Faculty, staff couples share their stories

Nigel Jaffe and Tali Natter

Scott and Bernice Lewis met in Arizona, and have taken a group of students to the Grand Canyon every year since 1994.

We’ve all heard the famous statistic: since the College became coed in the early 1970s, more than one in five married or partnered alums are in an all-Eph couple, according to Williams Magazine. But less well-known is a rival figure, supplied by the Provost’s Office: 11 percent of the College’s employees are married to another Williams employee, a group that spans both sides of the faculty and staff divide, from high school sweethearts to undergraduate cycling companions to the lucky few who met here on the job.

On the faculty side, the latter circumstance is relatively rare, according to Dean of the Faculty Denise Buell. Many faculty and staff consider their partner’s employment a critical factor in determining whether they can work at the College in the long term, and as such, faculty couples are often hired in tandem. 

“It’s not surprising for finalists for positions, in the stage of our making an offer, to say, ‘I do have a partner or spouse, and they would really like a position, or to know what the options are,’” Buell said. “More often than not, that’s a faculty position.”

“When I got the job, it was a great thing, but it was a challenging thing”

Dean of the College Marlene Sandstrom and Professor of Psychology Noah Sandstrom came to the College because Marlene Sandstrom had received an offer for a tenure-track position in clinical psychology. Noah Sandstrom was initially hired in a visiting position before a tenure-track line opened up in neuroscience. The two had recently completed graduate school at Duke University, where they met as students in separate psychology programs. 

Noah Sandstrom, who now chairs the psychology department, said the pair was kept busy with teaching and research and saw less of each other on a day-to-day basis than one might expect. On the other hand, he said, “being in the same department probably helped us support each other as we knew, better than most, what each other were working on and what challenges we were facing.”

In 2014, the Sandstroms were jointly appointed as directors of the Williams-Exeter Programme at Oxford University (WEPO), where they were responsible for supporting students in the academic and personal dimensions of life at Exeter College. “Our kids were roughly 10 and 12 years old when we arrived in Oxford, and they really enjoyed living among the college students — baking cookies and getting help with homework,” Marlene Sandstrom said. “But it was perhaps our dog, Izzy, who loved the students the most. They showed Izzy a lot of love!”

Buell said she believes the Sandstroms are representative of a broader faculty pattern in that the majority of couples who both have tenure-line positions work in the same department. Faculty or staff couples who have similar specializations may end up in a position where one of the two holds an evaluative role in relation to their partner or spouse. In those cases, Buell said, one of the two will take measures to avoid a conflict of interest, a policy that extends to all supervisory, evaluative or counseling roles where a current or past relationship exists. 

“It was the last thing I expected”

Assistant Professors of Computer Science Shikha Singh and Samuel McCauley were hired this year into tenure-track positions in the same department, marking the first time the couple has taught on tenure tracks at the same institution. The two professors have been frequent co-authors with overlapping research interests and said they hope to find time in their busy pre-tenure lives to continue collaborating.

Singh and McCauley said they tried to take advantage of social programming early in the fall that aimed to help new faculty get to know each other. “Once you meet other couples at the College, it’s easy to naturally connect over that sort of thing,” Singh said. “But we don’t automatically get two departments’ worth of meeting people,” McCauley added.

Marlene and Noah Sandstrom served as joint directors of WEPO before Marlene Sandstrom became Dean of the College. (Photo courtesy of Noah Sandstrom).

Meanwhile, another newly hired couple, Assistant Professor of Psychology Eliza Congdon and Visiting Assistant Professor of History and Religion Casey Bohlen, were unsure at first whether to make it known that they were a pair. “We hung out at orientation, which was funny because I was like, ‘We should not sit together — we should pretend we don’t know each other,’” Congdon said. “And he’s all like, ‘I’m sitting with you. You’re the only person I know.’” 

Congdon and Bohlen met on a nonprofit-organized cross-country cycling journey the summer before their junior year of college — a “bike trip courtship,” in Congdon’s words — and have been together ever since. Though the dividing line of Rte. 2 means the two don’t often bump into each other at work, they grab lunch a few times a week. They said they especially value those occasions since their time at home is devoted in large part to parenting. 

Congdon and Bohlen were one of many couples who highlighted the social capital that comes with having young children. “A significant plurality of our adult friends have kids in [our daughter’s] class,” Bohlen said, citing toddler happy hours on Fridays at the Log as a favorite social occasion. He also spoke highly of the children’s programming at local institutions such as The Clark.

“My husband’s a professor, so I really get it”

When the spouse or partner of a newly hired professor wants to work at the College but isn’t the right fit for an academic position, they often take on roles as staff. In these cases, Buell is less directly involved, and the responsibility instead falls to Spouse/Partner Resources Manager Cecilia Hirsch, whose role is twofold. She helps spouses and partners of employees apply for positions at the College and is also in charge of professional development initiatives that aim to prepare spouses and partners for career paths elsewhere in the Berkshires. 

