The opening event of Claiming Williams Day, titled “Our Stories, Our Responsibilities, Our Community” in line with this year’s theme, was a chance for alumni who have returned to the College as faculty and staff to talk about their experiences at the College as students – what it was like back then, how much it has changed and in what direction the College should continue its change. Panelists who shared their thoughts and experiences were Charles Dew ’58, professor of history, Jim Kolesar ’72, assistant to the president for Public Affairs, Mike Reed ’75, vice president for strategic planning and institutional diversity, Paula Tabor ’76, associate director of Alumni Relations and director of lifelong learning and Juan Baena ’06, assistant director of Alumni Relations and director of technology and affinity programs. Alison Swain ’01, head coach of women’s tennis who was expected to speak, was unable to attend due to the snow storm.
The talk started with President Adam Falk’s opening remarks. Falk pointed out that Claiming Williams Day was not a day meant to highlight the differences between the majority and the minority, or label any group as “good” or “bad,” but to understand “both the minority and majority identities.”
“Claiming Williams Day is not a show, not entertainment, not a lesson, not medicine,” he said. “It is an opportunity to listen to each other: to students, to staff, to faculty, to alumni.”
For the next hour, the audience enveloped themselves in the experiences of those who had made and continue to make Williams. From an old Confederate youth who came from the Jim Crow South to an Urban Scholars program student from New York, the panelists and their stories exemplified the change the College has gone through over the course of the past few decades. Like Falk’s opening remarks, individual stories were not simple lessons that tried to educate the audience, but rather anecdotes that came together to paint multiple identities of the Williams community.
Some of the stories shared by the panelists were about discrimination and ignorance. Dew told the audience of his first encounter with an African-American at the College, an experience which broke the rigid social norms on interracial encounters that he had grown up with. Tabor shared an experience with ignorance from the other side of the racial spectrum through her story of being asked to teach soul dance simply because of her skin color. There were other stories of not fitting into the community at first for economic reasons. Reed recalled his first day on campus, arriving with a suitcase while other kids came to campus with a full stereo system. Baena shared a similar story of running away from his JAs to avoid paying $75 for entry snacks.
In the end, however, these stories were not simply stories of the College’s past that we could look back to and easily dismiss. The panelists agreed when a student in the audience cast doubt on the “diversification” of the Williams community.
“For 19 years, we’ve been struggling with the same issues,” Tabor said.
The event was not a simple pat on the back for the Williams community, but a reminder to continue the changes that the College has been able to make during the past years.
The College has “come an awful long way,” Reed said.