’ve already witnessed, the few having to serve as an example for the deserving whole.

A graduate from the ’50s, who still gets back to campus periodically, told me that one reason she hit the “Yale Trail” almost every weekend when she was at Vassar was because the sheer variety of things there are to do on our campus now simply wasn’t available then. Nowadays, Vassar students are involved in the most astonishing array of extracurricular activities; at last count, the VSA sponsors more than 100 student clubs and organizations. In fact, if time only would allow, you could fill most any weekend during the academic year at Vassar by watching and listening as our students perform superlatively on our athletic fields, in our theaters and concert halls, and in so many other ways.

Some of these extracurricular activities, like those of the volleyball team coached by Jonathan Penn, are the result of a wonderful interplay between faculty leadership and the emergence of the students’ own abilities. I can recall the first time I watched a mainstage production at the Vogelstein Center for Drama and Film; it was a performance of Into the Woods, a Stephen Sondheim musical dealing with themes of love and loss, just like this spring’s production, another Sondheim musical, Merrily We Roll Along. Both productions benefited from the guidance of director Chris Grabowski and so many others from the drama and music departments — and yet each ultimately rested on the shoulders of the student cast and crew members, whose work was incredible as they more than rose to the occasion.

Many other extracurricular activities are entirely student-created and student-run, like the aforementioned a cappella groups or, to cite a different instance, the Barefoot Monkeys, whose dexterity in juggling and balancing and walking on glass really must be seen to be believed. What’s particularly amazing is how many of these student-run groups have endured and thrived long after their originators have graduated. One of those singing groups, the Night Owls, dates back to 1945, and recently held a reunion that brought together women whose experience of singing a cappella at Vassar spanned more than six decades!

I believe supporting these activities is an important part of my job, whether I’m getting up early to play nine holes with our women’s golf team, watching with awe as the Vassar Repertory Dance Theatre goes through its paces, or simply walking through College Center at noontime and taking note of the many tables where students promote the causes that are closest to their own hearts. The very concept of a residential liberal arts education encompasses the idea that one learns both inside and outside the classroom. Through these extracurricular activities, our students are learning about creativity and leadership, about the value of teamwork and cooperation, and so much more.

There’s another reason that I see my presence at these events as an essential part of my work. It can be, perhaps, too easy, when one sees how smart and sophisticated our students are, to forget how very much encouragement from those of us who are older can mean to them. But I can still hear it in the voice of an alumna as she mentions with awe that “Prexy” MacCracken was there for her performance in a student play, or the day that she excelled in a sports competition. It makes me feel part of a tradition that I’m more than happy to be continuing.

And besides, it’s just so much fun!

Catharine Bond Hill signature
Catharine Bond Hill signature