Hirsch offers individualized career counseling and manages a professional development fund from which spouses and partners can draw up to $5,000 to subsidize job-related education, training or professional development, typically within 10 years of their arrival.

Although schools like Columbia and Cornell have similar initiatives within human resources, no other NESCAC school has a position like Hirsch’s. “My job is really amazing because I’ve got one foot at Williams and one foot in the rest of the world,” she said. “I get to talk to employers in Bennington, in Albany, all over the Berkshires, and basically advocate for people. It’s very rewarding.”

She was quick to mention the story of Assistant Professor of Statistics Elizabeth Upton, whose husband, Ted Upton, co-founded the fishing equipment manufacturing company Cheeky Fishing. Compared to most couples Hirsch works with, it was relatively easy for the pair to make the move from Boston, as there is nothing that ties Ted Upton’s business to any particular location, and the Berkshires offer a more outdoorsy client base. 

“Being here is a great decision for the business,” Ted Upton said. “And since we moved here, Cecilia has gone way above and beyond to try to introduce the business and me not just to Williams folks, but also to people in the community that may have nothing to do with Williams that she thought could be advantageous for the business and for our family.” 

Despite having no formal ties to the College aside from his spouse, Ted Upton has collaborated with the Fishing Club, the Outing Club and the entrepreneurial wing of the Career Center. His company also offers students internships both over the summer and full-time after graduation. Elizabeth Upton joked that her husband is better known around campus than she is. “His name is out and about more than mine,” she said. 

Hirsch said her job is made easier because she knows firsthand what it can look like for faculty spouses, even academics, to reinvent themselves professionally at the College. She came here with her husband, Professor of Biology Robert Savage, and worked as an art professor at nearby schools before taking on various positions at the College that ranged from reading applications in the Office of Admission to coordinating with Williamstown Elementary School at the Center for Learning in Action (CLiA). 

“I’ve had all these various jobs that helped me really understand the culture here,” Hirsch said. “And my husband’s a professor, so I really get it — I understand what it’s like to come and rethink your life once you move here.”

The current director of elementary outreach at CLiA, Jennifer Swoap, is also married to a professor of biology, Steven Swoap. The two met in college. “After [our] first date, Steve thought it would be fun and funny to send Jenny some piping hot french fries through campus mail,” the Swoaps wrote in an email to the Record. “It turns out it is not so fun or funny to get cold, greasy, wet fries in your mailbox, especially when the attached note is unreadable due to grease. Somehow, the french fry event did not deter us, as we got married one year after college.”

After graduation, Jennifer Swoap worked as a systems analyst and taught computer science, physics and math in Texas, while Steven Swoap did graduate and postdoctoral work in physiology and biophysics. With their infant and two-year old in the backseats of a Ford Windstar, the Swoaps made a three-day journey from Dallas to Williamstown in July 1996 and have worked here since. Next year, the pair will follow in the Sandstroms’ footsteps as Steven Swoap starts a two-year term as director of WEPO. 

“You’re known as so-and-so’s mom, or so-and-so’s dad”

Director of CLiA Paula Consolini met her husband, Professor of Political Science James Mahon, in graduate school. After he was hired at the College, she taught a few courses here as an adjunct and briefly commuted to Schenectady to teach fieldwork-based political science at Union College. Her academic interests centered around practical applications of political science, so when an administrative position opened up in 2002 in the Dean of Faculty’s office coordinating their experiential education initiatives, Consolini took it. 

Consolini said she has forged valuable friendships with other faculty couples, many of whom she met through her children. “I appreciated meeting some people earlier on that were also spouses of faculty, many who were also academics, and I’ve built lifelong relationships with them in part because we’re in the same boat,” she said. “You’re known as so-and-so’s mom, or so-and-so’s dad. And many times, that’s how you initially get to know someone.”

When it comes to spouse and partner hiring, Consolini noted that the College has become one of the largest employers in Berkshire County over the past 20 years, which she said warrants an updated approach toward helping members of the community find jobs. 

“The challenge for people is to get plugged into the community, so it’s helpful to connect them to opportunities,” Consolini said. “Williams works really hard to be flexible and accommodating, finding ways for people to do work that’s fulfilling to them in the region.”

“I know the College would have found me something”

But when spouses or partners have specialized careers, like Artist Associate in Songwriting Bernice Lewis, moving to the Berkshires can make for an awkward transition. Lewis has been a professional singer-songwriter for more than 30 years, and has lived in Williamstown with her husband, Director of the Outing Club Scott Lewis, for the past 25. 

Scott Lewis said it has always been difficult balancing the couple’s commitment to the College community with Bernice Lewis’s itinerant career. “If somebody had sat me down and asked me to describe my dream job, it would have been director of the Outing Club,” he said. “So when I got the job, it was a great thing, but it was a challenging thing, because Bernice is a nationally touring musician.”

Over the years, Bernice Lewis has slowly increased her teaching duties at the College, which include private lessons and a long-running Winter Study course, to an extent that allows her to balance touring with teaching. 

“I have the autonomy to juggle my schedule, within certain parameters, so that I can get out and tour,” Bernice Lewis said. “I really love working with the students in the way that I do. But my role evolved over a very long period of time, and there were long stretches where there was definitely stress in our relationship.”

The pair noted that their professional paths occasionally intersect at the College, like during the annual WOOLF concert, which Bernice Lewis has performed at for 27 years. Their disparate careers, however, make those moments few and far between. 

“There were times along the way when people would say, ‘Well, you could just take an administrative job,’ and I’d have to say, it’s just not what I want to do — It’s not who I am,” she said. “I don’t know that I would have been happier if I had [taken the job], but I would have definitely been less lonely. I know the College would have found me something like that.”

An even longer-lasting couple are Manager of Bio and Gift Administration Cindy Kimball of North Adams and Custodian Mark Kimball of Williamstown, who started dating in high school and have been married for 46 years. Cindy Kimball’s office is decorated with large, glossy prints — vibrant photographs her husband took of red and yellow trees in their backyard or around campus. 

Mark Kimball worked in the manufacturing industry for 30 years as a supervisor and quality manager but decided about 15 years ago that a career change was due. “I didn’t really like what was happening in manufacturing, so I tried to make the jump over to services,” he said. “I think Cindy being in a position at the College helped, and I know a lot of spouses who came on board right around that time.”

Lead Custodian Marco Oliva has worked at the College for 33 years, while his wife, Dishwasher Maria Oliva, has been here for 23. She said she decided to take a job here because of the benefits staff receive, and that the pair cross paths often.

Mark Kimball said that among the staff couples he knows who are in relationships, the majority began before both were employed at the College. “It’s a tough area when you’re single, especially for people who have lived here their whole lives,” Cindy Kimball said. “Everyone knows everyone, so if you were going to meet that person, you might have already.”

Paul Park and Deborah Brothers met at the Purple Pub in 1993.

Senior Lecturer in English Paul Park grew up in Williamstown as the son of two professors, but he didn’t meet his spouse, Costume Director and Lecturer in Theatre Deborah Brothers, until a visit to the Purple Pub in 1993. “It was kind of a seamy location,” Park said. “But it was great because it felt like that was a place that a lot of younger professors and locals would go, so it was more of a community bar,” Brothers added.  

She said the relatively high average age of local residents means there are few ways for young, single employees to meet others like them. “It’s harder now because I think [Williamstown] is missing that late 20s to early 30s group of people, which is something I think we see in these other communities, even in places like North Adams,” she said.

Brothers drew a contrast between the College’s concerted efforts to foster community and independently organized social gatherings. “My roommates and I used to give these really great Halloween and Mardi Gras parties,” Brothers said. “I would invite everybody I knew, and I’m sure faculty and staff met each other through those things. It was to create community, because it’s not always an easy place.”

“It’s a tough area when you’re single”

But sometimes, in the rarest of cases, the faculty-staff divide has been bridged by chance. “It was the last thing I expected,” said Director of International Education and Study Away Christina Stoiciu, who met her husband, Professor of Mathematics Mihai Stoiciu, at a meeting of the Committee on Educational Policy (now the Committee on Educational Affairs) five years ago. 

After reconnecting in the summer of 2017, they got married at Thompson Chapel last June. Chaplain of the College Rev. Valerie Bailey Fisher officiated, and Mezze handled the catering. 

Although the Stoicius noted that life in Williamstown lacks some amenities of the “typical American life,” they said they have grown to love the quiet lifestyle. “One place that is very dear to us is the South Mountain Concert Hall, just south of Pittsfield,” Mihai Stoiciu said. “I invited Tina, and that’s still a very special place for us.”

Both agree that, although the College does provide plenty of events for faculty to meet each other, the question remains of how much the College should encourage community-building. “Of course, the College can encourage these things, but if things are pushed too hard, they can become fairly stiff,” Mihai Stoiciu said. 

Assistant Director of Institutional Research James Cart ’05 and Deputy Director of Alumni Relations Ashley Weeks Cart ’05 got together in the fall of their junior year here, at James Cart’s 20th birthday party in Gladden. “Justin Timberlake’s ‘Where Is The Love’ was playing on repeat,” Ashley Weeks Cart recalled. “That was the hot song of summer 2003.”

Exactly five years later, the two got married, and shortly after came the first of four children, along with a dog named Gladden. After a brief stint in Los Angeles, they moved back so Ashley Weeks Cart could begin working in alumni relations, while James Cart took various staff positions before settling full-time into the Provost’s Office. 

“What I love is that we’re turning 40 in a couple of years, and when we turn 40, we will have known each other over half our lives, which is so rad,” Ashley Weeks Cart said. “I just love that we got to grow up together.”